Charles Olalia’s first encounter with durian in Davao. Photograph by Chris Clemente
Food & Drink Features

Top Fil-Am chef Charles Olalia of Ma’am Sir on eating his way around the Philippines

He may run one of the most-talked-about Filipino restaurants in Los Angeles, but this Philippine-born chef is hungry to discover what more there is to eat in his home country, durian included.
Nana Ozaeta | Dec 13 2019

“Sir ma’am, sir ma’am,” chirped the attendant as she served cups of hot tsokolate paired with rounds of puto maya and slices of fresh mango to our group. This was standard painit or early morning pre-breakfast fare, the specialty of longtime eatery Del Mar Painitan ensconced deep inside Davao’s public market. The attendant’s standard greeting would normally go unremarked. But it so happens that we were with Filipino-American chef Charles Olalia who debuted just last year his Los Angeles-based Filipino restaurant, aptly named Ma’am Sir.

Hot tsokolate using Davao tablea at Del Mar Painitan.

Our group laughed at the greeting’s obvious reference to his restaurant, with Olalia joking that he should open a second branch called Sir Ma’am in Manila. But in a strange even surreal way, that folksy greeting connects this humble Davao-based eatery with Olalia’s much acclaimed LA restaurant, whose accolades include the Los Angeles Times’ 101 Restaurants We Love, GQ Magazine’s Best New Restaurants in America 2019, Eater’s 38 Essential Los Angeles Restaurants, Spring, 2019, among others. Because, whether you start with the “ma’am” or the “sir,” the greeting pretty much encapsulates Filipinos’ sense of hospitality, and the respect we give our guests, no matter how simple the fare we serve. The divide doesn’t seem to be that vast after all (although Olalia does serve a seafood sinigang for a mind-boggling $29).

Tom Cunanan, left, with Olalia enjoying early morning painitan.

It’s precisely the exploration of this connection—between the Filipino food cooked in the Philippines and overseas—that brought Olalia, together with fellow Filipino-Americans Chef Tom Cunanan of Washington DC’s Bad Saint and the Hawaii-based Grant “Lanai” Tabura of the food show Cooking Hawaiian Style, to the Philippines for a two-week immersion across the Philippines, spearheaded by the Department of Tourism.

I caught up with the group in Davao, after previous stops in Pampanga, Iloilo, Bacolod, and Cebu, and before they proceeded to Cavite and Manila. Their itinerary spanned the depth and breadth of what the country has to offer, from buro in San Fernando, Pampanga, to batchoy in Iloilo, piaya in Bacolod, and lechon in Cebu.

The chefs enjoying batchoy at La Paz Batchoy in Iloilo with local chef Tibong Jardeleza.

One vital aspect of this Chefs Tour was the exchange of ideas between the visiting chefs and Filipino culinary students and industry professionals, through a series of Fun Food Talks organized by WOFEX University. In Davao, the engaging talk and cooking demo was held at the new dusitD2 Davao Hotel, with culinary ambassador and chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou moderating the forum. Here, Olalia elaborated on his journey, from culinary student in the Philippines to top chef in America.

From left, Lanai Tabura, Olalia, Cunanan, and Myke Sarthou at the Davao leg of Fun Food Talks.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Charles Olalia’s journey to becoming a chef started on a whim. He relates, “I got into it by accident. It was the summer before going to med school and I was around Katipunan (in Quezon City) and there was a Yellow Cab Pizza, and I was eating pizza and there was a flyer from a school to learn a 2-week course on how to cook… I kind of just enrolled for the one-year course without telling my parents.” He interjects, “It was the first adult decision I made in my life and I stood behind it.”

Olalia demonstrating Banana Bibingka with Pandan Cream, a dessert he serves at Ma’am Sir.

After graduating from ISCAHM, that culinary school in Katipunan, Olalia moved to the United States in search for work, landing in the kitchens of such fine dining restaurants as Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and The French Laundry in Napa Valley. He then moved to Los Angeles landmark, Patina, eventually becoming executive chef and establishing himself at the top echelon among LA-based chefs. But despite his classic French training, Olalia never lost that Filipino connection. When he moved to America, he recalls, “By the time you leave your house and be on your own, you start to miss all those flavors, then you realize, how do I make that? Because that’s what happened to me. When I left the Philippines and I had an apartment by myself in the States, what do I eat?”

Olalia checking out the bagoong at the Davao market.

“When I decided to truly tap into my food memories of my childhood and really hone into it, it was almost a no-brainer to focus on Filipino food,” says Olalia. He eventually ditched his fine dining job and concentrated on the cuisine of his home country. But perhaps the clincher that really prompted him to focus on Filipino was his very own wedding dinner in the Philippines, when Chef Tonyboy Escalante cooked a beautiful dinner in Antonio’s in Tagaytay. "I came back to the States and I didn’t want to do Filipino food under the California cuisine umbrella. I wanted to do a Filipino restaurant that is a Filipino restaurant. At that time, I didn’t know how to do it, but I just did it.”

In 2015, Olalia opened Rice Bar, a tiny 7-seater with just him and one other person cranking out rice bowl after rice bowl for up to 250 people in a day. He says, “I wanted people to come every day just like a carinderia, just like your regular college lunch spot. What would you eat twice a week? That was the menu.” With many diners curious to see what Patina’s ex-head chef was up to, the eatery garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews, including a rave from legendary dining critic, the late Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times. After the success of Rice Bar, Olalia opened Ma’am Sir in 2018, a generous 70-seater restaurant where he could clearly flex his repertoire of Filipino dishes.

The menu at Ma’am Sir offers both traditional Filipino fare and Olalia’s playful riffs.

But as Olalia has become one of the most prominent faces of Filipino food in the United States, he also acknowledges how much he still doesn’t know, which is why he was more than excited to accept the invitation of the DOT to embark on this countrywide tour, even if it meant leaving his young family and still-new restaurant for close to two weeks. He shares, “Now that I have a three-year-old running around and now I have my wife, it’s a little bit harder to do this.… (But) I have to do this for my own good and for the restaurant’s ability to push. I’ve always been very cognizant of cooking what I really know, and then now that I’ve seen what’s around here, now that I’ve visited, I can pay respect to it at least, and I won’t bastardize it.” The trip was clearly an opportunity not to be missed. He adds, “With the itinerary, they almost made it hard for me to say ‘no’ to, I’ve never traveled south of Manila. The farthest I’ve been to is probably Boracay, which is a shame.”

Olalia munching on piyaya with Tabura at Fresh Start Organic Farm in Bacolod.

Busy as he is, Olalia was forced to miss the first few legs of the tour, catching up with the group in Iloilo, then Bacolod, where Chef Margarita Forés served as their guide, bringing them to Enting’s for kinilaw, Aida’s for inasal, among other stops. Olalia especially loved the empanadas of Bacolod’s famous home baker Emma Lacson, marveling at her high level of technique in making them. “They were so nonchalant, so humble about it. That was fantastic!” he exclaims.

Bacolod’s Emma Lacson with her famous empanada.

In Davao, Olalia and the group started with that visit to Del Mar for tsokolate and puto maya. From there, they checked out the produce in the market—mostly pomelo and durian in season—then stopped at Ellen’s Kainan for servings of hinalang, balbacua, bulalo. Olalia couldn’t resist ordering his favorite fried chicken, of course.

Balbacua at Ellen’s Kainan.
The chefs digging into the local fare at Ellen’s Kainan.

With Davao as a center for agriculture, the chefs made sure to visit several farms, starting with Malagos Farms where Rex Puentespina guided them through its cacao tree plantation, to see how Malagos has perfected its “bean to bar” process to produce its award-winning chocolates using solely cacao beans from its own farms.

Malagos Farms’ Rex Puentespina shows off his cacao beans fermenting in wooden crates.
Olalia inspects the drying of fermented cacao beans at Malagos.

The group then proceeded to the Partoza Durian Farm, with Atty. Antonio Partoza bringing out six varieties of durian for the chefs to try. While Cunanan challenged himself to dig into the durian’s creamy, pungent flesh, Olalia wasn’t having any of it until, with some prodding, he managed to try and yes, even enjoy the minimally pungent Arancillo variety.

Olalia dares to try the durian at Partoza Farm.

After the farm visit, what truly blew the chefs’ minds was their magical encounter with Davao’s cheesemaster, Olive Puentespina, who guided the group through a tasting of more than 15 of her goat’s and cow’s cheeses, all made in Malagos Farms. Olalia and the group were particularly amazed at how Puentespina was able to produce a broad range of styles—from soft to aged to washed rind—in less than ideal tropical conditions. She had to be creative, innovating techniques that her Swiss instructors would never have tried, but which somehow worked for her.

Cheesemaker Olive Puentespina shares her story with Cunanan and Olalia.
Camembert style cheese
Blue cheese, aged 6 months

Olalia also thoroughly enjoyed the Davao-style cooking of Carmina del Rosario who welcomed the group into her home and kitchen where a feast of Davaoeño delicacies was laid out. What caught the eye of Olalia, in particular, was the ubol-ubol or tuna esophagus, grilled till soft and chewy, similar to squid or cuttlefish.

Carmina del Rosario in her home kitchen.
Grilled ubol-ubol in skewers.

Also gaining raves was del Rosario’s balbacua, a collagen-rich beef stew that speaks of Davao’s Visayan roots. Olalia remarks, “Just seeing the balbacua as a dish here in Mindanao was mind boggling. In LA, barbacoa is a very Mexican dish and to see it here and have all the similar notes of what a balbacua is and to be so rooted in it, oh yeah, we just had it.”

Carmina del Rosario’s balbacua.

After flying back to Manila for the culminating Fun Food Talks held in Enderun Colleges, Olalia soon after returned to Los Angeles, declaring, “Honestly, when I get home, I’m probably going to cleanse and not eat for a week!” But with ideas and new knowledge swimming in his head, he relates, “I have a log now with dishes that I enjoyed, flavor profiles, origins, temperature of the day I ate it at. I just really put that down in a proper outline. So it’s already December, (I’ll) plot the next season’s menu according to what I’ve learned on this trip and the previous trips of this year.”

The chefs having fun with the attendees of Fun Food Talks in Davao.

Already, he has a few dishes in mind: “One thing immediate would be the grilled jackfruit that Chef Tatung just made (at the demo). That’s definitely going on the menu as soon as I get back… The balbacua for sure, and of course, the empanada. Those are the three things that I’ll definitely try to make as best I can.” He smiles, “Next year will be great for the restaurant.”

 

Davao photos by Chris Clemente

Iloilo and Bacolod photos by Ian Soriano courtesy of the Department of Tourism