Chef JP Anglo of Sarsa Kitchen flew to Dubai for a special engagement recently, as a way to promote Filipino food. He brought 35 kilos worth of local ingredients and came back with priceless stories about and from our kababayans.
The Negrense chef was invited early this month by Edge Hotels’ Halo-Halo restaurant to present a ten-course Filipino meal for its first-ever Filipino food event. “The response was overwhelming,” Chef JP shares, still obviously thrilled by the Dubai reception. “When we announced on social media that we were there, in 48 hours, the three-day event got sold out.”
The organizers were expecting not too many people per sitting (there were a total of six sittings in the three-day event), so imagine their surprise when 80 people confirmed per day, and 40 more were on the waitlist. “I guess the Pinoys there really miss home,” says Chef JP. “For sure some of them would have been here in the Philippines enjoying their Christmas vacation, if there was no pandemic. So I told them ‘hopefully through the meals that we prepared, we bring a taste of home to you.’”
Three Pinoy chefs and a brigade of chefs of different nationalities helped prepare the 10-course dinner. On the lineup was lechon manok lumpia, with papaya salad stuffing. Instead of tokwa’t baboy, he prepared tokwa’t dilis (since pork is banned there) with coconut sap dressing. There was also grilled shrimp with talangka butter, and he put a twist on the kinilaw by putting watermelon juice as sweetener instead of sugar. In the beginning there was only one Filipino chef assigned to the dinner so Chef JP requested for two more “because I needed people who understand our products and our taste profile.”
To hear JP say it, it was a pretty special evening—people dressed up, the vibe was cool, the songs of the Eraserheads, Up Dharma Down and other OPM acts played in the background. All to celebrate Filipino food in Dubai. While the guests awaited their hot bowl of sinigang, that staple Pinoy dish that reminds us all of home no matter where we are in the world, the chef was asked to say a few words. Just a little extra treat for the people who went out of their way to make it to the dinner, see him and taste his food.
Chef JP didn’t prepare a speech, nor was he good at impromptu public speaking, but he surprised himself. “Sana mayayakap kayo ng sabaw na hihigupin n’yo ngayon na parang yakap na natatanggap nyo galing sa mga mahal nyo sa buhay sa Pilipinas,” he said.
He didn’t know where those words came from exactly, but people started tearing up.
The dinner turned into one heartwarming event, as is what happens when Filipinos gather together miles away from the homeland.
Instilling Filipino culinary pride
Chef JP gladly played Filipino food ambassador for the event. He taught the foreign chefs the nuances of Pinoy cuisine and the Filipino chefs a few new tricks and then some. It was an opportunity for him to show what Filipino food is all about. But did he succeed? Well, he got a compliment from the hotel’s executive chef, who is Indian, young and well-traveled. “Sabi nya, ‘In all the years I’ve lived here in Dubai—and I’ve tried Filipino food—this is so far the best version of it,” JP says, proudly recalling the chef’s words. “It’s elevated but at the same time very soulful.’”
Chef JP also got the chance to teach the chefs some tricks he learned through his years of preparing Pinoy cuisine. “Like yung sinigang, ginamitan namin ng tatlong klase ng paasim tapos niluto namin ng matagal. Ginawa namin yung kung ano talaga ang dapat. Kasi tayong mga Pinoy, minsan mahilig na sa shortcuts,” he points out. “So we tried to prove to them na kung yung approach natin sa food ay tama, ang result maganda. Mas matagal, mas malasa.”
He used Angus beef ribs for the sinigang, and employed cherry tomatoes instead of the ordinary kamatis, so the soup had a hint of sweetness in it. As for the other innovations he shared both in the kitchen and the tables, he put dilis to the garlic rice—“dinurog namin ang dilis at yun ang ginamit naming pampaalat,” he says. The kare-kare was a classic kare-kare but served with ginamos instead of the usual bagoong.
There was also gising-gising, but instead of green beans, they used snow peas, “para lang maiba.” They also had grilled snapper seasoned with batuan sambal. Finally, the chicken sisig was made with foie gras. “Kasi walang chicken liver,” he says, “so others were wondering, bakit ang sosyal ng lasa nito?”
He says his time in the Halo Halo kitchen was also an opportunity to instill a deep sense of pride about Filipino cuisine among the Pinoy chefs. “Tayong mga Pinoy, masunurin tayo, pasensyoso, masipag, mahiyain. Minsan nagre-reflect yan sa ating pagkain,” he told them. “We cook adobo, and we say, pasensya na hindi makulay. Wag na kayong mag-sorry. Yung pagkain natin, masarap.”
He wondered aloud why Filipino food usually only improves when its served in an upscale setting. “Pero bakit hindi natin i-improve sa middle level? For me, if you teach one person, and that person teaches another, there is a multiplier effect. Next thing you know, marami ng may mindset na ganyan. I guess yun ang misyon ko.”
It takes a village
It was a fun team effort, says Chef JP, preparing the event. “During my speech, I introduced the people who helped me prepare the food—the guy who made our lechon manok lumpia was Jack from Thailand, the guy that made everything faster in the kitchen was Ibrahim from Syria, and so on and so forth,” he says. Tapping their individual expertise also proved useful during the food prep—for instance, the Vietnamese chef, who has good wok skills prepared the fried rice, the Thai chef used his own technique in preparing the papaya salad.
What was prominent, he shares, was the work ethic of everyone in the team. “Pag sinabi mong kailangang tapusin ang isang bagay, tatapusin talaga nila 'yan kahit 12 hours silang magtrabaho. They told me, ‘Chef, we’re right behind you.’ Team effort talaga. Kasi kung gusto mong iangat ang pagkain natin, hindi pwedeng ikaw lang. Kailangan magtulungan tayo. Kailangan, i-share mo ang alam mo.”
Chef JP didn’t just cook in Dubai, he played host. He hopped from table to table, telling stories to the Pinoy guests, and listening to them. “They wanted to talk. They really missed home, that’s why,” he says, recalling how tired but very happy he was on those three nights.
“Nung umalis nga daw kami, may pumupunta pang Pinoy looking for us, or hoping na nandun pa din ang menu. Meron pang nag-drive pa ng 45 mins from Abu Dhabi, pero dumating na siya after the event. Tapos nag check-in pa sa hotel para lang makita kami at magbakasakaling makakain pa. Pero wala nang naiwan. So yung kinain nya, yung catsup na ginawa namin at nilagay nya sa kanin nya,” Chef JP shares.
Outside of the event, while walking around, he accidentally met a Pinoy cancer patient who told him he had not gone out since the start of the pandemic. “First time niyang lumabas at first wedding anniversary nila. Niyaya naming mag-dinner. They miss home so much.”
It was a wonderful, unforgettable trip. And it was most rewarding, too. He and his wife Camille received so many gifts in those few days—both tangible and intangible. “This Dubai trip was beyond food,” says JP. “It was beyond me as a chef.”