MANILA - No Filipino cook's menu would be complete without their own version of pancit and adobo.
For Ralph Xavier Degala, these 2 Pinoy staples became the ingredients for him to stand out in the American version of the reality cooking show MasterChef.
The 29-year-old senior accountant, who is based in Houston, Texas, is now cooking with the top 13 of the show's ninth season and is the only full-blooded Filipino to have reached this level of the competition.
Degala proudly describes himself as the son of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), having been born and raised in Saudi Arabia until his family migrated to the U.S. in 1999.
Before he joined MasterChef, Degala was posting videos of him cooking Filipino dishes on his YouTube channel.
He credits his culinary knowledge to his parents and the home-cooked meals in family gatherings.
These, he said, were what also influenced him to cook a shrimp and chicken-based version of pancit for his audition to MasterChef.
"You had one dish to really represent yourself. I was going to do a Filipino dish and picked pancit because it was doable in 30 minutes, but also it was one of the first dishes my dad taught me how to make. It also represents a long and prosperous life in the Filipino culture so I chose this one!" he said in an online interview with ABS-CBN News.
The show's celebrity chef judges found the noodle dish too oily for their tastes.
Chef Gordon Ramsay described the shrimp as "delicious." But he questioned if it was good enough to give Ralph an apron to enter the competition.
Chef Aaron Sanchez said the pancit was seasoned beautifully with tons of garlic and lemon, adding: "What's not to like?"
Ultimately, it was chef Joe Bastianich who gave Ralph the apron to be part of his team, saying before that, "You and me might have a future."
MIX OF TASTES
Degala has already won 2 team challenges during his stint on the show.
Owing to his upbringing, Degala said he also adds Mediterranean and Southeast Asian tastes to his dishes.
"But whenever there was a chance to incorporate some of the spices and seasonings that we have, such as soy sauce, bay leaves, vinegar, ginger, lemon grass, and of course GARLIC, I would do so!" he said.
Chicken adobo, known for its dependence on garlic, was one of Degala's latest entries to the cookfest.
"It was a no-brainer. Adobo is synonymous with Filipino culture, and when I had the chance to cook it, I knew I wanted to bring it out! The amazing thing for the show is that the judges thought the dish was very good and I was so proud [to] have made it for them," he said.
Degala considered it a privilege to showcase food from home in an internationally watched show like MasterChef.
"It is very rare for Filipino food to be seen in the main stream since we have other sister countries that may be more popular, but we are hitting a stride here in the US! And #filipinofoodmovement is going strong," he said.
"The only disadvantage for Filipino food is that sometimes it takes longer to cook since we have a lot of braised dishes and stews, but the advantage is that we have very unique flavors that is a result of all the different cultures that have influenced Filipino cuisine," he added.
In the show, Degala also had the rare opportunity to pair with his coach-judge Joe Bastianich in an episode where all the contestants were grouped into couples except for him.
The two whipped up chicken Milanese, a personal dish for Bastianich.
Degala said it was his most unforgettable moment in MasterChef, since no previous contestant had been partnered with a judge for a cooking task.
He added that another moment when chef Gordon Ramsay yelled at him as one he will definitely remember.
Ramsay, known for his frank and at-times curse-laden dissecting of dishes in MasterChef and other culinary shows, later called a dish of Degala's "near perfect."
"I would be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t nervous, but to hear the feedback made me a stronger cook or chef," Ralph says. "But when they praise some of your cooking, IT IS very empowering, talagang on top of the world feeling ang [binibigay] nila," he said.
So far, Degala has not landed in the bottom three of the challenges.
"I definitely think I have the momentum now to be one of the top runners [in] the show! Just as long as I don’t hit a baking challenge lol, that is definitely my weakness," he said.
Stephanie Willis, a half-Filipino bartender from New Jersey, was also part of season 9, but was eliminated in June.
In 2014, Filipino followers of the reality show were disappointed when Filipino-Italian server Francis Biondi, considered a frontrunner in season 5, was booted out.
Whether or not Degala wins the coveted MasterChef title, he said the competition has been an unbelievable journey since he never imagined auditioning for the show, which he has long been a fan of.
Among this OFW son's plans after the show is to have his own chicken shawarma restaurant in the U.S.
"[It] is a dish that always reminds me of my childhood in Saudi, but also a great reminder of the sacrifices and hard work that my parents to help us go through school and college. For many OFWs in the Middle East, that one dish that always brings us back," he said.
MasterChef Season 9 airs Wednesdays on FOX in the U.S. and Thursdays on FOX in Asia.