Calgary·Filipino Bureau

These culinary creators are offering Albertans a taste of Filipino food

Filipino chefs in Alberta are finding creative ways to bring the flavours of their childhood to the mainstream.

'Keeping it kind of approachable for Western audiences'

From left: Ailynn Wong, Zac Ardena and Rupert Garcia are three Albertans working to increase the profile of Filipino food in the province. (Submitted by Ailynn Wong, Zac Ardena, CBC)

A new generation of Filipino chefs in Alberta is finding inventive ways to bring the flavours of their childhood to a wider audience. It's a sharing of creativity and culture through culinary skills.

They're introducing Filipino cuisine to people who have never tried it, furthering food's capabilities to build bridges. They also serve local Filipinos the foods that remind them of home.

This cuisine, like all cuisine, is constantly evolving. It's imbued with the values, experiences and attitudes of those who make it. And sharing it can be both a celebration and a transmission of identity.

Filipino food in the mainstream

Zac Ardena, head chef at Koi in Calgary, recently revamped the lounge's menu with Filipino-inspired offerings available for takeout only, due to the pandemic.

"I feel there's underrepresentation here, especially in the downtown core," he said.

Zac Ardena is the head chef at Koi, a live music and restaurant venue in downtown Calgary. (Submitted by Zac Ardena)

So he's offering seasoned pork belly with pandan, lemongrass and lime leaf, and steamed baos filled with jackfruit and okoy (Filipino deep-fried fritters). He's also experimenting with vegetarian alternatives to popular sisig (minced pork) bowls.

Ardena says he's motivated to inject more Filipino food into the mainstream and wants people to be able to enjoy the foods that he grew up on, without feeling intimidated by unfamiliarity. 

"I'm slowly introducing the concepts and ingredients, but keeping it kind of approachable for Western audiences," he said.

Zac Ardena worked at Momofuku in Toronto for a short while and said the baos were one of his favourite things to eat. He says he loved the versatility of the steamed bun and adapted it to his own tastes. (Submitted by Zac Ardena)

In Edmonton, a culinary duo is taking a different approach. 

Ailynn Wong runs Yelo'd Ice Cream & Bake Shoppe in Edmonton with her husband.

There, Filipino flavours — calamansi, ube, buko pandan, keso and champorado — feature prominently on their menu, with no English translation.

This is what part of the menu at Yelo'd looks like. Champorado is a kind of chocolate rice pudding, keso is cheese, and ube is a sweet, purple yam. (Submitted by Ailynn Santos)

That's something that non-Filipino customers asked about in the beginning, and Wong went back and forth about the decision.

"We've reverted back to just being like, no, this is who we are. And it's a talking point. And we're here to talk to you about it," Wong said.

'We realized that people don't know much about Filipinos and Filipino culture. So it's become a huge factor for me, for my kids who are wanting to learn about their culture and, more importantly, my parents, just the pride that they have in partaking in our business,' says Ailynn Wong. (Submitted by Ailynn Wong)

Wong says Filipinos are some of her most loyal customers, and she can tell she's doing something right by the feedback they give her. 

"They were the ones who came in droves. They bring their grandparents, and their families, and their aunts and their cousins. And they're the ones who tell us, 'This is amazing. It reminds us of home,'" Wong said. 

A source of pride

Wong says this business is a way for her to showcase her Filipino pride and relieve the pressure often faced by immigrants to minimize the unique aspects of their cultural identity.

"I find that Filipinos, when they come to Canada, many of them want to just assimilate, for lack of a better word, to fit in and to not draw attention to how different we are," she said.

"We definitely want to instill a source of pride that there is a home here as well for them, and that they don't need to hide behind other cultures," she said.

"This generation is saying, 'No, it's who we are. It's our food, and this is how we're going to do it. But with a modern twist,'" she said.

That modern twist can lead to some exciting fusion.

Tapping back into their roots

Fusion food isn't anything new to Filipinos, says chef Ardena.

Spanish, Southeast Asian and Chinese and other influences have shaped Filipino cuisine over decades, giving rise to different noodle dishes, egg rolls, adobo and leche flan.

Leche flan is a custard dessert that features a light caramel sauce. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

"I guess you could say we are one of the pioneers of fusion food, to be honest," Ardena said. 

He says the kind of fusion food he's creating is what feels most right for him, as a Filipino Canadian.

"If I were to do traditional Filipino food, I feel like I couldn't fully represent it," Ardena said. 

"I grew up with the whole colonial mentality that I tried to distance myself a little bit from the Filipino side of things and tried to act more Canadian," he said. 

Ardena's vegetarian spin on a chicken adobo rice bowl is made with tofu instead. (Submitted by Zac Ardena)

In culinary school, that led Ardena to shy away from highlighting Filipino ingredients and flavours in his group projects. 

"It's that struggle as a Filipino Canadian, to be able to find a real identity for ourselves — because we're not quite Filipino to native-born Filipinos, and we're not quite Canadian because of our ethnic background," he said.

But today, Ardena says the dishes he's creating at Koi are a way for him to bridge those cultures and express himself.

"I feel like doing all this is a way for me to tap back into my roots … to kind of rediscover myself, in a way," he said.

This ube cannoli is a Filipino twist on a crispy, creamy Italian dessert. (Submitted by Zac Ardena)

Rupert Garcia, executive chef at the Pinebrook Golf and Country Club in Calgary, also embraces the interplay between different food cultures and flavours. 

His classical French training and his creativity have won him multiple culinary awards, even on the international stage.

Rupert Garcia was a silver medalist at the 2014 International Chaines des Rotisseur Jeunes Chef Competition and has won multiple awards since. (CBC)

"When I was given more freedom to try different items on the menu, to try to integrate things, I would find fusion to any cuisine," Garcia said.

"I'm like, think big with Filipino food. Think essence. But how do you make this contemporary?"

He's mixed a Mexican tres leche cake with a Filipino graham cake, and a Filipino pancit with Korean japchae noodles to create something that resembled a Vietnamese vermicelli bowl.

"I'm not afraid to play around with those flavours and incorporate it into what we do in the daily operations," he said.

"You go back and forth with it, but then at the end of the day, it tastes good. So it's like, what are you doing wrong anyway? Nothing."

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