Ulam project: Toronto youth build a culinary connection with Filipino culture

A Filipino culinary arts program offers Toronto youth with various backgrounds the chance to pick up culinary skills and network with professionals in the food industry.

Students learning to prepare traditional Filipino cuisine using freshly harvested vegetables

A crop of students take a tour of PACT farm at David Wilson Memorial Garden in North York to learn about fresh produce and how to utilize it while preparing Filipino cuisine. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

On a sunny afternoon, a group of young adults from all over Toronto gathered together at a small farm in Lawrence Heights, harvested fresh produce and cooked traditional Filipino food. 

The group is part of a 10-week long culinary arts program called Ulam, during which participants learn to cook Filipino food using fresh ingredients as a way of connecting with Filipino culture.

Chef Daniel Cancino takes the lead on cooking authentic Filipino food as part of the Ulam project. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

"It's another level of experience with the food," said Robbie Adolfo, one of the students in the program. "It's also a pride thing. I'm proud of being Filipino so this is another way I can express that."

The students, aged 17-29, work mostly out of Artscape Youngspace, a community centre in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood, but attend workshops all over the city with professional chefs.

On Thursday, the group took a tour of the PACT urban farm at David Wilson Memorial Garden in North York learning about growing herbs and vegetables, and then using the fresh produce surrounding them to prepare a meal. 

Robbie Adolfo says though he grew up around Filipino food, he feels pride in being able to prepare it himself and share it with his friends. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

The participants, who wouldn't otherwise have the means to attend chef school, pick up professional culinary skills and network with people in the local food industry. 

"We envisioned a group of young people in the city that have experience working together, that have done jobs together and catered events together... that for the next 20 years could call upon each do the next thing, the next restaurant or the next pop-up," said Justin Richardson, who works at SKETCH, a community arts initiative that has helped develop the Ulam project. 

Some ensaymada bread fresh out of the clay oven, prepared by participants of the Ulam project, a culinary arts program that connects youth with Filipino culture. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

Daniel Cancino, a chef at the Filipino restaurant Lamesa, is working closely with the latest crop of students in the program. 

Cancino helps the group put together meals inspired by traditional Filipino food using ingredients the team harvested from the community 

"I grew up around all this food but just...being involved with it with my hand and everything," said Adolfo. "That's a physical connection I want to share with my friends. It's more meaningful when I can embrace my culture and have other people embrace it too."

The team of students participating in the Ulam project prepared Filipino cuisine with the help of Daniel Cancino, a chef at Lamesa, a local Filipino restaurant. (Hannah Yardley/ ClutchPR )

While some of those participating are Filipino, many others aren't. 

"When I was young... I wasn't always very proud of our culture...I'd think our food would be stinky, and maybe have to hide our food and not express it to other people," said Cancino. "But showing who we are [to youth] who aren't Filipino, who are young, and having that sense of pride in our culture is a good feeling."

Students that participate in the Ulam culinary arts project come from all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

For Sylver Sterling, who doesn't have a Filipino background, the experience has been a valuable one.

"It's taught me to take a step back, and instead of going to buy everything... I've gone back to my own culinary roots because I have been cooking since I was ten," she said. "I was eating a lot of take-out food but this program has brought me back to cooking and making my own lunches and trying new techniques."

In August, the students will attend the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival where they will sell their own food together through Ulam, branding it a pop-up restaurant and caterer. 

About the Author

Ramna Shahzad

Producer, CBC Toronto

Ramna Shahzad is a multi-media producer and reporter in the CBC Toronto newsroom. She began working at CBC News in 2015 as a Joan Donaldson Scholar. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she now calls Toronto home and writes about everything from transit and city hall to baby animal births at the zoo