The Doc Project

Cooking Filipino food brought comfort to this advertiser after a pandemic layoff. Now he's taking orders

After COVID-19 ransacked his career, Wesley Altuna is returning to his love of food and sharing it with others to find his way forward.

Wesley Altuna's booming delivery-only restaurant Bawang serves Filipino dishes to hungry Torontonians

Wesley Altuna started Bawang early during the COVID-19 pandemic after losing his job in advertising. Dishes from Bawang (from top, clockwise): torta, lechon, giniling na baka and binagoongan baboy sa gata. (Andrew Budziak)

After losing his job in advertising during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Wesley Altuna started cooking. Stuck at home and not sure what to do, he did what he always did when he needed to clear his head: he began frying up the dishes of his youth. 

"I started cooking things I grew up eating," Altuna said. "If it's something I was craving, I would make it."

He cooked so much that there was no more room in his fridge for leftovers. The Filipino food he was creating in his small west-end Toronto apartment was too much for just Altuna, 40, and his girlfriend to eat. 

So he posted a message on Instagram: "Like what I'm cooking? Hit me up."

He started delivering food to friends. Word spread, and strangers started placing orders. 

"It was crazy!" said Altuna. "People I didn't even know were suddenly DMing me from all over the city."

Why this man turned to Filipino food during the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 7:57
Wesley Altuna's booming delivery-only restaurant, Bawang, which he started after being laid off, serves Filipino dishes to hungry Torontonians.

Soon Altuna was very busy. His apartment kitchen could no longer support his operation, so in the early summer he started renting a community kitchen on Toronto's College Street.

Preparing meals for take out and delivery on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Altuna found himself running a busy kitchen. Before he knew it, he was a full-time chef with a small team and a growing reputation.

Bawang chicken wings, boxed up and ready to go. (Andrew Budziak)

"All these people were loving the food I grew up eating," said Altuna. "It was kind of surreal."

As more people started ordering from Altuna's kitchen — which he named Bawang after the Tagalog word for garlic — media started noticing. Bawang got attention from the likes of Toronto Life, Foodism, BlogTO and CBC. 

It's easy to see why. Filipino food is not as common in Toronto's food scene compared to the ubiquity of Thai, Japanese or Chinese food. Unlike other more well-known Southeast Asian cuisines that use a lot of herbs and chillies, Filipino food tends to be garlicky, sour, sweet and saucy.

Cooking from the heart

What ends up on Altuna's constantly changing menu originated from his youth in the Philippines. 

He was born in the city of Vigan, in the northern province of Ilocos Sur. His family lived around the dinner table, and despite not having a lot of money, that dinner table was always full. "We didn't have a lot," Altuna told me. "I remember the day we got a fridge. That was exciting."

Holidays and special occasions were marked with feasts. Meals were family style — loads of people around the table having a great time, sharing delicious meals. 

Altuna drives around Toronto delivering the day's orders. (Andrew Budziak)

But this ended for Altuna when he was eight. Arriving at the Manila airport with his mom and grandmother, he was over-the-moon excited to be taking a flight for the first time. That was until his mom stopped at the gate and he realized she wouldn't be making the trip: the documentation to get her to Canada was still in the works. Too young to understand the complexities of immigration rules, Altuna cried himself to sleep on the plane.

After landing in Canada, Altuna began his new life. His grandparents adopted him, legally becoming his parents. Despite now living on the other side of the world, Altuna was still surrounded by a rich culinary life. 

"I just remember like cousins, uncles, aunts, everyone just sitting around eating at our place in Toronto having feasts like we did back home," Altuna recalled. 

His grandfather was a chef at an Italian restaurant in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, and there was always an excuse for big meals at home. Altuna's culinary education took place in his home kitchen. 

After some rough teenage years, Altuna landed a job at a bank and eventually moved into the high stress world of advertising. He spent his 20s and 30s making good money, but was working for someone else under an incredible amount of pressure. He was exhausted.

"I would just think to myself, 'What am I doing? How long can I keep this up?'" Altuna said. 

Through all of this, he never stopped cooking. Whether for himself, parties or friends, he was constantly preparing the food of his youth. It allowed him to feel connected to his childhood and to the Philippines, and provided comfort in tough times. 

Altuna delivers a Bawang order to a happy customer. (Andrew Budziak)

That's why when the pandemic hit and Altuna lost his job, he could only think of doing one thing: cooking. 

Now fully living his passion, Altuna has created a number of hit meals at Bawang. Some of these dishes are specific to the region of Altuna's home of Ilocos Sur. Below are three dishes that show the range, complexity and creativity of Altuna's kitchen. 

The dishes of Bawang

Lechon 

Altuna’s lechon is a popular dish that’s served in bite-sized pieces. (Andrew Budziak)

After one bite, it's easy to see why this is such a popular item on Altuna's menu. The process takes two days, but it's relatively simple compared to a lot of the dishes on Altuna's menu. He brines the pork belly, cooks it in the oven, then lets it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day it's just a matter of deep frying. The result is magic: the skin transforms into a brittle, popcorn-like coating while the inside finishes incredibly juicy. 

"If you can say you've had lechon from Bawang, then you've had the best!" jokes Altuna. 

Binagoongan baboy sa gata (pork with shrimp paste in coconut stew)

Altuna’s take on binagoongan baboy sa gata is a savoury, sweet and spicy stew. (Andrew Budziak)

According to Altuna, you can't cook Filipino food without first mastering how to prepare tomatoes, onion and garlic. Those three ingredients form the base for his take on binagoongan baboy sa gata. Combining pork, chilies and coconut milk, the result is a hearty delicious stew that is similar in consistency to a light curry. Thai and milder green chillies create a heat that balances nicely against the coconut flavour. It's savoury, sweet and spicy, highlighting the complex flavour palette of Filipino cooking.

Altuna's instructions on how to enjoy this dish: "Eat it with a mountain of rice."

Torta 

Torta is best described as a meatloaf omelette pancake. (Andrew Budziak)

Altuna describes this as something between a meatloaf, omelette and a pancake. It isn't generally cooked in restaurants, but is a homestyle dish that Altuna loved growing up. It's now one of his son's favourite dishes as well.

The base consists of ground pork mixed with tomatoes, onion, garlic and eggplant. Seasoning with a soya sauce mix, Altuna cooks everything down and sets it aside to cool to room temperature. Then he mixes in eggs and fries this batter into pancake-sized servings. The result looks like a ground meat omelette, topped with fresh tomatoes, onion and crispy garlic. 

"This dish is perfect for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, or just whenever. It's always perfect," Altuna said. 

About the Producer

Andrew Budziak is a Toronto-based journalist, filmmaker and photographer. He tells stories about food, nature and music. Most recently he has been documenting urban wildlife in Canada. You can follow him on Instagram @Andrew_Budziak.

This documentary was edited by Julia Pagel.

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