December 29, 2014

Yana Gilbuena's SALO Series: Bringing Pinoy Cuisine to all 50 States

Yana setting the table for her Minneapolis pop-up.
Among Asian cuisines, Filipinos think of their food as the overlooked stepchild of the family, getting no respect and looking in from the outside as the popular siblings hog the limelight and field prom invites. Given its underdog status, the act of taking a moveable Filipino feast on the road to all 50 United States--the mission of Pinay pioneer Yana Gilbuena--is an act of patriotism, daring and possibly craziness.

As a people, Filipinos are passionate about and justly proud of the foods of their homeland: every one I've met has regaled me with stories of grandmas, aunties, mothers and fathers who live to cook and eat, preferably surrounded by hordes of relatives and often packed into small spaces. 

"Oh man, food culture in my family," says Gilbuena, a Brooklyn-based chef who grew up in Iloilo Province and arrived in America in 2004 at age 20.  "Every day, every hour revolved around food. We'd have breakfast at six, merienda (the light repast that fills the yawning gap between regular meals) at nine, lunch at noon, then siesta from one to three, wake up just in time for merienda, and then dinner at six, no excuses." Dinner came after angelus, the devotions and Hail Marys that, for Yana, meant it was almost time to eat again.

Des Moines, Iowa, meet real Filipino cuisine.
With such an upbringing, it's not surprising that Yana eventually found her way back to food and cooking, though only after working as a behavioral therapist, antique hardware specialist, and furniture maker and marketer. 

In 2011, she quit her job, loaded all her belongings in a van and drove across country to New York. Landing in Greenpoint, she found a day job, and on her off hours pursued her hobby of cooking tapas for friends. The Pinoy restaurant Maharlika had just opened, showing Filipinos that their beloved food could hold its own in the East Village; Brooklyn's ground-breaking Purple Yam was another beacon of Filipino food. Yet despite these options, Yana realized that if she had a late-night hankering for Filipino in her neighborhood there was nowhere to turn.  She wanted to see even more of it available. 

Living in a borough crawling with food artisans and entrepreneurs, a pop-up seemed like the natural next step.  Yana wanted to incorporate the emerging farm-to-table movement into her pop-up while injecting her own culture into the mix. She did extensive research on the varied regional cuisines of her homeland: Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao,  and began throwing  parties and pop-ups. Through the bartering site Our Goods, she found a guy with a loft space seeking someone to design a table for it. She contacted him, offering her furniture design expertise in exchange for his loft for her first pop-up. Both had been members of the now-defunct 3rd Ward art collective in East Williamsburg. "We ended up making the table together," Yana says, then used it for a pop-up dinner for 45. 

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the region of the Philippines where she had grown up. In response Yana hatched a plan for a Greenpoint fundraising dinner, raising $1,200 for typhoon victim relief funds. To keep the momentum going, she conceived of doing pop-ups in all fifty states. She had met Ayesha Vera-Yu, the founder of the relief organization ARK (Advancing Rural Kids) and bonded with her over the fact that Vera-Yu's home province, Capiz, and Iloilo were both hit hard by Haiyan.

The two formed a partnership, and the SALO 50-states series of pop-ups was born. A portion of the proceeds of each dinner will to go ARK to help build a school in the Visayas devastated by Haiyan. So far Yana has held 41 dinners, including a spread for 80 at Christ Church on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., a whole pig feast in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and enthusiastic support from local farmers and producers in Des Moines, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska. During
Christmas week, Yana could be found cooking at a private residence in Atlanta and a hunting resort in Alabama.

She plans to wrap up the series in Hawaii in April, though she's not sure exactly where on the islands her grand finale will take place. After it's all over, she says she'll return to the Philippines to see the school she's helped build, tour islands she's never visited before, and do more culinary research. Next up: SALO Europe, an ambitious 50 countries in 50 weeks. 

Oh, and if you happen to be in New Orleans this New Year's week, Yana welcomes you to local Philippine cuisine hotspot Milkfish, where her next pop-up is slated to be held on January 4. Good luck, Yana!