(Note: For more information on Yana and her SALO Project where she travels across America hosting pop-up dinners, check out her IndieGoGo campaign here and consider donating! Photos taken by author and Johnny Thanphachanh).
(Update 2/17/2014: Due to an oversight (and lack of sleep), I had failed to mention that Yana will not be travelling alone. Accompanied by her trusty ninja chimpanzee (I kid), she will also be joined by Cassandra Sicre, who will be documenting the whole quest. In addition, SALO will be throwin’ down in collaboration with Noah Karesh and the team at Feastly, an online marketplace that connects passionate cooks with adventurous eaters. I apologize for any misrepresentation!)
Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman. With her half-shaved head and dyed hair, she would’ve looked perfectly fine rocking leather jeans and shredding an electric guitar as she did wearing an apron and brandishing a butcher’s knife. The rhythmic whacking of the knife on the chopping board was punctuated by the team of chefs singing along to the Beyonce album blasting in the background. Two hours till dinner service and I had yet to see one semi-completed dish in the largely empty art studio (Court Tree Collective in Brooklyn) she had rented.
The Brooklyn air outside was crisp, the polar vortex giving us a temporary respite for the weekend, but inside, it was a different story. As dinner preparations prepared for the event coming up, pork belly was going through the final stages of roasting after being boiled not too long ago for the typical pulutan (the Tagalog word describing food eaten during marathon drinking sessions) dish of Sisig, a crispy, meaty heap of pig ears and belly mixed with spicy chillis and topped with a raw egg. Sisig done in a few hours for twenty people while simultaneously cooking Kare-kare? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman.
I first met Yana when a mutual friend asked if I could help her with a pop-up dinner she was holding at Sindicatos de Cocineros in Greenpoint a few months ago. Not one to choose staring at Excel sheets over the chance to throwdown in the kitchen, I did the impossible and came into the office on a cold Sunday morning and put in three hours of work so I could leave early the next day. To my surprise and within minutes of meeting her, Yana put an expensive knife in my hands and said “You’re an Ilonggo too, you can cook”. And here I was thinking she was going to put me on dish duty! Trusting a complete stranger to cook food that has your reputation on it? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman.
Months later and we were back in the kitchen for her SALO Project launch dinner. “Salo” means two things in our language: “to dine together” and “to catch”. An Iloilo native, Yana put in her hours in the workforce, only to quit and pursue her interests in cooking Filipino food. And hence, SALO was born: pop-up dinners eaten kamayan-style (ie. Meals eaten without utensils on banana leaves) that were as messy as they were delicious. The dinners were not in any way “safe” with the usual adobos and lumpia, instead opting for the salty-bitter dilis (anchovies) for salads and pork livers as an entrée. Serving Filipino food that even Filipinos sometimes consider too “native” to an American populace? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman.
Tonight’s menu featured several mainstay favorites such as the Sisig and Kare-kare (Braised Oxtail in Peanut Butter Curry) paired with Sinangag, or fried rice, as well as a few more of the lesser known dishes of Ukoy (shrimp fritter) and Rabanos Ensalada (a tangy radish salad topped with dilis). The guests stood respectfully at the sidelines, watching as we quickly “plated” individual servings onto the leaves, unaware that, had we been in the Philippines, people would have already sat down, ready to rip the food asunder. It took several calls to be seated for people, many unfamiliar with this style of feasting, to finally get up close and personal with the food. After a short greeting and an explanation of the dishes, Yana left the guests to their own devices, retreating back into the kitchen to continue cooking. Taking your eyes of people who have never eaten this type food and trusting the experience to them? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman.
Food disappeared quickly, with extra servings being hauled off from unfilled seats. The sinangag, while a little too wet to be fried, were shoveled in literal handfuls while the salad and fritters provided a good kick to the palate. The distinctive spicy vinegar tang from the salad cut right through the rich, thick, and nutty Kare-Kare and with the meat served on the bone, even the shyest of all diners was forced to get their hands dirty. The real star of the night was the Sisig. Huge chunks, a layer of buttery fat capped by a golden-brown crust of skin, the dish was topped with a squirt of Kewpie, the smoother Japanese version of mayonnaise made with rice vinegar. “It’s how we did it back at our university in the Philippines”, Yana explained to the crowd. And so we continued to devour both our food and any remaining vestiges of. Semi-strangers downing calories as if it was going out of style, plied with generous amounts of alcohol, sitting in what should have been a pristine art space? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman.
The rest of the night was blur of food, drink, and laughter and as I walked outside, accompanied by my now all too full belly, I marveled at how unapologetically “Filipino” Yana’s dinners are. I remembered commenting once that perhaps the diners wouldn’t be able to handle her spicy dilis appetizer. With characteristically badass vulgarity, Yana insisted that this was how it was made back home, and this is how they’re going to discover it. While the rest of the nation is beginning to jump in on the Filipino food trend with more modern and safer takes on our cuisine, it’s refreshing to see someone take culinary explorers on a road less traveled. One lined with pig offal, strange ingredients, and authentic dishes you would only know if you lived in the small towns of the Philippines.
In the coming year, Yana plans to pack up her bags and knives and train/bike/bus across the country, hosting 50 SALO dinners across 50 states in 50 weeks. Some would cringe at the thought of a North Dakotan farmer eating balut and being exposed to a cuisine that most people linked with the ubiquitous Adobos and Spanish fare. Some would say Yana was insane to give up a stable job, a comfy apartment, safety, to expose America to the steamier underbelly of Filipino cuisine. 50 states in 50 weeks? Yana Gilbuena is a madwoman…and we shouldn’t have it any other way.