CRITICAL ACCLAIM. Chef Aaron Verzosa, left photo, demonstrates
plating Tailor Made, a course in which diners disclose their hunger
level from five to one, at Filipino-American restaurant Archipelago, in
Seattle. Verzosa is nominated for a 2023 James Beard Award in the Best
Chef: Northwest and Pacific category. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Pastry chef Vince Bugtong holds a Crème Brûlée Tart, made of lemon
cinnamon custard, strawberry guava jam, macadamia coconut streusel, and
ube espuma, a purple yam foam, at Abaca restaurant in San Francisco.
Three Filipino restaurants in three different areas of the U.S. are
representing at this year’s James Beard Awards, the culinary world’s
equivalent of the Oscars. The awards ceremony is scheduled for June 5.
(AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
From The Asian Reporter, V33, #6 (June 5, 2023), pages 10 &
Filipino-American chefs come into their own with
multiple James Beard award nods
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
Like a lot of chefs, Aaron Verzosa has been hustling the past three
years to get Archipelago, his Filipino restaurant in Seattle, through
the pandemic and its ripple effects. Getting a James Beard Award
nomination was a validating moment.
"Being able to amplify and showcase stories about the
Filipino-American culture, the communities here, specifically in the
Northwest, and really the immigrant story that my parents came with ...
I was just very humbled to be able to have the opportunity to showcase
what the sacrifice was and be able to represent the region in that way,"
said Verzosa, who is up for Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific.
In the culinary world, the awards are the equivalent of the Oscars.
Three Filipino restaurants will be represented at the James Beard
Foundation’s annual awards ceremony, on June 5 in Chicago.
Abacá, in San Francisco, scored an Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker
nod for Vince Bugtong. And Kasama, in Chicago, earned a joint Best Chef:
Great Lakes nomination for husband and wife Tim Flores and Genie Kwon.
Last year, Kasama was nominated for Best New Restaurant and also became
the first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant. Past Filipino-American
winners include Tom Cunanan, who snagged Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2019
for his now closed Washington, D.C., restaurant, Bad Saint.
All this recognition is welcome praise for a cuisine that has
historically been stifled by colonialism and a general lack of
appreciation. These chefs are part of a younger generation giving voice
to the Filipino-American experience through the language of food.
Before joining Abacá in January, Bugtong said he was having an
identity crisis as a pastry chef for an Oakland cocktail bar. He wanted
to do more Filipino-centric desserts, but at the same time felt he
lacked authenticity. At Abacá, he said, chef and owner Francis Ang gave
him the freedom to explore his culinary roots. He has since experimented
with dishes from the Philippines’ pre-Spanish days, like rice-based
desserts, or kakanin in Tagalog.
"In the small amount of time that I’ve worked here, I definitely
learned so much," Bugtong said.
He enjoys playing around with ingredients from the Philippines. For
example, he wants to make a granita with barako coffee, which is grown
there, and pair it with muscovado jelly and leche flan ice cream. Leche
flan is the Filipino version of creme caramel.
Bugtong doesn’t worry about whether something is unconventional and
outside the usual traditions of Filipino culture.
"My thought process when I come up with stuff is, ‘Do I like it?’" he
said. "Does it represent me as a Filipino American? Then the second
thing that I think about is, ‘Is this approachable to other people?
Filipino or otherwise?’ And then I think of a composition that makes it
In Seattle, Archipelago, named because the Philippines is comprised
of 7,100 islands, has been dishing out a seasonal tasting menu since
2018. Verzosa and his wife, Amber Manuguid, wanted a "Pacific Northwest
restaurant first and foremost." But there’s a "Filipino American-ness"
intrinsic to the meals too.
For instance, Verzosa might swap out tamarind for wild lingonberries.
He does his own take on Filipino banana ketchup with sweeter tubers or
With only 12 seats in the restaurant, Verzosa chats with every
"When we have Filipinos coming from the Philippines and we have
Filipinos that are here from the U.S. — whether they be first, second,
all the way to fifth generation — there’s a really beautiful way to
connect with them differently," Verzosa said.
"I think the most important thing to realize is that there is
absolutely — like anything — no one way to be Filipino."
Neither Verzosa nor Bugtong seriously considered a culinary career
until after college. Verzosa grew up on a diet of PBS and Food Network
cooking shows, as well as the cooking of his father, aunts, and uncles.
"I would come home from school, be eating my dad’s food, and watching
these shows," said Verzosa, who was originally headed to medical school.
"At some point, he was like, ‘Hey, listen, Aaron, if you love eating as
much as you do, you need to learn how to love to cook.’"
Bugtong dropped plans to become a teacher and enrolled in a Bay Area
culinary school in 2014. As a child, he hadn’t demonstrated any passion
for making things from scratch.
"I did stuff with Betty Crocker and thought I was badass, like
substituting milk instead of water," Bugtong said, chuckling. "When I
was a kid, I used to put egg wash on Chips Ahoy! and bake them. They
came out very gooey inside and crispy on the outside."
Filipinos have heard on and off for the last decade that their food
is having a moment, about to be the next big thing in U.S. cuisine. Its
staples include steamed rice, meat, fish, and notes of sweet, salty, and
sour. Dishes like adobo (a meat braised in vinegar, soy sauce, and
garlic), lumpia (spring rolls), and pancit (fried noodles) are already
part of the zeitgeist.
Yet Filipino restaurants make up only 1% of U.S. restaurants serving
Asian food, according to recent Pew Research Center analysis.
There’s no one explanation why other Asian cuisines like Chinese
grabbed a bigger foothold in the restaurant industry.
One reason is the "funnelling" of early Filipino immigrants into
particular occupations, according to Martin Manalansan IV, an American
Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the
1920s and ’30s, he said, they came to the U.S. for agricultural work.
After 1965, they worked mostly in more technical fields like nursing and
Many young Filipino Americans were discouraged from becoming chefs
"because that was seen as very lowly, especially if your parents are
nurses, doctors, engineers, whatever," Manalansan said.
In addition, Filipino food was often dismissed as a fusion of
Chinese, Spanish, and a dash of American. That perception annoys
Manalansan because it doesn’t recognize the creativity of Filipino
"The late ’90s foodie revolution was really ... about being
adventurous and being called a ‘foodie,’ being into more ‘exotic,’
interesting cuisine," Manalansan said. "The Filipino cuisine was seen as
kind of homey, kind of blasé."
Whether this year’s James Beard love is a coincidence or not, Verzosa
says it feels like there are more rising, accomplished Filipino chefs
"Over the last five, 10 years or so now, they’re finally coming
through and developing their own voice, and wanting to showcase their
own families, their own communities, their own regions," Verzosa said.
"Having the craft and ability to make delicious food — obviously that
needs to happen to tell those stories."
Terry Tang is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity
Read the current issue of The Asian Reporter in
Just visit <www.asianreporter.com/completepaper.htm>!