Self-taught Filipino Chef Yana Gilbuena thrives on traveling and cooking Filipino food. In March, she begins a 50-week pop-up dinner tour in partnership with Feastly, known as the Salo Project. Once a week throughout all the states, she’ll be hunting down fresh ingredients, sending invites, and cooking up a storm of Filipino food. Before jetting off to Florida for her next Salo Project dinner, Chef Yana Gilbuena explained what inspires her to cook, what she’s learned along the way, and how she’ll handle the bumps on her cross-country culinary trip.
CC: How did you start cooking for everyone?
“It started out as a hobby. Everyone was doing pop-ups and I wanted do one. I just knew they cook for the night, and serve people. I [thought] ‘Oh, that sounds like a great dinner party!’ I always do dinner parties anyway, except this time they’re actually paying me!
“I came up with a concept of featuring three different dishes from each region of the Philippines, because I felt like it wasn’t fully represented. I come from the middle region, called the Visayas, and then I went to school in the Northern part, and I have friends from the Southern part of the Philippines. They would bring me dishes of what their mom made [when] I used to live in a dormitory. I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never had this before.’ And you thought you knew what most of the food is, until you realize that there’s a plethora of food and flavors, in general, that aren’t being showcased, especially here in America.
“For me, coming from the Philippines, I’m so disappointed [in Filipino food here]. It doesn’t taste the same flavorwise; it’s either too greasy or too dry. Most of the time, you miss the flavors of home; whether it’s street food or your mom’s food or food from restaurants you go to. So I wanted to do it. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of dishes, so I started researching, reaching out to friends and asking, ‘What’s your mom’s recipe for doing this dish?’ I started compiling them and started experimenting, testing it out.
“At first, I made [the pop-up dinner] a quarterly thing, because I had a full-time job at that time. It’s a lot of work, especially for one person to scout for a location and sending out the invites. It’s really intense. At my first dinner, I served about 40 people. [It was supposed to be] 25, but people kept coming in [that] didn’t tell me they were coming. I didn’t know how to do recipe costing, and how to put portions together. I just made a big batch, so there was food for days! I could’ve fed 60 people. ‘This is insane; everyone is still eating? I’m clearly doing something wrong here.’
“So it prompted me to do more research for my second dinner. Now I know five pounds of dry rice can serve 15 to 20 people. I only need to buy five pounds and make five pounds, and not more than that!”
CC: How would you describe a Salo Project dinner to someone who’s never been to one?
“I would definitely say that Salo is not just about the food; it’s about the people. You never know who you’ll get to meet that night. Everyone comes in not knowing [each other]. It becomes networking, but not in a sleazy kind of way. They’re coming together, because they’re curious about Filipino food or they love Filipino food. So at the end of the night, everyone becomes a family, especially when you’re eating with your hands. There’s no pressure of being so formal with the fork and spoon on the right. I just feel like it lessens that expectation and it’s just fun when you see people digging in!”
CC: What challenges are you expecting along the way?
“I’m going to have to deal with it. If they only have one pot or one pan, I’ll have to make a dinner for 20 using [that]. In San Francisco, it happened: the [host] literally only had one pot and one pan. I said, ‘Alright, I guess we’ll have to do it in batches!’
“[Also] finding ingredients, or even finding the Chinatown. When I was in Boston, there was a Chinatown, but no Chinese supermarket! So I walked around and I saw people with bags with the name. I tried to ask them where it was, but I don’t speak Chinese. I was trying to grab their bag and ask them, ‘Hey, where did you get this?’ They thought I was trying to grab their groceries! It was bad. I wanted to see the address, but they thought I was trying to steal their groceries. It was bad experience. I finally found it, but it took me forever to find it. And they didn’t even have banana leaves. At that point, I [figured] I would find a substitute. If it’s not there, it’s not there.”
CC: Tell us about the charitable aspect of the Salo Project.
“Thirty-percent of the proceeds of each state dinner is going to the Relief Contingency Plan by The National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON USA) for victims of the typhoon. They’ll need help rebuilding a year from now. I know everyone has been donating, but I know donations get more scarce when it’s later on. I can’t contribute much, but at least, they’ll have a flow going.”
To learn more about how to host a dinner or attend one of them, visit Thesaloproject.com or Eatfeastly.com. You can also support the project on Fundrazr here, and follow her on Facebook (SALO), Instagram (@salogram), Twitter (@SALOseries).