Q&A with Yana Gilbuena, Nomadic Chef Turned Author of No Forks Given

Gilbuena shares her culinary experience of cooking Filipino SALO feasts across the United States in her debut cookbook.

By Kristina Bustos
Photo by Benjamin Garrett,
Illustration by Grace Molteni

Yana Gilbuena currently calls San Francisco home. Before this, she bounced from one couch to another across the country and, at one point, was mistaken for a drifter at the Canadian and Detroit border. That was in 2014 when—after getting laid off as a furniture designer in New York—she decided to travel the 50 states in 50 weeks creating Filipino feasts for strangers through her project The SALO series. What began as a pop-up Filipino dinner in Brooklyn in 2013 to satisfy her craving for home became a new life for Gilbuena.

“It’s always the taste of home,” said Gilbuena, who was born in the Philippines and emigrated to Los Angeles when she was 21. “For me, that was one of the main catalyst[s] as to why I was even doing it and it just blossomed. I didn’t think it was going to get bigger than Brooklyn.”

When Gilbuena kicked off The SALO series, Filipino food was still under the radar. Since then, along with other Filipino chefs and restauranteurs like Nicole Ponseca—who The Riveter featured in October 2016—Gilbuena has helped Filipino cuisine gain popularity while also becoming one of the more well-known Filipinos in the community. Now, with her debut cookbook No Forks Given (posted on Kickstarter) which highlights her SALO journey, things might get bigger for the Filipina chef.


Kristina Bustos: You and so many of your friends in the food industry have put our cuisine on the map. And then, back in June, Anthony Bourdain said that Filipino food is the next big thing. I wanted to know your thoughts on that.  

Yana Gilbuena: The thing is he’s always said that. Andrew Zimmern has said that. They’ve been saying it for the past seven years, for God’s sake. But I’m glad that there’s more—I don’t necessarily think it’s a movement—I think there’s more awareness. There’s a difference because there are Filipino food establishments that have been there for years, but are people aware of it? That was the question. Since we immigrated, we’ve always had our mom and pop turo-turo (“point point”) places to go to [and] have a taste of home. But since food media has focused the spotlight on Filipino cuisine now all these people are coming out of the woodwork. I think it’s hilarious because I read an article once before about this restaurant, somewhere in Santa Monica in LA. They don’t [serve] Filipino food but in their little blurb or snippet they were like, “Oh, but our executive chef is Filipino and la la la la.” It’s so irrelevant to what you’re doing because you don’t serve Filipino food in your establishments, you’re just putting it out there because Filipinos are hot right now.

Then a lot of people started jumping on the bandwagon in a sense of trying to cash in on that. I’ve seen a lot of it take off and I’ve seen a lot of it fail because the people who do it for the passion are the ones that persevere, but the people who do it for the money after they see it like “ah, okay it’s not really working out I’m gone.” Yes, but were you passionate about Filipino food to begin with? Maybe or maybe not because if you really wanted to see this grow and if you really wanted to keep pushing this movement forward—this awareness—then you wouldn’t give up because the work is not done. Great, so what if Anthony Bourdain said we’re the next big thing. Are we the next big thing? Or are we the big thing now? That’s the question.

KB: What are some of the more compelling conversations you’ve had with your guests about Filipino dishes as you’ve traveled to different cities across the U.S.?

YG: At the time—mind you this is 2014—pop-ups were not even that popular. There were a lot of people who were like, “What the fuck is a pop-up?” Number two, there was also this push-back at that time for kamayan (a Tagalog word that means to eat with hands). I’ve always done my dinners kamayan style. I never plated any of my food. It was always on banana leaves, and I was very adamant about people eating with their hands. It’s interesting to [see] that there are viral videos now of people eating kamayan when at that time I was doing this people were so hesitant and so resistant to eating with their hands.

So, conversations about Filipino food definitely revolved around like, “Oh, but my mom doesn’t make it this way or my grandma doesn’t make it this way.” And I had to emphasize that each region has its own flavor. Adobo (chicken, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, and peppercorn) from the Visayas is very different from the Adobo in Mindanao, which is very different from the Adobo in Luzon. Within those three main regions, the different islands themselves have different iterations of Adobo. At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong Adobo. For example, Mindanao adds coconut milk because they have an abundance of coconut milk. And in my island we have Adobong Dilaw, [which is] Adobo with turmeric, so it’s dry. It doesn’t have the sauce. It’s very interesting but does that invalidate it from being Adobo? All these questions are very pertinent in terms of being able to come in to terms with our identity as Filipinos.

KB: By using local ingredients, your guests were able to connect with their community while learning about Filipino culture. What kind of changes you made in the typical Filipino dishes with the local ingredients?

YG: I was making Kaldereta for example, and Kaldereta needs potatoes, carrots, and olives. At the time there were no potatoes, but there were sunchokes. Sunchokes are Jerusalem artichokes that are within the wheelhouse in terms of a starch. I would treat them as I would treat the potatoes. That was one way of incorporating local ingredients. The other way would be adding them into—for example I would make Kinilaw. And Kinilaw would normally ask for vinegar and citrus and you can’t really find calamansi (a citrus fruit cultivated in the Philippines) all the time. But you can find other things like grapefruit, oranges, or limes, [which] I would use as a calamansi substitute. In the same vein, I would do that with meat as well. I’ve made rabbit Adobo or if I found bison, for example, I would make Giniling Bison. I think by [substituting local ingredients] you’re giving the local community a new pair of eyes to see their ingredients in a different way. Normally, they would probably make bison burgers, but now they’re like, “Oh, I can actually sauté ground bison with peas and carrots and add a little bit of soy sauce, and here you go, it’s Giniling Bison.” Instead of being one format it suddenly takes on all these iterations and forms. I wanted to share with people that no matter where you are you can still cook Filipino food.

KB: What made you go into the route of self-publishing instead of reaching out to book publishers?

YG: I actually wanted to go to traditional route of book publisher, but it’s so bureaucratic. It’s making me vomit. They won’t even talk to me because they’re like, “Oh, you don’t have a book agent. You can’t contact us directly.” And I’m just like, “Well, I’m talking to you now, what difference does it make?” You don’t want to hear my idea. You don’t want to hear my concept. By the time I was talking to a book agent, they would be screening me. How many people do you have on Instagram? How many readers do you have on your blog? How many followers do you have on Facebook? I got to one point where I was actually talking to a publisher and then she was like, “Well, we really don’t want this part of this. Why don’t you make it this way?” And I was like, “I’m not compromising my story. I’m not compromising my book because you wanted it to sit in a certain mold that it’s not.” I didn’t want to do that. I figured if no one can give it to me my way, I’m going to do it my way.

I’m actually pretty happy that I took the self-publishing route. Or I’m going to be taking the self-publishing route because I get to choose the people in my team. I love the fact that all of us are Filipinos—from my book designers to my illustrators to my food photographer. They’re all Filipinos. We have a wealth of amazing people in our community.  This book is about community. At the end of the day, this is not just a cookbook. It’s about the stories of people I’ve met in my journey, the people who have helped me along the way because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to see the 50 states without them. In a sense, I want to make sure that if I’m going to succeed, I want to bring my community with me. There’s not a lot of representation of Filipinos out there in media in general, in illustration in general. Why not use this platform to do so?

KB: Reading up on you, I got the sense that community is important to you. What other Filipino values you’ve learned from your parents or other people that you continue to hold on to?

YG: For me, one very salient thing is what I learned from José Rizal (Philippines’ national figure): “Ang hindi marunong tumingin sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan.” That means if you don’t know how to look back to where you came from, you can’t reach where you need to go. That’s a very loose translation, but it’s essentially you need to honor your heritage and you need to know your history, you need to learn where you came from, what your roots are and stay true to them so that you can able grow and move forward. That’s definitely one of those things that I hold dear to my heart. The other one is definitely Kapwa ( “fellow”) Bayanihan (means community collaborations). I think that’s a very Filipino thing. It’s amazing how the community comes together to help each other out. Right now, as Filipinos in America or even the Filipinos outside the Philippines, we’re in a very good position to be able to create and curate this community that we want to have. This is the time we can evolve and actually start creating that community.

KB: For the Filipinas who are balancing work and personal passions, what advice could you give them?  

YG: I would say persevere. Also, before you persevere, you need to have an honest conversation with yourself first and see if this is what you really want. Because if you’re going to be pouring your heart and soul into something that you believe in, then it’s worth it. But if this is something that you don’t you see yourself in a way doing for the next five years then you have ask yourself that question of what is it then? If you’re in it then keep going through those rough patches. It’s never a smooth ride. Just make sure this is something you really want to do before you do it.

Kristina Bustos is a New York-based journalist who writes about food as well as stories that are women-centric. She has been as a contributor for The Riveter since 2014. You can see her other work on Essence and Paste magazines. Follow her on Instagram @krisbustos and Twitter @krisbustos.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.