UO Interviews: Yana Gilbuena

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This month we partnered with SALO Series in collaboration with Flavor & Bounty to present a Balikbayan Filipino Feast at Space Ninety 8.

We got the chance to explore L.A.'s Grand Central Market and chat with Salo Series Chef Yana Gibuena to talk about life as a nomatic chef, what inspires her in her work, and some of her favorite food spots in Brooklyn and abroad.

Can you introduce yourself please: tell us more about who you are, where you’re from, and what you do? 
Hi, I'm Yana Gilbuena. I'm the nomadic Filipina chef. I'm originally from the Philippines, then LA then Brooklyn and currently SF. I travel internationally and do Filipino pop-up dinners kamayan style.

What led you to your career? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do, or did you stumble into it?
I actually stumbled upon it. I was moonlighting as a contributor for Greenpointers and they assigned me to cover these underground supperclubs that were sprouting up in 2012.  At that time I was working in the furniture industry as a marketing and PR director and I needed a creative outlet. Covering these pop-up dinners gave me an idea to use that platform to introduce people to Filipino food and the kamayan style of eating. I felt that the underground dining scene needed a cultural injection. So I started doing my pop-ups in March 2013 and I got laid off from my job September and by that time, I've done about 4 pop-ups and my friend/mentor pretty much planted the seed of what would later become my 50-state, 50-week pop-up dinner tour. And 4 years later, I have not looked back. Traveling and cooking are part of me now.

What are the advantages and challenges of being a nomadic chef vs. working in a traditional restaurant setting?
Being on the road and not having a home doesn't bother me. I actually can't imagine myself "settling down".  Not yet at least. The advantages of being a nomadic chef are that I'm constantly excited and challenged. I'm constantly learning something new about the places I go to, meet new people and not be tied down to a brick and mortar and the dreaded routine. There’s no dull day in the pop-up life. The challenges are I’m not in a place that long to build an audience/community as well as establish deep ties and relationships. So, no such thing as a love life exists in my world, but I have a ton of friends who will adopt me wherever I go :)

Explain Filipino cuisine to someone who doesn’t know much about it? What are the go-to ingredients for most dishes?
Filipino cuisine is this beautiful mutt, the OG fusion. It is a mélange of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish and now American cuisines. Filipino cuisine is the hot Brazilian in the culinary world: can't really identify its ethnicity, but it's goddamn beautiful.

The go to ingredients would be soy sauce, cane/coconut vinegar, shrimp paste, fish sauce, coconut milk and the usual "gisa": garlic, ginger, red onions, and tomatoes.

Do you have a favorite or stand out Salo Series event?  What made it special?
There's definitely been a couple. I'd say Des Moines, Iowa was pretty special. The local food editor helped me connect with local farmers, beer and wine purveyors and helped spread the word. All of this was done in a span of two days. I loved how the community came together to help me make the event a big and successful one.

Alaska was really rad too. I was able to go down to this little fishing village in Cordova and meet the fishercouple that I was sourcing salmon from. They took me on their fishing boat, fed me Alaskan oysters (omg!) and I was able to take 2 10 lb. salmon to my pop-up.

Hawaii was done true pop-up style in the beach on Magic Island. There were fireworks while we were dining under the stars and moon. Epic.

In LA, I did the pop-up in an alley in the jewelry district. Pretty gangster. LOL

How do you determine where to travel? Do you set your own path and line up events along the way, or do you let the events guide your journey?
When I did the 50-state tour, I had a route that I planned out. It was chasing the sun, so I started in Key West in Florida and zigzagged my way to Hawaii. I made sure I was in the most northern parts during summer time and I was in the south during winter. I did my Canadian tour the same way and my Mexican tour was mostly guided by the places I really I wanted to see. :) Now, I'm gearing up for South America and I’m following the same mindset: chase the sun. :)

What do you love most about what you do? 
I love the unpredictability, the little surprises. I love that I'm constantly on my toes, not knowing certainty. I love exploring new places and meeting new people. I love the fact that everywhere I go I bring and share my culture with me through the food I cook.

What projects do you have on the horizon for 2017? Do you have any new goals for the year?
I'm definitely leaving for South America as soon as I get my passport situation sorted out. My goals are still the same: do Filipino pop-up kamayan dinners in all 7 continents. :D

Tell us about what inspires you. How do you find new inspiration? 
As corny as this sounds, food inspires me. I love going to the markets in each city that I go and discover what fruits, vegetables and other raw ingredients they have and the wheels churn in my head how I can incorporate these non-Filipino ingredients in my dishes. I love getting street food too. I strongly believe that it's the beating culinary heart of the city: what do the common folks eat on a daily basis? It's not he James beard restaurant winners or even the Michelin ones that define the local cuisine for me. It’s the food by the docks, by the dusty side road. And it's these foods that inspire me.

What’s your favorite city for food?
Omg. So many. I love Portland Maine, lobsters!!! I love New Orleans and I love Oaxaca.

What are your favorite food spots in Brooklyn? 
Ha! I don't know if they're still there, it's been a while since I've been back to Brooklyn. But, I love Paulie Gee's pizza, Kinfolk for cocktails, of course Lumpia Shack for my Filipino food fix and Pies and Thighs. 

Join us for the Salo Series Balikbayan Filipino Feast in collaboration with Flavor & Bounty on Friday, February 17th at 7:30PM. Tickets available at Eatfeastly.com/Salo.

Follow Yana/Salo Series on Instagram

Photos: Sheewa Salehi