Interviewing – Defining Our Food with Chef Yana Gilbuena (Part I)
Looking at Yana Gilbuena with her colorful style and infectious smile, she appears to be your everyday millennial-hipster from Silverlake or Brooklyn. And though she’s lived in both of these places, Yana was born and raised across the sea, from the Visayas region in the Philippines. Her old world mentality becomes apparent after only briefly speaking to her about her passion to preserve traditional Filipino food culture. Yana put herself on the map when she entered the world of pop-up dinners while living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2013. Considering her nomadic tendencies, her friends encouraged her to bring her pop-up dinners on the road. “There are 52 weeks in a year and 50 states, so figure it out and just do it.” Today, Yana has cooked and curated Filipino kamayan dinners in all 50 states. Kamayan refers to a tradition in Philippine cuisine to serve over banana leaves and eat by hand. She hopes to eventually cook on all seven continents.
Prior to this, Yana was not a career cook, or even classically trained. Being an only child with tons of high energy, her grandmother often sent her to the kitchen to work with their home cook as punishment. The droll of continuous prep work was supposed to bore her, but eventually cooking became fun. “I was really makulit as a kid! I think I got myself into trouble on purpose so that I would get sent to the kitchen.” She also attributes much of her cooking skills to her aunt who’d collect the recipes from inside Carnation® evaporated milk can labels. “She’d have her rolodex of little recipes, and we would go through it and pick a random one everyday. You just didn’t know what you were going to cook.” Being taught by her family and taking home economics classes at Catholic girls’ school, Yana understood cooking as just a common life skill that everyone should have. By the time she moved to the States at age 20, Yana continued cooking mostly as a means to stay within her budget while living in Los Angeles. However after moving to Brooklyn some years later and having a series of realizations about access and quality, she recognized that if she wanted to eat and share good Filipino food, she’d have to cook it herself.
Some of the inspiration to do her pop-ups came from wanting to share Philippine culture with non-Filipinos, but she also wanted to prioritize educating Filipino-Americans about their own heritage. Between her Fil-Am friends referring to themselves as “Pacific Islander,” or only being able to name Manila as the extent of their geographic knowledge, Yana felt disappointed but knew she could use food as a starting point to help teach about basic geography and history of the Philippines. “I wanted to use food as a medium to show them the spectrum of our diversity as a country.” Regarding non-Filipinos, she mentioned, “They just know our food to be adobo, pancit, and lumpia. That’s so basic. I don’t do basic!” Harnessing her everyday cooking skills, the kamayan dinners became a way to highlight the three regions, Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao–making sure a dish from each is included with every dinner.
Yana has definitely contributed to the fact that Filipino food has grown in popularity in America over the last five years, but she emphasized a need to further the conversation within the Filipinx community. While she highly respects the innovation and creativity of people modernizing our cuisine, she believes it’s important to differentiate Filipino food from new Filipino-American food for the sake of preserving what the older generations in the Philippines have created up until now. Yana is highly aware of the American influence on Philippine cuisine with the introduction of new ingredients and products like canned goods during the 48 years of U.S. military occupation of the islands last century. American food like pasta and pizza evolved into “Filipinized” versions, and the same is currently happening with Pinoys westernizing Filipino food in the United States.
Yana suggests that defining the differences are important in preserving Philippine heritage, but it also speaks to the ingenuity of our people. “That’s the beauty of Filipinos–when we’re given something, we go beyond that. Basically saying, how can I adapt this to my narrative?” In true Pinoy fashion, Yana describes it best when explaining that, “Food is like gossip–the more that it goes through different channels or filters, the story changes so much.” In any case, as more Filipinos and Filipino-Americans continue to contribute to the narrative of our cuisine, it’s safe to say that Yana Gilbuena is doing her part to uplift the traditional, tried, and true.