Why 'authentic' food shouldn't matter
I still distinctly remember my first encounter with the OG of “fusion” food trucks, Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ truck. Korean-American chef Roy Choi introduced Southern Californians to the surprising but wonderful marriage of Korean and Mexican cuisine, and one summer night in 2009, I found myself glued to Twitter, on a mad chase to find out where the Kogi food truck was parked. I stood in line with the rest of the Kogi-crazed crowd for over an hour, but the short-rib tacos—caramelized Korean barbecue, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish, and chili-soy vinaigrette on griddled corn tortillas—were worth the wait. The tacos were a far cry from "authentic," but the memories of standing in a street corner—hovered over a plate piled high with tasty short-rib tacos and kimchi quesadillas—is one of my favorite gastronomic memories. It was just no-frills food that was damn good.
While the idea of fusion—combining different flavors, ingredients, and techniques—is nothing new, it’s turned into somewhat of a taboo concept over the years. Celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck (an Austrian whose first restaurant in California focused on Asian-inspired dishes that used French techniques) were responsible for successfully popularizing fusion cuisine on a global scale. Initially lauded as daring and adventurous, this novel idea took a turn for the worst when numerous chefs adapted the concept and unintentionally botched it. Many restaurants with lost identities started using the fusion buzzword as a crutch, an excuse to get away with everything.
It’s difficult not to look past the negative reputation that was instantly tagged on to fusion fare, but we need to accept that fusion really is part of everything we eat. Every cuisine takes influence or inspiration from another culture in some way or another. It's no longer valid to say that a dish is “theirs” or "ours." Why the flak over authenticity then?
This is where the idea of third culture food comes into the picture. Cultural boundaries are dwindling and people are constantly being exposed to different heritages—most especially through food. Much like the idea of fusion, third culture food is an amalgamation of two or more different cultures. What differentiates this type of cuisine from fusion is the intimacy and personal experience that is a part of conceptualizing and creating the dishes—ultimately chefs take different things that have heavily influenced or inspired them and use this to make a dish their own. Nowadays, does “authentic” equal good? Not necessarily.
Chef Carlos Garcia helms The Black Pig with Chef Tricia McDonald.
Precision detail on every plate
It's best not to commit to a dish at The Black Pig. Chef Carlos loves changing the menu.
Crab Open Ravioli
In Manila, there has been a rapid restaurant boom with the metro churning out both outstanding and painfully mediocre spots. Look past the unremarkable restaurants and focus instead on the places that shine. Scour the city and you’ll find a handful of chefs who manage to take a specific cuisine and make it entirely their own. Chef Carlos Garcia is one of them. Spanish by ethnicity, he’s had 14 years of culinary experience in London and now helms The Black Pig’s kitchen in the Philippines. Tucked away in quiet suburban Alabang, it’s difficult to chain The Black Pig to a genre.
“There really is no definition for my food,” stresses Carlos. “All I really want to do is focus on quality food and quality ingredients.” And focus on quality he does, as he swiftly whips up an astonishingly simple yet creative crab open ravioli—everything made from scratch, of course—during our interview. “Being ‘too authentic’ can risk not being true to yourself,” says Carlos thoughtfully. “You restrict your creativity trying to totally replicate another dish or another cuisine.”
He goes on to explain that many times people have expected him to serve paella because he’s Spanish, but he doesn’t actually make paella. “Why put someone in an ethnic box?” he adds. “Classifying yourself as ‘authentic’ is already putting yourself in a box, with no way out.” This makes sense if you've been to The Black Pig and have witnessed Carlos’ boundless creativity. To Carlos, authenticity is something that comes from the heart. It’s something that might mean a great deal to one person because of their experiences—that’s what makes it authentic for them.
Mecha Uma's Bruce Ricketts
His primary influences are Mexican and Japanese cuisines.
Full circle: Making a scallop ceviche
Every element plays a role.
Another chef that fails to limit his cooking to geography is the very impassioned Bruce Ricketts. You’ll find this 20-something chef behind the omakase bar at Mecha Uma surprising diners with well-thought-out dishes that are executed in his own style. Having spent some time in Southern California, Bruce’s love for Mexican food is irrefutable, but it’s his Japanese fare that has Manila foodies whipped into a frenzy. Bruce does Japanese food his own way. All the techniques, undertones, and nuances are very much Japanese but the flavor profiles are inspired by other cultures—like his first love, Mexican fare.
Authenticity, according to Bruce, has lost its meaning; it’s incredibly subjective. His style, for instance, is far from traditional. If someone more exposed to legitimate kaiseki restaurants in Japan were to try Bruce’s food, it wouldn’t at all be like what they're used to. “Anybody can serve food,” says Bruce. “But does it taste good?”
He starts waxing nostalgic over his first experience with ceviche in San Diego, which piqued his curiosity and made him realize that he could be a cook of his own style. “It had mayonnaise and Maggi on top, which is how Mexicans prepare their ceviche,” explains Bruce. “I didn’t grow up a foodie and didn’t eat too much Filipino food, so I didn’t know about kinilaw. I always had this notion that eating raw food would be bad for your stomach. Imagine my surprise after trying Mexican-style ceviche.” This dish might not have been the most authentic, but it opened Bruce’s taste buds to intense flavors he had never encountered before, and these eye-opening experiences are the kind that could never be taught. It’s ironic that ceviche was what catapulted his Bruce’s culinary career, because here he is, full circle, preparing a scallop ceviche dish that is controlled and constrained, with each ingredient having its own purpose.
“At the end of the day, me and my team are just craftsmen who serve in the kitchen,” says Bruce. “We aren’t rock stars. We’re just serving people good food and when they take a bite and close their eyes they don’t see us; they see the flavors of what they are eating. Later on, they won’t remember us, they’ll remember how our dishes made them feel.”
Photographer-slash-chef Nicco Santos
Nicco with Hey Handsome's other star, Quenee Vilar
Kambing Buah Keluak or goat, buah keluak (a formerly poisonous seed), nasi ulam, sambal matah, and kerupek
Laap Phet, minced duck with khao man, herbs, and a deep-fried egg
Beetroot Paneer, with mushrooms, tabbouleh, quinoa, and yogurt
Drinks like the Donkey Punch are a must-try.
Homemade Yogurt with Black Sesame Tuille
Choosing not to limit oneself is a common theme for chefs who strive to create unforgettable dishes, and this especially rings true for Nicco Santos. The chef behind Your Local and Hey Handsome is no stranger to stepping outside the box. Initially recognized for his skills behind the camera lens, it was his unwavering love for food that eventually took center stage. Having grown up with a broken family, it was a longing for familial belonging that pushed Nicco to pursue a culinary career. To Nicco, cooking was his way of taking care of people and having that sense of family.
His first bite of Hainanese chicken rice nine years ago sparked his love for Singaporean food, but it was immersing himself with the locals in Singapore that really taught him about their cuisine. “I have this weird gift of picking things up quickly,” says Nicco. “I was always very observant growing up and this mindset made me realize that we have a lifetime to keep learning. We’ll never run out of things to learn! We just need to be open.” This attitude taught Nicco to jive with diverse flavors of Singaporean and Peranakan food, and while their balanced spicy and sour profiles speak to him most, he isn’t opposed to exploring different cuisines in the future. The success of both his restaurants has been overwhelming and humbling for Nicco, and while the positive press has been satisfying he emphasizes that fulfillment doesn’t come from buzz alone.
"Praise is fleeting,” says Nicco. “As chefs, we need to give up our egos and pride. People tend to put chefs on a pedestal, but it’s not about the rock star chef culture.” This attitude has obviously contributed to Nicco’s success, and his commitment to serving people good food speaks volumes. He watches my blissful reaction as I polish off the last of my Beetroot Paneer, a sleeper hit at Hey Handsome, and nods as if affirming his stance. “Food shouldn’t be too serious. As long as we get to share it, and it’s genuinely good—that’s what matters. That’s what makes it authentic.”
Authenticity is one of the many buzzwords being thrown around, but what it really boils down to is how a dish makes you feel. Enjoyment, supposedly. One of the most wonderful things about food is that there will always be something new to discover—flavors, combinations, textures. Authentic or not, I wouldn’t mind spending a lifetime discovering dishes that make me fall in love over and over again.