Meet the First Filipino-American Chef of an Iconic Hollywood Restaurant
Chef Valerie Castillo-Archer couldn’t hold back tears when she was served a special kind of goto at the Sheraton Hotel Manila during a visit to the Philippines recently. The Filipino-American executive chef of iconic Los Angeles restaurant Yamashiro hadn’t been back to the homeland in over 30 years, and sipping the steaming bowl of rice porridge—a kind of arroz caldo—brought back intense memories of when she was growing up in her hometown of San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte.
“It's the dish that my grandparents would cook when we were young,” she tells Esquire Philippines. “I could picture my grandfather—I'm not gonna cry—but I could just picture him butchering the pig, slicing up something in the kitchen, me in my t-shirt and asking my grandmother, ‘What's that? What's this?’ And they're like, ‘Stop talking. You talk too much! Go over there.’ But I would always tug at my grandfather and say, ‘No, I want to stay with you.’”
“It just brought back so many memories,” she adds.
Castillo never meant to “forget” her home country, but after moving to the U.S. as a kid, life just kind of got in the way. She finished school, started a family, and pursued a career, more or less in that order. Today, she runs the kitchen of a true Los Angeles landmark. She is the first female and first Filipino-American executive chef of Yamashiro, which has been a restaurant since the 1960s (although the structure itself has existed since 1914). It’s an extraordinary accomplishment in itself, but even more amazing when you consider what Castillo had to go through to get there.
An aerial view of Yamashiro Restaurant in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA
Moving to the U.S.
When Castillo first moved to the U.S. to be with her parents, she didn’t speak a word of English. She landed in Hawaii around the end of summer and her father picked her up from the airport. Two weeks later, she was in an American school, forced to interact and communicate in a language she didn’t understand.
“I honestly do not know how I survived from first grade until fourth grade because I didn't know how I spoke the language,” she says. “I don't remember any conversations because I came from speaking Ilocano and Tagalog. All I remember was my dad taking us to school. And he said, ‘This is your school. You're going to stay here.’ And I thought, ‘I'm going to sleep here?’”
Somehow, Castillo managed and she eventually settled in to her new life. Her father, who was in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Clark Air Base in Pampanga, so they flew back and forth between the U.S. and the Philippines a few times until Castillo graduated high school and they moved to America permanently.
Castillo initially wanted to become a flight attendant because of the opportunities afforded by travel, but along the way she also wanted to become a movie star, and the usual doctor or lawyer—although those were dreams for her by her parents. She attended nursing school, too, and did some work as a make-up artist. But by then she had become a mother and elected to stay home and raise her kids.
One of Castillo’s kids, her daughter, experienced incessant bullying in school that got so bad she attempted suicide three times.
Chef Vallerie Castillo-Archer is the first Filipino-American and first woman executive chef of Yamashiro
“You tell your kids she’s beautiful, she’s worth it, just don't worry, but, of course, they would say, ‘You have to say that because you're my mom. Of course you won’t say I’m ugly.' So watching your daughter trying to take pills and going to the hospital with her, that was really difficult."
Castillo found that what brought both of them comfort was food. Spending time in the kitchen baking helped them reconnect; her daughter was more willing to talk and it helped bring them much closer.
“That’s how I got into cooking and baking,” she says. “When the kids were going to school and at night when they were asleep, I took classes. I enrolled myself in culinary school. When we were younger, my mom used to watch Julia Child and I loved the fact that she was cooking and that she was drinking liquor. And I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that's great. You drink alcohol and you cook.’ And when I would make dinner, I love plating and I would literally serve everyone a plated dish, with the garnishing and everything and my husband would get mad. He'd be like ‘What are you doing? Give me my food!’”
A late start to cooking as a career
Eventually, when she was in her late 40s, Castillo realized that she wanted to pursue cooking and baking as a career. She managed to land an interview with Sugar Factory in Los Angeles to become the restaurant’s pastry chef. But while waiting for a definitive answer, a friend told her about the opening for a pastry chef for Yamashiro.
A restaurant with spectacular city views that has been around for decades, Yamashiro was familiar to Castillo because that’s where her (now-ex) husband took her on their first date. Aware that she was hopelessly underqualified for such an important post, she went anyway and presented a few of her dessert creations to a panel that included the restaurant’s owners.
Yamashiro's Cowboy Steak for Two features a 36oz bone-in Ribeye marinated in smoked Shoyu & Garlic and topped with GrilledOctopus, Jumbo Shrimp, and Broccolini
“I didn’t even bring a resume,” she says. “I made them an ube panna cotta, a mango souffle, a calamansi tart with blueberry. And I made them a cake. I don't remember now what the cake was. I just like using a lot of our own ingredients."
To her surprise, the panel asked her, “When can you start?” A 49-year-old mother without any full-time restaurant experience had gotten the job of pastry chef in a Los Angeles institution right then and there.
Despite initial hesitations about taking on such a monumental job, Castillo found herself saying yes. But that was only the beginning of what would turn out to be a hellish first few months.
As the only female member of the kitchen crew, Castillo says she was bullied by the old-timers at the restaurant.
“We had one person take their hands and scrape my cake on the top,” she says. “(The sushi chef) would not give me avocados because I wanted to make tuna tartare. I asked for tuna they said we don't have that much. But we were a fucking big restaurant, we had tuna. When I talk to the vendors, they told me I gotta ask the executive chef first. One day, I got so pissed off at sushi because they used my station and there was fried batter everywhere. And then there was one Saturday when I came in excited to try out new recipes. And my sink was completely wrapped with cellophane. And I'm like, What the hell is this?!”
“So for me, it was so hard,” she adds. “They didn't respect me. The line cooks would call me ‘Hey.’ I'm like, ‘My name's not Hey. And they're like, ‘Chica.’ I'm like, 'I'm not Chica.' They would never call me chef.”
Yamashiro has amazing views of the Los Angeles skyline
An unexpected promotion
Castillo says she endured the bullying and the disrespect, kept her head down, and just did the work. She worked every day and didn’t take days off for six months, until she was promoted to executive sous chef.
Five days into her new role, the pandemic hit.
“We got the word that we were closed that day,” she says. “Everyone was getting sick. All the managers had to come in the following day. I was like, this is it, I'm gonna get fired.”
Everyone was called one by one to a little room while the rest waited downstairs. Each of the chefs would go in and then come out, angry and cussing. The executive chef was so mad he went into his office, took equipment and went home. Castillo was called in last.
Expecting the worst, Castillo started by thanking the owners for giving her a chance. In her head, she was panicking because she had only been at work for six months and she knew that wasn’t enough experience to get hired anywhere else.
But she got the shock of her life when the bosses told her, “Chef we'd like you to run the kitchen.”
“I'm like, ‘What kitchen?’”
The owners asked Castillo to pick two staff members as they were going to keep the restaurant open for delivery or to-go orders, which was how many restaurants survived the first few months of the pandemic.
When she came down, some of the chefs who were let go were still there and asked her if she got her last check. When she said the restaurant was keeping her, the others got even angrier.
“One guy goes, ‘I'm gonna sue you.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, great.’”
Castillo says the reason they kept her around was because she showed grit and potential.
“They didn’t teach me anything, I took the reins by myself,” she says. “I taught myself everything: how to do the timesheet, the paperwork, everything.
“I just started showing them good work,” she adds. “There's one day that I was cooking, and I offered it to the (head) chef. He goes, ‘Oh, where did you get this?’
“I said, ‘I made it.’ And he goes, ‘You're a chef?’
“Well yes, I went to culinary school! I have a degree in culinary.’
‘Yes, I do.’
She made the owners try her food and they, too, were impressed.
“They said, ‘We want to give you a chance to just take and see what you can do with the kitchen.’”
It was a tough few weeks during the height of the pandemic; there was even a point when they had to let the two staff members go and it was just Castillo left alone in the kitchen. But she persevered, often working by herself fulfilling orders that came in via food delivery apps. Yamashiro finally reopened to dine-in patrons in June 2021.
Chef Val with Journey singer Arnel Pineda
A new path for female chefs
Before then, Castillo took it upon herself to announce to the world that the restaurant had, in fact, a new executive chef—the first woman and the first Filipino-American to take on the coveted position.
On the restaurant’s official Instagram page—which Castillo herself was also handling—the chef posted this message:
“As we bid goodbye to women's history month, we would like to celebrate our fearless leader, Chef Valerie Castillo-Archer. She is not only the first female executive chef of our kitchen, but also the first Filipino-American to lead Yamashiro. We not only celebrate her leadership that steered us through the pandemic but also applaud her courage to light a new path for other female chefs all over the country.”
As executive chef, Castillo had free rein to do as she pleased with the restaurant’s menu. Although she kept the Japanese part, especially with the sushi, she also introduced new items that showed off not just her culinary chops but also her heritage.
“I put pansit in the menu but I called it rice noodles,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “And then our lumpia is egg rolls. I just knocked things in. I made adobo. I would do specials. And then I did a secret menu, called Chef’s Val’s Secret Menu. I made sisig once. I made dinuguan once. I also made kaldereta and once made sinigang but with lobster.
“I have to put a twist on it because it's very difficult to make a really traditional Filipino dish, although I'm one of those chefs that wants traditional Filipino food,” she adds. “I wanted to make beef steak so I used American wagyu.”
Because the restaurant is located in Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, celebrities coming to visit and dine is a regular occurrence. Castillo namechecks people like Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, Jojo Siwa, Paris Hilton, H.E.R., Jennifer Hudson, Jo Koy, and many more. Of course, when there are Filipino celebrities passing through Los Angeles, many of them stop by Yamashiro especially now that they know that the executive chef is a Filipino.
“Martin Nievera came by and I asked him to sing to me and he did,” she says. “Vice Ganda and Sharon Cuneta have both stopped by.” Castillo is friends with comedian Jo Koy and textmates with actor Piolo Pascual.
Chef Val gets teary-eyed trying the goto prepared by the chefs of Sheraton Hotel Manila
Castillo says the dream now is to open her own restaurant right here in Manila. In the meantime, she says she is enjoying what she does and is proud of what she’s been able to accomplish.
“No matter how hard my life was, the divorces I went through, and the arguments that I had with my parents and all of that, where I am today, I would never undo what happened,” Castillo says. “I would never change anything because it led me to who and where I am today.
“I actually love my job,” she adds. “I mean, I don't even want to stay home because there’s so much that I want to do there. It's such a beautiful restaurant. I can describe it to you and you can look at pictures, but when you're there, the view of the sunset. It's beautiful.”