The Hella Healthy Mission of Oakland’s No Worries
“I was in high school when my mother had a heart attack. The doctors told her it was stress and diet-related.” Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao’s voice is stern as he relays how a deep concern for his mother’s health set off a series of events that led to his fully vegan Filipino project, No Worries.
“My way of trying to help my mom was going vegetarian. And telling her that I just wasn't going to eat any meat, because I thought that was the best thing for her. And I basically was trying to coerce her to cook healthier for everyone by going vegetarian. Which basically worked -- she started cooking healthier, she is actually the one who found the meat alternatives that I use, like all the soy proteins, the tofu, the Seitan. She is the one that found these alternatives, and so ever since she started using them in Filipino dishes -- you know, the first time she used it in a Filipino dish, I was almost mad at her, I was like, "Mom, what is this, I told you I am vegetarian!" And you know, she showed me the packet of what she was using, which wasn't meat, and I was just kind of blown away because I was eating it and it was our flavor, but it wasn't meat.”
For Jay-Ar, both the practice of cooking and the practice of not eating meat quickly evolved into more than just methods for a healthier family lifestyle -- and it’s a mindset that he’s tried to build into the No Worries ethos since he started the project as a high-schooler in Oakland, 18 years ago.
“It was just something I knew I had to spread. I was really into vegetarianism at the time -- you know, aside from being passionate about trying to get my family healthy, I was really into the benefits of being vegetarian. So you know, it was borne out of, "You know what, I need to help my family get healthy. I feel like I can get in the kitchen," but it wasn't really my passion until I started doing it. When I started doing it, it just became something I loved. Feeding people delicious and healthy food is something I love, knowing the benefits of vegetarianism, and if I can allow someone to eat one meatless meal, that's something I love. And so these are things that became a part of cooking for me, you know, so it wasn't something that I knew I was passionate about until I started doing it.”
He also stresses the evolution of his passion and mission, initially growing out of a desire to expand the palates and health consciousness of his own Filipino community while also understanding No Worries as a project that pursues positive outcomes for the entire planet.
“Early on, I was trying to prove to my Filipino community that [No Worries] was Filipino food. It was a little bit backwards because I wasn't trying to feed all people. I was trying to take care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, care of my community by showing them what was healthy, but traditional. So I wasn't out there, like, "Hey [everybody], look! This is the new wave, this is Filipino food! It wasn't like that at all." It was more intimate. And it was a more traditional agenda, and that was just trying to provide healthy food to my community while preserving the flavors. But what I am doing now is for the health of everyone who wants it, and really for the planet, and for animals. I mean, that's just what I have evolved to.”
But arriving at this point as a Filipino vegan restaurant -- serving popular dishes like apritada, bisteck, and lugaw that are traditionally flavored with meat -- meant dealing with skepticism about his food from the Filipino community itself, a process that, while difficult, Jay- Ar says led to a progressive, clear-headed way of thinking about his restaurant and about Filipino-American cultural identity.
“The reality is I actually endured hecka criticism, and for hella long, [Filipino] people were telling me ‘That's not Filipino food.’ And sometimes I would go to family parties, you know, my mom had to stick up for me, she had to be like, "Oh, he already ate, it's OK. He already ate." You know, my mom had my back, because she knew my ultimate goal. I was hella about that life. And then, you know, things happen, I do more markets here and there, and the vegetarian community, or I would say, Americans, started to come to [mess] with me. And to them it was exotic, but it was also, like, authentic. To me, you can look at the Philippines in general, and take one dish, and it's cooked differently in different regions. So to me, that means I have the capacity to make it mine. And when you look at it in that way, then you know, then it's like, ‘This is Filipino, because I made it.’”
That certainty around the positivity of the No Worries mission, as well as its decidedly Filipino identity, has led to opportunities where Jay-Ar is able to address the initial aim of his project -- improving the health and diet practices of the Filipino-American community.
“Eventually, when I opened my restaurant in 2010, we had a big-ass following, but it was mostly non-Filipinos. And somehow, like, different Filipino news learned about us, and then I got on Adobo Nation, and then Filipinos started coming to my restaurant, bringing their grandmothers, or being like, "Yo, my tita hella appreciates what you do." And so something clicked -- or, a realization happened for me where, I thought to myself, like I can't really try to convert people or bash people in the head. It's just -- people will come when it's their time to come. And you know, I started getting a little bit larger, and San Francisco General Hospital, Kaiser, and different health clinics started calling me, asking me to do [healthy] cooking demos, because a lot of their patients were Filipino elders! So that was crazy to me, you know, of course, a lot of nurses are Filipino, but a lot of their patients were Filipino elders, too.”
And although he keeps his Filipino heritage at the forefront of what he does in the kitchen, Jay-Ar maintains that No Worries is concerned with a goal that’s much larger than what he initially set out to do, a“I am like, 18 years strong vegan -- you know, my perspective on this is I am creating tradition at this point. I don't really care anymore what people say about, "Oh, breaking tradition, or this is not part of [Filipino food]," I don't really care about that anymore. To me, if I can get one meatless meal off of your plate, I have done my job because we have saved hella gallons of water, natural resources, an animal, and your body. So you know, that is just where I am at, so, you know, if you are asking me now what I wish to bring, I just want to bring No Worries in its most authentic mission, which is to just do good for the world, man. I want to do good for your body, the planet, the animals, that's really what I want to do.”
And he’s looking forward to sharing his take on Filipino food and culture with the visitors to UNDSCVRD.
“As a people, we are hella wealthy, we are rich with talent and culture. All of it. And to me it's an honor to be a part of it, because what I am doing is different, and to me, [with] UNDSCVRD, [we] are trying to showcase Filipinos in their dopest form, so I am hella with that.”