“Why would you put dilis in spaghetti? That's so weird. Spaghetti is supposed to have ketchup and hot dogs in it, why are you putting dried fish in it!”
Jeff Defensor laughs and slaps the countertop in a glass-windowed, sterile prep kitchen overlooking the Plaza Del Sol in Downtown Sunnyvale. He’s just served us multiple helpings of his signature arrozcaldo, layered with spring onions and fried garlic-panko breadcrumbs, and topped with fresh salmon roe in place of the traditional patis -- an elevated and elegant preparation of a traditional dish that, he says, encapsulates the culinary goals of his Filipino food venture, The Wooden Table.
“We have all the ingredients in a Filipino kitchen that can translate directly to, say, a high-brow Italian dish -- like anchovies or dried salted fish, sardines, spaghetti -- to create a pasta dish similar to what you might find on the Amalfi coast. So that is super authentic to me -- like, I created this, it's based on my experiences, and it's using ingredients from the Filipino kitchen.”
It’s these personal experiences as a Filipino-American that Jeff and his wife, Rosellia Defensor, felt compelled to build into their menu after a trip to South America inspired the project’s genesis. Despite a relative lack of experience as restauranteurs, they sought to provide diners not just a sense of their tastes as individuals, but an insight into their uniquely Filipino identities.
“We went to this underground restaurant in Peru and this guy was doing amazing things: he was growing his own herbs, foraging, and had really interesting ingredients. It was him and his wife, and they were traveling the world doing this stuff. So we were super inspired by what they were doing for Peruvian cuisine. Most of their clientele were tourists. We said, "You know what, we could do this for Filipino food, and actually use it to introduce the flavor profile to a broader audience back home in the States.”
For Jeff, seeking that broader audience meant tapping into his previous experience as a marketing executive and using that perspective to inform his exploration of Filipino cuisine.
“Tuning into the audience, it's a fine line between, you know, creatively what I want to do -- and I think that's been the trouble with Filipino food. It's thought to be 'exotic,' right? A lot of the flavors are so unique ... it doesn't look like anything people may have had before, and it doesn't taste like anything you may have had before, so acceptance is a little hard to come by. Add to that, Filipino has a reputation for being like street-food based, or like pulutan. Or, you know, not seen as wholesome, like the powdered mixes, Mama Sita's sauce, corned beef,
Spam -- things that Filipinos regard as a deep part of our culture, to the broader American public they are kind of seen as, well, cheap."
It’s a reputation that Jeff is adamantly working against, and a mission that he sees lining up perfectly with the current Filipino food trend and larger awareness on the community and its rich culture.
“I think that might be what separates us, in that we're not trying to elevate from the bottom, but we're trying to start from the top. Our aspirations are to be the first, if not one of the first, Michelin-rated Filipino restaurants in the world. Or at least start the race, right? Inspire other people to do the same. We want this rising tide to lift everyone's boats up -- and it's not just going to happen in food, it’s going to happen across the culture. The food is just vehicle for accomplishing better things for Filipinos in general.”
It’s a vehicle he’s very interested in modifying through his personal experiences -- not just for the benefit of the culture, but for the benefit of the individual diner.
“I went to the Philippines and you're so close to your food, there. They have this unhusked rice, only because they don't have a way of reliably separating the husk from the rice. But it adds this nuttiness that's -- it's just fresh rice, right? The husk just adds a different sort of flavor, like it's roasted. And they dry it in the sun, and cook it right after. So we roast the rice with cornmeal, and it gives it kind of that nuttiness -- but it’s fake!” he says.
It’s this concept of authenticity that he sees as a major preoccupation at The Wooden Table, a path for his food to pursue what he feels are authentic Filipino-American flavors.
“Canned corned beef? That's not traditional Filipino food at all. But when I put dilis in spaghetti, people balk at it and say that it's not Filipino food, and how could you call this FIlipino food, at all? I don't even use olive oil! I try to keep it as pure as possible, as pure to the Filipino kitchen as possible. I am using butter, right? I just starting using margarine! I use butter, and I use vinegar. And that's a true experience, a true expression of Filipino food as I see it, but people say it's not authentic which I find highly offensive, because it truly is authentic. Maybe it's not traditional, but maybe that's what we should be talking about. Is this traditional, is it not, and does that matter? Or is authenticity really what you are going after?”
These are questions that Jeff is excited to answer via The Wooden Table’s menu at the UNDSCVRD Night Market.
“So we are definitely going to do the arrozcaldo, we are going to do a wholesome Sinigang, made classically with a green tamarind, and we are going to do one with pork belly, braised a long time, and shaved thin like you would find in a ramen. And we think it's going to be perfect for the night market. Also, we are going to do like a Mexican Hot Chocolate Ovaltine. So we are going to do like childhood hits, like a Tang spritzer served in a plastic bag, or something like that. Elevate the classics, and really get people to know what it's like to grow up Filipino, and the Filipino experience.”