“Like most other Filipinos, my mother wanted me to be a doctor. But halfway through pre-med, I realized that was not what I wanted. So I had to break it to her, and she didn’t take it well: she said, ‘Fine if you don’t want to be a doctor, you should be a nurse.’”
Yana Gilbuena, chef and creator of the itinerant and immensely popular Salo Series pop-up dinners, traveled a great distance on her journey to culinary cool – a path that spans multiple career arcs and continents, and sees the passion of youth blossom into a cultural touch-point for Filipino America.
“Growing up, my grandmother had our cooks show me how to go to the market and shop for a menu, how to make charcoal and make fire in the outdoor kitchen. And my aunt was the one who really gave me a different perspective on cooking. For her, cooking was something that you do for pleasure. And when I moved to the United States, I felt very uprooted mainly because it wasn’t necessarily my choice to move here — and it was primarily my mom’s. Coming home and cooking was like therapy. It helped me bring back memories of growing up with my grandma. Just being able to focus on one task and then be able to create something is instant gratification,” she says.
Raised in the Filipino kitchen through her cultured childhood, Yana’s next steps reconcile her education, her early career, and her passion for communicating the stories and dishes that sustained her upbringing.
“I had a major car accident when I was 23, and that got me thinking that if I had died, what would have been my legacy, what would have been my impact on people? So I switched gears and went back to school to study architecture, and I was in the design industry for about 7 years, designing kitchens and baths and furniture designs, eventually moving to New York where I was moonlighting for a blog. They gave me all the food assignments, and I realized after attending a few pop-up dinners that a lot of them lacked a genuine sense of culture. I felt that there was an opportunity to do Filipino food in a way that for me was truly in the style of ‘Home,’” she says.
For Yana, the sense of ‘home’ constitutes a critical aspect of both the Salo Series project and her approach to food as a philosophy, espoused in her recently published Kamayan cookbook, No Forks Given. It’s a straightforward approach to cooking that stresses nourishing the spirits of the people around the table, as well as the pleasing their palates.
“I see food as a way to express your identity and who you are. There is no hard definition of what Filipino food is – each person who cooks Filipino food is part of the tapestry of what Filipino food is. Together, we make this bigger picture that’s so diverse and so beautiful,” she says.
Girded by a strong sense of community, the Salo Series project stands for much more than tasty, authentic Filipino food, presenting each dish as a site of interaction with the journey of a chef – and the histories that built her skills, passions, and perspectives.
“Filipinos have been in the Bay Area for so long, but we haven’t been able to fully express our heritage. And I am glad that SOMA Pilipinas is helping bring that to the forefront and highlight not just Filipino-Americans in SF, but the longstanding connections we have as a people across the diaspora as well as The Philippines.”
Written by Paul Barrera. Photography by Albert Law.