Barya Kitchen: Reflecting Filipino Stories Through Food
“Me and my partner Frankie used to host these taste-test dinners for friends. At the time, I wanted to make “American” food. Fried chicken with red beans and rice, or braised short ribs over polenta. The food was good, but it wasn’t anything special. It just didn’t feel like it best represented me as a cook.”
Rod Reyes, chef and creator of Barya Kitchen, stresses the importance of food reflecting our stories – who we are, where we come from – in creating memorable and authentic eating experiences.
“In the summer of 2017, my mother passed, from cancer. My mother was known as the cook – not just for my immediate family. She cooked for all the family gatherings, from birthdays, graduations, to holidays. My sisters and I would assist with prep work in the kitchen. When I was in middle school I took home economics and learned basic cooking skills. Eventually, that turned into a lot of cooking for my family, friends and myself. So I’ve always enjoyed cooking for others though, for as long as I can remember. And as a form of coping with my mother’s death, I would try to replicate the dishes that she taught me, or dishes that she would make for the family. I found myself tweaking recipes and turning them into my own re-interpretations,” Rod says.
Experimenting with his mother’s recipes got friends excited what he was creating, and eventually Rod’s network produced an opportunity for him to do a pop-up dinner at Hometown Heroes in South San Francisco – the genesis of what’s now Barya Kitchen.
“At that point, I realized I’d known my niche the whole time – the food that I grew up eating, my comfort food. Since then, we’ve been doing pop-ups between San Jose and San Francisco,” Rod says.
Rod also points out the influence of his Filipino-American upbringing on the way he’s interpreted his mother’s recipes and techniques, and how he tends to view his cooking as something that’s not restricted to traditions, and exists as a way forward for the food that’s so crucial to his identity and that of Barya Kitchen.
“It wasn’t always JUST Filipino food for us. My younger sister and I were first-generation US born, so it was a lot of back and forth from Filipino food and American food. Growing up in the Bay Area, we were exposed to all kinds of different cuisines, from eating at restaurants to eating at friend’s houses, where they came from different backgrounds. I think it starts with being curious and having that openness to be wiling to learn new things. I’ve always been an observer, so even before realizing that I enjoyed cooking, I would watch how my mom, dad, and grand parents put together the dishes that they would cook,” Rod says.
Still, Rod traces careful connection back to community and its central role in the purpose of Barya Kitchen and of Filipino food – a vehicle for people to gather around a shared feeling of enjoyment and togetherness.
“Food brings people together. In a sense, food equals community. Food, especially in the Filipino culture, is the major staple of community life. It ties every aspect of ‘community’ together. Filipinos are some of the most hospitable and giving people you will ever meet, and if you ever step foot into a Filipino home, 100 percent of the time there’s going to be something offered to eat. It is an absolute standard in Filipino culture, across the lines of class, religion, and even nationality,” Rod says.
It’s a refreshingly pan-Filipino perspective that finds its way onto every plate that comes out of Barya Kitchen, informed by an understanding of what Filipino people can create for themselves, even if the place they call home is far from the Philippines.
“We’re no longer caught up in trying to be ‘American.’ Barya Kitchen is a reinterpretation of and re-connection with traditional Filipino cuisine – and it is just a small part of a larger shift. It isn’t just in the food – it’s in the music, dance, and art. It’s re-embracing what was once lost, but no longer is. Our food represents the diversity of our heritage and all the different influences that made us Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. Seeing all the new Filipino chefs pushing the envelope with a cuisine I grew up eating, and cooking dishes outside of established formats, and thinking outside the box – how can that not get your gears turning? It’s just amazing.”
Written by Paul Barrera. Photos by Albert Law.