Emerging from clouds of fragrant barbecue smoke masking the crowd at Pacific Cocktail Haven on Sutter, Chef Francis Ang of Pinoy Heritage, in shorts and an apron, projects a calming energy that seems to quiet the overwhelming din of the popular happy-hour haunt. He shakes hands, offers a quick smile, then shrugs.
“So I guess I’ll just fire away. You aren’t allergic to anything, right?” he says casually, and turns back for the kitchen, expertly skating through the amoebic crowd toward the kitchen steps, nestled in a crook between the bar and lounge.
Minutes later, the first plate arrives: corn with crab fat butter and salted duck egg powder, flanked by bistec skewers -- garnished with preserved calamansi -- and chicken inasal with marinated cucumbers and pickled garlic. A second plate presents grilled figs with chorizo and purslane mixed greens, beside Francis’ lobster pancit, followed by the third course: sisig fried rice with pickled onions, topped with a perfectly poached egg. Soon after, Francis reappears at the table with slightly disheveled hair and his hands on his hips, nodding thoughtfully at our scraped-clean plates before sitting down to talk about the history of his project -- rooted in a strong sense of duty and service to the Filipino community.
“My wife and I went back to the Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan, so about 2013, and we were stuck there, we got hit by the typhoon, we were like spot on where the typhoon made landfall. So we did a small fundraiser there, and then we came back to San Frncisco and put on a full-on fundraiser at The Fifth Floor, where I was the pastry chef. We did an all-Filipino dinner with a bunch of Filipino friends, and a bunch of restaurants supported, and a lot of people came out as well, and that kind of triggered us to do what’s become Pinoy Heritage.”
The project’s name genuinely reflects the Pinoy Heritage team’s dedication to a thorough, ongoing examination of the Filipino kitchen and its countless iterations across the islands of the Philippines.
“We've been back to the Philippines twice recently: the first time was six months, last year, and this year we are at two-and-a-half months. We have been traveling to different regions, learning the cuisine, and learning how things are prepared. It means a lot because we get to express our country's food: it's not 100 percent per se, because we are doing it with California ingredients.”
It’s a demanding research process that Francis, through his education, is familiar with and thus happy to undertake -- but it also serves as to inform Francis’ main space of self-expression.
“Obviously, our grandparents are big influences on our food, but honestly, cooking ... I don't know. There's no real reason I started. I went to the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines for Food Technology, then I came out here and went straight to culinary school. I didn't study anything else. So I have been cooking ever since I was, I don't know, 19? And then I have always cooked both savory and pastry, but since I went to culinary school, I met this pastry chef/instructor Mark Hobson, he's really talented, he opened my eyes to how you can be artistic, because I can't really sing, or dance, or do any other artistic stuff, and I realized that cooking was an outlet for my creativity.”
Today, part of satisfying that creative impulse means engaging with larger currents surrounding Filipino food culture and, Francis says, working to turn his personal expression into work that benefits his community.
“The Filipino food movement is kind of a wake-up call, you know, since Filipino food sort of blew up and it happened, it just kind of woke up a bunch of Filipinos. It's time for us to open our own joints, it's time to do Filipino food because it's like -- why can't we get good Filipino food in the City? Right now, it's there in small pockets, but it's not obvious. And it just makes sense that we want to try to open something and be part of that, and grow Filipino cuisine to where it is more accessible.”
At the same time, Francis sees that growth as going hand-in-hand with a perspective that looks beyond simply serving “Filipino food.”
“I don't see what I am doing as solely Filipino food -- I am trying to compete with the rest of the good restaurants in the City. It's not just like, I want to be better than X restaurant -- I want to be like Liho Liho Yacht Club, it's packed every day, I want to be like State Bird Provisions. It's not just good Filipino food that's my goal. It’s a good restaurant.”
Francis’ crazy delicious offerings at UNDISCOVERED will include barbecue skewers, from-scratch pancit, and sisig fried rice.
“UNDISCOVERED is great exposure for Filipino culture. Because a lot of people have no idea where the Philippines is, let alone how to spell it! So that's going to be a wake-up call, and then they are going to realize how good Filipino food is, and everybody is going to go eat Filipino food more than any other cuisine. Just kidding!"