Filipino-American Flair at The Wooden Table
“People ask me, '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 prep kitchen overlooking the Plaza Del Sol in Downtown Sunnyvale. He’s just served us multiple helpings of his signature Arroz Caldo, layered with spring onions and fried garlic-panko breadcrumbs, and topped with fresh salmon roe in place of patis -- a preparation of a traditional dish that he says encapsulates the culinary goals of his Filipino food venture, The Wooden Table.
“It's fascinating to me that we have all the ingredients in a Filipino kitchen that can translate directly to, say, an 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. I love to create food like that, the kind that makes you wonder why those ingredients never met in a Filipino dish.”
It’s these personal -- and decidedly Filipino-American -- experiences that Jeff, wife Rosiella Defensor, and friend/businesspartner Aimee Buenviaje felt compelled to build into a menu after they all took a trip to South America. 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 Argentina in 2008, and this guy was doing amazing things with Peruvian food: he was growing his own herbs, and foraging some 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 Argentine 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. That's when The Wooden Table was born.”
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.
“We've been doing private dinners since 2011, but now we're trying to bring Filipino food to a new audience. The challenge we face is a lot of the flavors are unique and some can be challenging for the uninitiated, like heavy vinegar notes, salted fish, shrimp paste, bitterness. Add to that, Filipino has a reputation for being street-food based, or like pulutan. Or, you know, not seen as wholesome, like the powdered tamarind mixes, corned beef, Spam, Vienna sausages -- things that are part of our childhoods, but to the broader public they are kind of seen as, well, cheap."
It’s a reputation that The Wooden Table team is adamantly working against, an effort that Jeff sees as a direct, community-focused response to recent national attention on the Filipino food 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 and inspire other people to do the same. We want to be part of a tide that lifts all boats -- 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, the provinces, and you're so close to your food, there. Animals are being dispatched right outside your bedroom window. Rice is drying on bamboo mats on the basketball courts. 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 nothing beats the real thing!” 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.
“Spam? 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. Just short of using margarine, I use butter. 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 what gives food soul?”
These are questions that Jeff is excited to answer via The Wooden Table’s menu at the UNDSCVRD Night Market.
“We are definitely going to do the Arroz Caldo. Also, we are going to do our version of a Mexican Hot Chocolate, made with Ovaltine and topped with roasted marshmallows. So we are going to create our childhood hits, like a Tang spritzer served in a plastic bag, or something like that. True to the The Wooden Table's style, we'll elevate the classics, and use food to give people a taste of what it's like to grow up Filipino.”