The Sarap Shop’s Filipino-American Dream
“I got yelled at, I didn't know any lingo, and they put me in charge of one of the dishes for brunch! It was like a fritto misto, so it was like tempura-fried vegetables. I was like, ‘Oh man, what am I doing here!’”
Kristen Brillantes gives a hearty smile as her partner JP Reyes recounts his door-to-door search for his first job as a cook just five years ago, something he pursued after a realization common among young Americans took hold in their relationship: both he and Kristen wanted to redefine what role 'work' played in their lives.
“Everyday we would take BART together and eventually, we had a discussion about what we really wanted. The conversation ended with a not-so-gentle nudge to go after what he was most curious about — cooking. I didn't think he was really going to quit his job, but then he did that day! And he knocked on different restaurant doors in Jackson Square, asking, 'Can I work here for the day?' And then he ended up working that first shift at Cotogna, and made a ton of mistakes!” Kristen says.
The intensity of the experience only fueled JP’s curiosity about the restaurant industry, and together, he and Kristen quickly began exploring how to use food to pave a new path toward a project closer to the heart.
“After the first gig, they said, ‘Just read up in some books, but the best way to learn is to be hands on, learning in the kitchen.’ And I would watch my mom cook every now and then, but mainly Kristen's mom was the one I got close with, and we started cooking together and I was learning from her.”
It was a learning process that Kristen quickly joined in on, something she says is not just a direct outgrowth of her professional education outside of food, but also a reflection of her and JP’s shared values of relationship-building and community.
“I got interested in cooking mostly because my mom and JP were spending a lot of time together cooking, always hanging out without me, and they wouldn't let me in the kitchen! I said, "Teach me!" And I have always been involved professionally in team development and organizational behavior. So I wanted to explore how we could be supportive partners to one another, where our relationship isn't just romantic. We should be in a position where we know what each other's individual goals are, and support that. We wanted to build a business where, if you are spending all of these hours working, you might as well spend it with people you want to be spending time with ," Kristen says.
Kristen cites this familial, communal energy as a key aspect of The Sarap Shop, and a reflection of the decidedly Filipino values built into its menu of fiesta favorites, including adobo, reflection of the decidedly Filipino values built into its menu of fiesta favorites, including adobo, tofu sisig, and a vegan laing (taro leaves stewed in coconut milk).
“They say what makes Filipino food Filipino is that it's always cooked form the heart, and that's why it's so different from house to house to house. So when we were making our menu, we were cooking all the favorite things that people in our lives like to eat. For the tofu sisig, my brother's girlfriend is vegetarian, and sometimes there isn’t something for everyone on [Filipino menus]. And that's not the vibe I've ever felt growing up in a Filipino home. Everyone should feel loved and feel welcome through the food. So I guess we have signature dishes, but I think the loving intention is what we try to portray as our signature thing. That our menu is inclusive so everyone feels like you were meant to eat here with us,” Kristen says.
At the same time, she says that The Sarap Shop’s roots in traditional Filipino values are far from stagnant, and that the project’s emphasis is on a progression that seeks to further refine what it means to be Filipino-American, in and out of the kitchen.
“Being American, it's a salad bowl. Everything should retain its own identity and character, but when you put it together, it elevates everything, so we try to keep that in perspective. [You take] all the stuff your parents taught you, and evolve from that, and I think that's the link to American values. There is a new generation of [Filipino-Americans] interested in conscious living, and community -- there is a communal aspect to living and business that feels less stressful, and I feel like events like UNDISCOVERED can model to older generations and to future generations that you don’t have to do it alone. You can share resources, and everyone can succeed, and there is enough success to go around,” Kristen says.
It’s a uniquely Filipino-American philosophy that she feels is reflected in the UNDSCVRD Night Market, where visitors can sample The Sarap Shop’s famous laing and adobo, as well as pick up bottles of their house-made spicy condiment, Ahy! Sauce.