Many of my peers consider me a foodie, though I suspect that’s mainly because I take pictures of my food, go on Yelp a lot, and follow a bunch of chefs on Twitter. Sadly, the truth is that while I love food, I have very little skill in actual cooking. Joelen Tan is a bit more legitimate: she not only takes pictures of dishes she’d actually made herself., but she does so daily and posts her recipes up on her blog “What’s Cookin, Chicago?”
To be fair, Joelen does have a good amount of experience in the kitchen under her belt. She is the head chef of Three R’s Filipino Café in Chicago and has competed in Adobofest with her pineapple Tropical Adobo. She also organized the “What’s Cookin, Chicago?” Meetup Group that hosts frequent dinners, food tours, and cooking classes, and it has grown to be the largest and most active cooking and recipe group on meetup.com. We asked Joelen about her Pilipino background has shaped her work and Pilipino food’s place in today’s American cuisine.
BakitWhy.com: You seem to have dishes from just about every ethnicity and background in your repertoire, but you do seem to focus professionally on Pilipino food. What role does your cultural background have on your work today?
Joelen Tan: Growing up with Pilipino caterers as parents meant I would eat Pilipino food for every meal, every day. Having non-Pilipino food was a special treat in our house! As I got older, I developed an interest in learning about other cultures and cuisines since it opened up a whole new world to me. Now, I enjoy preparing a balance of cuisines from various cultures for my family in addition to traditional Pilipino dishes. My work as a Pilipino chef allows me to stay grounded to my cultural roots while still having the ability to expand my culinary perspective with other cultural cuisines.
BW: What kind of food is most popular in your house? It seems like you have a new dish lined up every day!
JT: Pilipino food is and will always be the most popular in our house! Although my site reflects dishes from various ethnic cuisines daily, behind the scenes, I still make traditional "ulam" including chicken adobo, pancit, sinigang, lumpia, 'silogs, etc. As for the new dishes featured on my site, preparing dishes from various ethnic cuisines allows my family to taste the world and learn about other cultures - something I had to learn later in life. I'd rather have my son learn through food early on and not wait until high school like I did!
BW: Why do you think Pilipino food has yet to achieve the mainstream appeal that just about every other Asian country's cuisine has?
JT: I've been asked this question often from non-Pilipino friends... and my answer is always the same. To me, Pilipino food is truly a home cuisine. This means that the best Pilipino food isn't found in restaurants around town but rather in the home of a fellow Pilipino. Secondly, I've met and know of very few Pilipino who have a restaurant with the goal of making our cuisine part of the mainstream. Lastly, I think being able to market Pilipino cuisine is extremely important, especially today in the age of social media. Some Pilipino restaurant owners may not have a good grasp of social media to really get the word out. However, all this is not to say Filipino cuisine won't ever be a mainstream cuisine. I'm seeing the trends of Pilipino food in California taking off, especially with the food truck revolution that California Pilipino have embraced.
BW: Chicago has quickly become a world-class city with regards to food and restaurants. What contribution would you like to make to that?
JT: I would love to help Chicago embrace and understand Pilipino cuisine and culture. Hopefully my current presence within the social and culinary circles of Chicago will draw folks in.
BW: You've scored a hit with "What's Cookin, Chicago", the most active MeetUp.com culinary group, and you're a very active blogger. Almost every chef, restaurant, and food truck has a social media presence as well. What value do you see in social media?
JT: Social media allows folks to connect to businesses and that connection is critical. Without it, a business won't survive. It allows a chef, restaurant, food truck, etc to be known beyond word of mouth.... and these days, it can even make or break a business.
BW: What survival advice do you have for a bachelor whose fridge solely contains some Sriracha and Dr. Pepper?
JT: I suggest finding a significant other than can cook or have a list of nearby delivery services handy. :)
Be sure to follow Joelen on her culinary adventures either online, or in person if you’re in the Chicago area!