Winnipeg Chefs showcase Filipino cuisine in contemporary culinary works of art at pop-up dinner events.
by Teena Legris
A transformation has taken place. Hours after the close of regular service, a restaurant space is awash in dim, moody lighting, the air buzzing with anticipation. Eager diners who marked their calendars weeks in advance find seats at communal tables. Behind the scenes, a team of distinguished chefs are feverishly putting the finishing touches on tonight’s masterpiece, a foray into contemporary Filipino cuisine. This is the art of the pop-up.
Part food experience and part exclusive social event, pop-up dinners bring fine dining to a temporary location. For young upstart chefs, this model offers a practical way to build a culinary business without capital expense of a permanent venue. But to plan an elaborate event at a lightning pace – diners often get less than two months’ notice via social media platforms – a chefs’ talents must go beyond the kitchen. Precision and efficiency must match culinary expertise as they scout venues, stage the scene, build high end multi-course menus, and adapt to unpredictability.
This unconventional approach has been the key to kickstarting a Filipino food movement for chefs Allan Pineda and Jeremy Senaris.
For Allan, a self-professed incubator of new ideas and ventures, a love of world cultures and a desire to support culinary colleagues, spurred action beyond the traditional restaurant format. After 20 years of refining his craft in various kitchens —The Mitchell Block, Merchant Kitchen, and In Ferno’s, as well as his own ventures, Kimch’i Cafe and the Baon Bistro Food Truck and Catering Service — Allan and his wife Amanda developed their first pop-up dinner series Baon Manila Nights in 2015 to market Filipino food to the masses. The series gained a quick following that prompted additional monthly dinners and multiple culinary projects. The focus on Filipino fare meant giving others like him the opportunity to explore their cultural heritage. “I wanted to give all these great chefs an outlet to make food they grew up on and to create something different from what they were doing at their current jobs,” he says.
Allan and Jeremy’s paths crossed in Winnipeg’s close-knit Filipino community, and the two bonded over mutual respect and similar career aspirations. Though trained as an engineer, Jeremy was propelled into the spotlight when he became a top contender on the 2016 season of CTV’s MasterChef. Suddenly, the dishes inspired by his mother’s traditional Filipino cooking were being broadcast on national TV. A keen eye and immaculate preparation and presentation fuelled his transition into a full-time career as a private chef and pop-up aficionado with his own dinner series, called LASA.
I wanted to give all these great chefs an outlet to make food they grew up on and to create something different..
“I’ve been fortunate to connect with all kinds of people since entering the hospitality industry full-time,” Jeremy says. “The amount of support our city and the Filipino community has shown me has been outstanding.”
At the heart of both chefs’ cooking is a desire to honour their roots: the comforting, complex flavours that grace the tables of many Filipino-Canadian homes, have yet to take hold in fine dining restaurant settings.
From a palate of traditional ingredients like pork belly, ube (purple yam), coconut, garlicky adobo sauce – and more, come artfully contemporary creations. The Philippines’ prime trade location colonial past produces a cuisine inflected with Spanish, Chinese, and Indian tastes — elements that provide a beautiful canvas for chefs to boldy infuse blends with familiar favourites.
“A lot of young Filipino chefs raised in North America have started evolving our cuisine with modern techniques,” says Jeremy, a complement he says helps make the dishes “more relatable and intriguing to people who have never experienced Filipino cuisine.”
Together and independently, Allan and Jeremy collaborate with local chefs, MasterChef competitors, Top Chef winners and Beat Bobby Flay contestants. Their dinner events feature some of the city’s best chefs. “Many of our dinners are a union between influential chefs with various cultural backgrounds. Chefs from New York, Seattle, London, and Vancouver,” says Allan. “Our dinner destinations also go abroad to Calgary, Oakland, San Francisco, Vancouver, London, England – wherever the road takes us.”
Allan and Jeremy adhere to a commitment to support Winnipeg’s community, seeing the dining events as an opportunity to add a dash of philanthropy to the pop-up mix. Fifty per cent of ticket sale proceeds are donated toward charities such as the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation and Special Olympics Manitoba.
2018 will be another busy year for these palate pleasing pop artists. Their monthly dinner series will continue in conjunction with multiple collaborations with one slated for Sydney, Australia. Allan’s new web-based series, “WTF” (Where’s The Food Winnipeg) premieres in February and highlights three venues in one night. Allan will be one of the Canadian-Filipino chefs featured in the upcoming cookbook, The New Filipino Kitchen, which chronicles the immigrant stories and recipes of Filipino chefs and food writers.
In addition to his private chef gigs and LASA series, Jeremy is developing exclusive pop-ups throughout the year including a 10-course Omakase menu collaboration with one of Winnipeg’s elite chefs.
It’s a far cry from the family-style eating of their youth, but at the heart of both Allan and Jeremy’s impeccable cooking, is that same warmth and love of flavour.