Header Ads

Batangueño in American Culinary Arts Dream

The driving force of the Filipino Diaspora is and has always been the search for opportunities seemingly not within reach in the motherland. For young John Carandang, things were no different. A native of Cuenca in Batangas, John left the home country as a thirteen-year old back in 2005 to live with his parents Wilfredo and Norlita in San Francisco in the United States.

He was a prodigious high school football player, seemingly destined to become one of his school’s star players. Family, however, has always come first to the Filipino; and when the call came for John to migrate, there was no recourse but to go.

The Filipino has always been a master at conquering foreign lands. He does not do it with weapons. Instead, he does it in many cases by blending right into the landscape and grasping opportunities with both hands and making a success of himself by virtue of hard work alone.

This is something that John is well into the process of achieving. Arriving in the United States in 2005, he had to cope with the inevitable conditions of being ‘fresh off the boat’ – getting used to the environment, struggling with homesickness, trying to master the language and finding a new school.

He was soon enrolled in Balboa High School in the Excelsior District of San Francisco. “It was a totally different high school experience,” John says. “It’s definitely nothing like La Salle.” The latter was the school in Batangas where John was enrolled before he migrated.

Seven years later and John is now a determined 20-year old trying to make a success of himself in the competitive world of the Culinary Arts with the same single-mindedness that he gave as a young player trying to master the game of football.

How he ended up trying to become a chef was a story in itself. “Being a Filipino,” John says, “I felt like I had to take up something medical related; but then I didn’t want to do something just because it is what I am expected to do or at least it was what the stereotype was.”

Culinary Arts was also a pragmatic choice, since “I was already working in the industry, helping out at my family’s restaurant and catering company.” Furthermore, he says, “Some people have spent hundreds of years perfecting dishes and cooking techniques and the idea of learning something new everyday was what led me to take it up.”

To pursue his goal of becoming a chef, John enrolled at the Community College of San Francisco. About the college, he says, “The program at CCSF is a lot different than any other program in the country. There are no guarantees and we put up with a lot of stresses. The industry is not like what people see on TV. It is not always glamorous. It’s long hours, hard work and it isn’t always about fame.”

Presently, he is undergoing his internship in a restaurant called Benu south of the Market District of San Francisco. Of the restaurant, John says, “It’s contemporary-American cuisine with some Asian influences. It was given 2-Michelin stars (3 being the highest) and 4-stars (the highest mark) by the San Francisco Chronicle. The chefs who work there are all of the highest level, having worked in some world renowned places like Mugaritz, Alinea, El Bulli, the French Laundry and Per Se to name a few.”

It goes without saying that there is, indeed, a glamour side to the industry. Asked if he has met any celebrity chefs, John says, “I’ve met a lot of famous chefs during my internship. Chef Thomas Keller, chef-owner of The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon to name a few. Chef Daniel Boulud, another famous chef, came by Benu once and I got to shake his hand and talk to him. And then the chef/owner I basically work for at Benu, Chef Corey Lee, is ex-Chef de Cuisine at the French Laundry.”

John does not think that he has any specializations at the moment. Feet planted firmly on the ground, he says, “I still consider myself a newcomer in the industry. I just do what needs to be done, whether it be butchery, garde manger, savory, pastry. It’s good to know and be able to do a lot of things.”

Although John says opening his own restaurant one day will be “nice,” his priorities are all in order. “To work in innovative establishments and just continue learning. There’s always something new out there. I would like to work in places where we would be the ones setting the trends in the food industry, not just the ones who follow.”

Being in the United States has not deprived John of his being Filipino. Asked if he has a favorite Filipino dish, he quickly replied, “My favorite Filipino dish would have to be the silogs. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I like a really good tocilog, not super sweet tocino, just right.”

Strangely, though, John admits that he does not really cook Filipino dishes. Although, he was quick to laughingly add, “If I had to I would.” This will probably mean having to one day open his own Filipino restaurant somewhere in the West Coast, where there is a large Filipino community to start with.

Asked to name one Filipino dish that he would like to be the specialty of a fine dining restaurant, he surprisingly does not name the ubiquitous adobo. Instead, he names something more elaborate but nonetheless just as easily recognizable to his fellow countrymen.

“I think it’ll have to be kare-kare. Just because the flavor profiles are so distinct, the peanut sauce, the bagoong, the textures, tripe, the oxtail; and it doesn’t matter how it looks like on the plate. Even if it’s dressed up and looks soigner, when you have those flavors in your mouth, even if it doesn’t look like kare-kare, when you taste those flavor combinations in one dish… You’ll know what you’re eating is kare-kare.”

Seven years into his journey in a strange new land, John Carandang has his goals firmly in sight and working his way determinedly towards them. While he continues to learn new and exotic things in the exciting world that is the Culinary Arts, he nonetheless remains Filipino – and Batangueño – as he was the day he boarded a plane to fly across the expanse of the Pacific.