“I have a crazy notion to ask of you on Monday. I’m obsessed with this woman and she has a popup dinner, her last one, is in Houston and I want to go and interview her. Want to come with?” I sent this text in hopes that someone, any one of my friends was willing to jump on board with me. I found two willing participants and we were off.
My newest talent as of late has been convincing friends to partake in trips where food & beverage is at the epicenter. This past Memorial Day weekend, two good friends and I made a trek to Houston from Austin to experience Yana Gilbuena’s pop up dinner series, Salo Series. Little did I know that the night would bring more opportunities but also a wonderful friendship to unfold.
I’ve been following Yana for quite some time now, especially since her foray into cooking is fascinating, to say the least. I looked up to her: a woman from the same country, blazing a path in an industry dominated by males, in the most non-conventional way. She was born and raised in the Visayas region of the Philippines, by her grandmother, who taught her everything she now knows in the kitchen. Gilbuena graduated from University in the Philippines with her psychology degree and moved to Los Angeles to work as a behavioral therapist. As with anyone in their early 20’s she bounced around professions, from therapist to architecture to carpentry.
She eventually found herself in Brooklyn, missing Visayan food from her childhood. Her first pop-up was held in Bushwhick, which was a learning lesson in all proportions, literally and figuratively. Since then, she’s taken her tour of 50 Weeks in 50 States, bringing Filipino food to the forefront across the United States, then eventually taking her dinners overseas, to the Philippines, Canada, parts of South America, and Mexico.
The first night I met Yana, I was not only utterly impressed by the food but also the community that she’s built over these dinners. She brings the “kamayan” experience to the table, which is essentially laying out food on top of banana leaves and eating with your hands. “The rules of kamayan dinner is you serve with your non dominant hand and eat with your dominant hand, and have fun!”, she exclaimed as she and her friends proceeded to place food in front of diners. I looked across the table at my good friend, Moyo Oyelola, and asked his opinion of dinner. “I’m home”, he said as he grabbed another handful of rice. It really was like being home, he had a good point. I was born in the Philippines and my family moved to the States when I was five but these tidbits of our culture have resonated deep within me nonetheless. Eating with your hands, for example, was something that comes as second nature for me. Yana also has a way of making the familiarity of Filipino cuisine different to even those raised on it. She’s influenced by the different regions of the Philippines and puts a spin on them that is approachable and not too overwhelming.
Conversations flowed easily as diners bonded over food and the experience, from first timers to seasoned veterans of Filipino cuisine. At the end of dinner, she sat and talked to every single guest as if they were family. Excitedly, we suggested she bring the dinner to Austin if she had the time. “Yes, I leave for Mexico in a few days, maybe when I get back!”, Yana exclaimed as she told us of her plans to bring Salo Series across the border to Mexico City and Tulum. Eagerly, I e-mailed her days after our initial encounter to suggest a possible collaboration.
A month passed as I watched her adventures over social media and I reached out one more time until she e-mailed back saying she’d love to collaborate, as soon as she got back. “Sure, let’s do it! July 3rd?”, she said. For a split second, I didn’t know what to think. She wanted to throw a popup dinner together in a week? She was still in Mexico talking about our collaboration and I’ve never taken on a task like this. “Well, it’s now or never”, I thought to myself.
The days leading up to the dinner were some of the most exciting and stressful I’ve had in quite a while. I was juggling work, projects, and now an additional popup dinner, which sounds crazy to most but I thrive off a busy schedule. Yana arrived on Saturday, the day before the popup dinner, with much collaboration via e-mail under our belts. We then ran around like mad gathering ingredients and tools for the dinner. Sunday came around, with a guest list of sixteen, we pulled off a wonderfully exciting dinner that showcased what we grew up on and introduced several new friends to each other.
Our menu was simple yet delectable and easily shared amongst new friends: to start, shrimp chips paired with seasonal pickled vegetables in spicy coconut vinegar, followed by garlic fried rice and kinilaw, a take on the more commonly known ceviche, paired with the right amount of heat from chiles and coconut milk. The main course, humba, which is pork slowly braised in pineapple, soy, and star anise, was so tender and juicy by the time it reached the table. Dinner was paired with two refreshing cocktails, the Gabriela: mezcal, mango, and the slight heat of Thai chilies as well as the Sampaguita: champagne, elderflower, and calamansi. Yana let me take charge solely on the dessert, which was always my forte, in the kitchen. Individual flans were made with macapuno, a young coconut, and ube, a purple yam popular in Asia. Making this dish made me feel like I was back in the kitchen with my grandmother, with all the same flavors and textures that reminded me of what I loved most from my childhood. An after dinner drink paired well with the flan, the Tsokolate-eh: Oaxacan chocolate (which Yana so graciously shared from her recent trip to Mexico), coconut milk, and whiskey. It was such a treat to share the food that was dear to us with friends over a communal setting.
I learned so much from Yana that weekend, especially how to calm down. At one point, I felt like I checked the clock every five minutes to keep track of dinner being ready by the allotted time. She was so calm, practically floating on air as she prepped food up until the last minute. Picture this: my running around like a chicken with its head cut off as she took her time and paid attention to every detail of dinner. It was a sight to see, honestly, but the dinner went swimmingly. Guests filtered out afterwards but most stayed to have conversation with her, asking about her background to how many dinners she’s done. “I think this one is over two hundred”, she calmly replied. Well, no wonder she wasn’t as panicky as I was!
Not only did we pull off a pop-up dinner together in a week’s time, over a busy holiday weekend, but a grand friendship unfolded. She’s due back in the fall for another one, which we’ll be collaborating over, once again!