At one point in Alexandra Cuerdo’s sensational new film “Ulam: Main Dish,” it is mentioned that the Philippines is comprised of 7100 islands, all of which have their own variations on how to prepare national staples such as Adobo and Halo Halo, if not coming up with creations that are entirely unique. Yet for all that diversity, and the number of Filipinos who have made their way to America in recent decades – many forced to when martial law was put in place by the Marcos regime, little of the cuisine has surfaced in the States and that which has isn’t held in as high regard as other Asian cooking, with many Filipino chefs resorting to tucking in a few recipes and spices from home into dishes at Chinese and French restaurants.
However, Cuerdo bears witness to a revolution that unfolds before her camera over the three years she spent filming “Ulam” as Filipino-American restaurateurs in Los Angeles and New York began to find popularity and gain great acclaim from food critics for embracing their roots and bringing out the bold flavors of the culture that had previously been kept at a low boil. Adding one intriguing ingredient after another into the mix, the filmmaker creates something every bit as complex and satisfying as the subjects she follows, relaying the personal journeys of such recently crowned culinary celebrities such as Eggslut’s Alvin Cailan, Ricebar’s Charles Olalia and Maximiliana maestro Andre Guerrero to tell a fascinating and far larger story about a people that have been made to feel marginalized, with some getting their foot in the door to cook as dishwashers, and how liberation from not only how society has treated them, but how they envision themselves, hasn’t come easily.
Still, “Ulam” is very easy on the eyes, if not necessarily an empty stomach, introducing one tantalizing plate after another as Cuerdo visits restaurants across the East and West Coast, and the opportunity to see chefs celebrated for their inventiveness is one thing, but to appreciate them expressing their authentic selves through their food is incredibly rewarding. As Cuerdo explained shortly before the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival following its triumphant bow at the San Francisco Film Festival, “Ulam” presented an opportunity to be able to share her own experience as a Filipina-American, and joined by the film’s producer Rey Cuerdo Jr., she spoke about creating a true feast that works its way through the stomach to the heart.
How did this come about?
Alexandra Cuerdo: It started as a journey three years ago with a conversation that we had over the dinner table.
Rey Cuerdo, Jr: I had been with a very good friend and we had been throwing around the idea of doing a Filipino food documentary, but we never got around to it, so over Thanksgiving, we were just saying, “Whatever happened to that?” We were trying to get that thing going and we never did. And Ally, just said, “Well, why not? I’ll do it.”
Alexandra Cuerdo: And it began with a lot of delicious research. [laughs] Eating at a lot of different restaurants, trying to figure out who was representing Filipino food in the most authentic way possible. For us, that meant restaurants that said [clearly], “I’m Filipino. This is not a pan-Asian restuarant, not a fusion restaurant, but this is my version of Filipino food.” We started in L.A. and I pitched each chef individually, so [we approached] some of the great chefs from restaurants like The Park’s Finest and Lasa, Alvin Cailan from Eggslut and Unit 120 and now Amboy, and Andre Guerrero, who is one of the original Filipino-American chefs in L.A. We also did some work in New York because my cinematographer John is from New York, and I was living and working there at the time. It was a labor of love put together over three years.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the ability to tell the larger story of Filipino – and specifically Filipino-American culture through this story of food. Was that a foundational idea for you or did it grow larger as you would collect these individual stories of chefs and restauranteurs?
Alexandra Cuerdo: It was always the goal for me to tell a Filipino-American story because I’m Fliipino-American. I grew up in Southern California and went to UCLA for directing, so L.A. has always been my home and I always wanted to talk about that struggle between being in the U.S. and being considered more Fliipino and going back to the Philippines and being considered American and figuring out, what does that mean for each chef?
It did come out naturally during interviews. We would ask, “Well, what were your inspirations growing up?” And “what kind of food do you cook?” We’d even [ask], “What kind of music would you listen to? Because all of that was part and parcel with what makes them a chef today and so much of what we discovered that was surprising was the regionality of these restaurants. [For instance] restaurants in L.A. would make different kind of Filipino food based on the ingredients that are available versus the restaurants in New York, and it was really cool to see each chef make their dream Filipino restaurant.
You also seem to ask chef to prepare a particularly meaningful to them. What was it like facilitating those interviews where they would cook and express themselves through the food?
Alexandra Cuerdo: The interview process was really fun and it was really casual, you know? We had to find a time to do the interviews because each chef is a working chef and these restaurants are all still open today…
Rey Cuerdo, Jr.: And doing very well.
Alexandra Cuerdo: So we’d have to come either after hours or in between lunch and dinner service, but the cool part about that was that we were able to eat everything.
Rey Cuerdo Jr.: Ten pounds later. [laughs]
Alexandra Cuerdo: [laughs] And we asked each chef to make food that they felt particularly inspired by, that they wanted to showcase, so we got something different at every restaurant. At Lasa [in Los Angeles], we really loved filming their version of Pancit with the cured egg yolk, and there was one version that had a Bagoong [shrimp paste] X.O. sauce, which was mindblowing and such a beautiful dish. And it was so different from the pancit I had grown up with, but it made me realize that it doesn’t mean that it’s not delicious. It doesn’t mean that it’s not authentic. That was a real revelation.
Logistically, did you divide filming into two separate shoots on the East and West Coast or could you let one thing lead to another, wherever that may be?
Alexandra Cuerdo: It was filming in fits and starts because we were also getting the money from each shoot as we went along, which is why it took three years. As every documentarian knows, money is the hardest part when it comes to making independent film, so it unfolded organically. It was back and forth and a lot of it was working with chefs’ availability. Alvin Cailan, in particular, was busy opening up different restaurants, so we had to find a time to get him. [laughs]
That could have its benefits, however. I couldn’t help but think that three years coincides almost perfectly with the rise of Eggslut in L.A. Did this change with time?
Alexandra Cuerdo: That is a really great question because Lasa is a perfect example of this. When we first met Chad and Chase Valencia, they were a backyard dinner pop-up and they were in different locations. They hadn’t yet met Alvin Cailan, who would eventually give them their permanent home in Far East Plaza, which is where they are now, and to watch that progress over three years was magical. We couldn’t have predicted a better ending. We had no idea that this restaurant, which very few people knew about at the time, would be Food & Wine’s best restaurant of the year when you’d flash forward three years later. It was a success story that we almost couldn’t even believe. And it was the same for Alvin. He opened up Unit 120 and a year later, he was on L.A. Magazine’s list of 10 best restaurants of the year.
Rey Cuerdo, Jr: It also answered the one main question we wanted answered when we started this, which was how come Filipino food has not yet broken through [into the mainstream] as opposed to other Asian foods? Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai – you name it. They’ve all broken through. With the Philiippines three years ago, it was still like what’s going on? And the answer came in the process of this three-year period that it’s finally breaking through.
One of the most interesting ideas introduced in the film is the idea that Filipinos have impeded their own success to a degree by being concerned about mainstream acceptance, which Nicole Ponseca at Jeepney speaks about quite eloquently. Was she an early interview because that idea seems fairly fundamental?
Alexandra Cuerdo: She was one of our first interviews and it did bring up this idea of micro-aggression and why haven’t we crossed over until now? And that is something I wanted to explore as a filmmaker because I had seen that within the Filipino-American community, this idea of the “crab mentality” – there isn’t enough success to go around. Seeing these restaurants come up, I wanted to know personally, are there common bonds [between Filipino restauranteurs]? Will the Filipino community come out and support these restaurants?” So to hear from these chefs their conflicts with that was really surprising. I didn’t realize there was still so much conflict within the Filipino-American community and that’s why in the end, I wanted to send out this message of encouragement and hope because Fliipinos should support each other. That’s the only way we get great Filipino restaurants is if we go out and support the ones that exist now…
Rey Cuerdo, Jr.: The ones that have done the work, they have excelled.
Alexandra Cuerdo: Also to see the chefs, particularly in the L.A. area, all support each other was beautiful and inspiring to me. They’re all friends.
Rey Cuerdo, Jr.: And for me, personally, I saw through the process of making the documentary that “crab mentality” is a generational thing. For my age group, the older generation, I think it exists more and it seems to be dissipating for the younger generations, so that’s a great thing.
The generational element of this is also so vividly conveyed with the score. How do you decide to lay some rap music over the top of classical?
Alexandra Cuerdo: That was a conversation with our brilliant composer Stephen Spies, a friend of mine from college. He actually used a lot of Southeast Asian instruments in the score and we were trying to figure out how do we describe the hustle musically. And we realized it was percussion and influences from hip-hop. The guy that raps in that track actually came up with it on the spot because he was so inspired by the film, and if you listen to the lyrics, he’s rapping about being a chef and the grind and what that sacrifice means, so it was an inspired moment. But we knew it was going to be percussion. We knew it was going to be hip-hop. We just didn’t know exactly how it was going to come together until the day, and we actually had an amazing student orchestra recorded at UCLA for that final score, so that last song that you hear for the last 10 minutes of the movie is a live orchestra recording, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done as a filmmaker. [laughs] So big ups to Stephen Spies. He is the best.
What’s it been like taking this out into the world?
Alexandra Cuerdo: The response has been totally overwhelming in the most positive way possible. I’m not from the Bay, but our screenings in San Francisco sold out before we got there and the film festival in San Diego put together this unbelievable event – 15 Filipino-American chefs from around the city came together to do a Kamayan feast, which is a Filipino style of eating for 300 people, that sold out in four hours. And we’ve had the most amazing comments at every single screening – a lot of teachers have come up to us, saying “We would love to use it to teach” because we have so little representation in the media as Filipino-Americans and as Asians, “and this could be a great tool to help people see themselves.” It’s really important for us to see Asian-Americans and Asians being excellent because then that’s how we bring up the next generation and teach them to succeed and also be excellent.