Sunday, April 08, 2018

SFFILM ’18: Ulam (Main Dish)

There is a large expat Overseas Filipino population—an estimated 10.2 million, or roughly 10% of the 106 million in-country population. As a result, you would expect to find a growing international market for Filipino cuisine, but it might also morph and evolve as Filipino chefs incorporated other local culinary elements. It took a while, but both trends are finally coming to fruition, judging from the success of the Filipino restaurateurs profiled in Alexandra Cuerdo’s documentary Ulam (Main Dish), which premiered yesterday at the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival (trailer here).

As many of Cuerdo’s interview subjects note, there were always a number of Filipino head chefs overseeing high profile restaurant kitchens, but they were still cooking in French, Italian, or Continental styles. Most Asian cuisines were readily accepted by American patrons, but there was still a dearth of Filipino restaurants. However, the success of several new elegant but accessible Filipino fine dining establishments has led to a boom in interest among the culinary press.

Cuerdo is quite fortunate most of them are young and eloquent, especially on the subject of food. Amy Besa & Romy Dorotan, from Purple Yam in Brooklyn, are the veterans among the film’s participants, with twenty years of New York restaurant experience, but the camera loves them. Nicole Ponseca (from Jeepney) is probably the most sensitive to issues of authenticity, since her chef and partner, Miguel Trinidad, is Dominican, but they convincingly argue nobody applies such purity standards to the chefs at Italian restaurants (and besides, no Filipino chefs were willing to join her when she first struck out on her own).

In fact, Ulam is not just about food. It also pays tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit, which is very cool. Perhaps nobody better illustrates that than Alvin Cailan, who started working multiple kitchen jobs (often for free experience) but has since parlayed his Eggslut food truck into a mini-empire that includes “incubator” space for up-and-coming chefs. Of course, family is also critically important to these success stories, especially for Johneric Concordia and Christine Araquel-Concordia’s restaurant The Park’s Finest, where nearly every employee was a relative (often “drafted”), in its early days.

Cuerdo maintains a mostly upbeat, breezy tone, as most viewers would prefer when it comes to their food docs, but there are plenty of positive lessons to glean from it. Along the way, her interview subjects revisit some rather touching memories. They make it very clear that food, family, culture, and honest hard work are all closely intertwined in the Philippines.

The dishes we see all look delicious too. Ironically, in some cases they have taken roadside Filipino food and turned it into haute cuisine, but it is still more substantial and flavorful than most of what you might find in trendy Soho spots. Recommended as a low-stress, pleasantly engaging celebration of Filipino cuisine, Ulam (Main Dish) screens again today (4/8) and Tuesday (4/10), as part of this year’s SFFILM.