Years before I could imagine falling in love with another person, I distinctly recall a vibrant relationship with food. I remember food always being of utmost importance in my family. My father grew up poor in the Philippines, and often regaled our family with stories from his youth in that distant land. He had 6 siblings, so most of those tales ended with “if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat at all” or the like. My mother is a good cook, making all the traditional Filipino foods for us while also incorporating American dishes into our regular diet (fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, etc).
My parents also made enough money where we could go out to dinner on a regular basis. My father was very deliberate with this, wanting to expose his children to different cultures through food. So from an early age, I ate my way through the United Nations, eating Japanese, Chinese, French, and Italian food frequently. I remember eating sushi and liver pate and frog legs before entering middle school. While I did enjoy the occasional Happy Meal, I looked forward to raw oysters and escargot and whatever new specials were available from our favorite restaurants.
Country-style pate, still one of my favorites
When I turned 16, my father told me that I needed to get an outside job. Even though we owned the Store at this time (and I did work there during the summers), he wanted me to get other experience. My brother previously had a job working at the local nursery (for garden plants, not children), but this had no appeal to me. Instead, the local Basque restaurant was looking for a busboy and dishwasher; so during my junior & senior years of high school, I worked there weekends and holidays. While the pay was nice (it paid for all my high school shenanigans), the best part of the experience was the staff dinner. The restaurant wasn’t huge, so the staff on most weekend nights was no more than 15 people. Once the dining room closed, we would gather around one large table and dine together before doing the final cleanup. Most nights, the chef would cook large portions of a couple different dishes and serve it cafeteria style. Occasionally, the chef would offer us individual dishes, like Veal Parmigiana, Scampi A La Plancha, even New York Steak. For a 17 year old making minimum wage, this was heaven. I couldn’t get this food from the school cafeteria or Candlestick Park!
Once I moved out to attend college, my adventures with food involved cooking more than eating. I couldn’t afford to dine out as much as I did growing up, so I had to figure it out on my own. During my time at university, I had 2 different food jobs: I made and delivered pizzas for a pizzeria, and worked as a barista and pastry cook for a coffee house. For both jobs, I had no prior experience, so it was all on-the-job training. But I did enjoy the work and tried to experiment as time allowed. I also started cooking at home (after moving out of the dorms), cooking for my roommates and friends. (Remember, I went to college way before Food Network or Buzzfeed food videos or even rated online recipes.) I enjoyed making my own ice cream (with an old school hand-cranked machine), baking cookies from scratch, even my own candy. I also enjoyed sharing these treats with my friends. Once in a while, we even had cooking parties, making won tons or lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) with a small group of friends. These shared food events really enhanced my college years.
Lumpia Shanghai, with sweet and sour dipping sauce – a Filipino classic
For a brief moment, I considered attending culinary school after receiving my bachelor’s degree. I had more success cooking than I did in the classroom. But after getting sticker shock on the cost of a culinary academy (I was on a partial scholarship at a public university), I decided not to walk that path. In hindsight, I made the right decision. Today, the restaurant business is both very competitive and not very profitable. In addition, customers are very hyper critical – social media highlights both the positive and negatives of restaurants more than ever. Make one little mistake, and it will live forever online.
Now that I’m a (arguably) full functioning adult, I enjoy food more so than the average diner. You may even call me a foodie, though I generally resent that label. While I do occasionally feast at a high end restaurant, you can often find me at a greasy spoon, enjoying a cheap breakfast special (bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, wheat toast) for a few bucks. I don’t shun an establishment because it doesn’t have a Michelin star or run by the new darling chef. I’m more interested in the finding a great hole-in-the-wall place, where I can find my new favorite dish at a reasonable price.
Outside of my upbringing, there were two external factors that really encouraged my food passion:
- The rise of food travel shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel in the early & mid 2000’s piqued my interest. Before those shows, I never thought about food much during my vacations. Hosts like Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern and Adam Richman (and even Guy Fieri) introduced me to so many wonderful restaurants and diners, both throughout this country and abroad. Now, the majority of my trips are centered around food adventures and destinations. You should see the spreadsheets I keep, trying to map all of my family’s meals during a vacation!
- In 2011, I started writing reviews for Yelp, at the encouragement of a co-worker. She was a Yelp Elite, a prolific review who was granted access to special events and parties, sponsored by the website to reward their super-users. Since I enjoyed both writing and trying new restaurants, she thought this would be a natural fit for me. And it was! I dove into Yelp for a few years, gaining elite status for 3 years on the merit of over 300 reviews. In addition to discovering some new restaurants and caterers over that time, I met a community of like-minded food lovers, many of whom I’m still friends with. Unfortunately, working at the Store left me with little time to try new eateries or energy to write even if I wanted to, and I lost my Elite badge in 2014. In addition to starting this blog, I’ve gotten back to reviewing on Yelp and hope to regain my Elite status by the end of the year.
Today, social media has really changed the food business: most new food businesses have Twitter and Instagram accounts, and blogs like Eater compile restaurant news for all us rabid fans to salivate over new tasting menus and soft openings. You can have your media darlings like the Kardashians; I’d rather follow the exploits of Chris Cosentino, Dominique Crenn & Roy Choi.
Nowadays, I’m the guy among my friends and family who suggests where to eat, which new restaurant to try, or even where to go when on vacation. Between all the TV shows I’ve seen (or even those I haven’t seen, compiled in this nice website) and the Yelp app on my iPhone, I can usually get an answer in a couple of minutes. And then I want to eat!
(Note: if you want to know which places I’ve reviewed, I’ve included a link to my Yelp account on the top menu. While the majority of the reviews are from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are reviews for many places I’ve vacationed over the last few years.)