Toronto, one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world has every taste imaginable at your reach, yet some cultures fail to reach the masses. Filipino cuisine is one of them, but two 2nd generation Filipinos have recently taken it upon themselves to change all that.
Les Sabilano (left) & Rudy Boquila (right)
Construction phase (taken March 20, 2012)
It’s About Time.
It’s no secret that the Philippines has one of the least recognized of all the Asian cuisines, and while the more popular ones like Japanese, Korean and Chinese continue to flourish and adapt, Filipino food is often left out of the conversation.
But times are changing. As of late, there have been a few notable restaurants scattered around North America looking to make some noise. More notable restaurants like Maharlika in New York are creating a lot of buzz around their food because although they are staying true to tradition, they offer a refreshing re-interpretation of the cuisine. And as a result, they are giving Filipino food something it has always lacked, a presence.
Toronto on the other hand has its fair share of smaller Filipino eateries and franchises but none that pushed the boundaries with their food and service. Up until last month, the lack of presence especially in the heart of the city is something that no one has been successful at addressing.
Enter two ambitious, young Filipinos, Les Sabilano and Rudy Boquilia. The two have worked in Toronto’s food scene for many years and have come together to create Lamesa Filipino Kitchen in hopes of raising the level of awareness about the cuisine.
Lamesa is certainly a different approach to the typical Filipino establishments we are all used to. The interior does not scream “Filipino”, the plating is more refined and is probably not how mama would do it BUT the hospitality and flavours are nothing short of authentic.
We had a chance to sit with Les and Rudy to talk about Filipino hospitality, their inspirations and why Filipino food doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
So give me a brief background on how you got to this point, in starting your first restaurant.
RUDY: ok so this is how it all started for me. I went to school for advertising, at Seneca. That turned into a career in music and radio. I worked at Q10 for a bit and then I had my shows on CPLN and CHRY for a good eight, ten years. But doing community radio, you have to eat, right? So, I just took up a job at the Bamboo, back in 95. And they just threw me in the deep water right at the garde manger station at the beginning of summer. First two days I was questioning whether I wanted to do this or not.
I mean I’ve always had a love for food and cooking so it kind of came natural to me. But I was very efficient on the line so I stuck it out. It was sort of a love-hate thing with the food. I stayed there for a few years while working on music. And then after that, I worked in a string of fine dining places. Gave fine dining a little shot. And once I understood that type of food, that’s when I kind of got serious with it, and it became my passion. Worked at Cadillac Lounge for a bit, and that gave me chops on the line. I was fast. I was feeding 200 people at once, with another line cook. So after that, went on to Oyster Boy, became the kitchen manager there for a couple years. And while I was there, we were voted “Best Seafood Restaurant” by NOW.
LES: As for me, I think it starts with my family. Filipino food has been the family business since 1987. My family opened Barrio Fiesta, one of the first Filipino restaurant/grocery stores in Scarborough in ‘87, then we opened Kaibigan at Bathurst and St. Clair. Barrio Fiesta was opened by my parents as part of the Filipino community for St Barnabas parish.
They felt like the community needed a place where they could get groceries and food and so they opened that place as a group, eventually people were bought out and it was boiled down to my parents and one other family. Growing up I definitely was involved but I really didn’t want to be involved. I had to go in and stock shelves, chop pig ears for sisig and stuff like that. My mom didn’t keep me at the store very long. I was always ducking out to play video games at the fish and chips shop but I definitely put in some time there.
The past six years I worked with the Oliver Bonacini group. I started at Canoe and finished at Jump. So that’s really where my experience comes from as far as hospitality goes.
Are you taking anything from your past experience there to Lamesa?
LES: Being at the store with my parents on a daily basis helped me develop a real familiarity with Filipino food. Combine that with the formal front of house training I received at O&B and I feel like I’m in a good spot.
The Oliver Bonocini group has many years of experience and has built a massive reputation for great service. How much did you learn from them?
LES: I learned so much. I will definitely be indebted to O&B for the training that I received from them. Their standards and what they try to achieve on a daily basis with every guest are what makes that company great and we will strive to achieve the same thing at Lamesa.
So how would you summarize the philosophy behind Lamesa?
RUDY: The philosophy behind the food is “balik-bayan” cuisine, which means someone that was born out of the country, but has come back to the motherland. And that term is what I want to do, get back to the roots of it all. So that involves a lot of traditional dishes with value and quality for sure.
I’m not basing all of this on my knowledge of Filipino food but off of tastes from when I was a kid. I’m just trying to draw from that and what I’ve learned over the years. Some different techniques, but just the same flavor. Maybe a different texture. I don’t want to add too much, or take away, I want it to taste as traditional as possible like you’re eating it at home.
Like something your grandmother would make.
RUDY: Exactly. We will also make homemade banana ketchup, homemade vinegars…
wow homemade vinegar as well?
RUDY: Yeah I’m actually gonna try and make my own vinegar, but I’m gonna do the marinated ones with chilies, ginger, garlic and all that stuff.
What else will be made in house?
RUDY: I want to start making my own rice wine and see what happens with that. Maybe I can use it in the cooking, or whatever. We will also be making our own ice creams – like cheddar and carnation ice creams.
FILIPINOS ARE KNOWN FOR THEIR HOSPITALITY, IT’S IN OUR GENES. YOU GO TO A FILIPINO HOME, YOU AUTOMATICALLY FEEL LIKE IT’S YOUR HOME. ARE YOU GOING TO INTRODUCE FILIPINO HOSPITALITY IN THE WAY LAMESA RUNS?
RUDY: Well the service is going to go like this. You’re going to get seated, the server will give you descriptions of the dishes, ask if you have questions, maybe even give you a brief history of the dish and what it means. We’re going to have the server versed in Filipino history and culture because you’re eating something that has a story to it.
LES: Yes, we definitely want to be a shining example of Filipino hospitality. We are going to go the extra mile to create great experiences for all our guests especially if it’s their first time trying Filipino food. And, like in any other Filipino home, no one is going to leave hungry.
Who inspires you guys foodwise?
RUDY: Foodwise? Really, it’s the way my father does his dishes, because my father is not a cook, per se, but what I notice about his really good dishes, because he’s got maybe four or five dishes that he’s cooked throughout his whole life, every step is meticulous. He takes his time with it, he makes it taste perfect all the time, I don’t understand how he did it, but he made it taste perfect every time. My mother was more of the “we’ll put in a little splash of this” and whatever, and I guess that’s where I get that from, but I’m also very calculated with what I put in.
LES: There are so many great restaurants and chefs it’s so hard to say. To be honest I’ve been so focused on what we’re doing I haven’t had the chance to look at what else is going on.
There has been no shortage of great restaurants opening up in Toronto this year. Where do you see that void of what you guys are looking to fill in this city?
LES: We’re trying to do something for the community where Filipinos can come to eat and other ethnicities can come and try out Filipino food. Where we fit into the whole scene, that’s maybe for other people to decide. We’re just going to do our own thing and if people love it, they love it. If it blows up, sweet, if not, at least Filipinos have a place downtown to eat good food and experience amazing service.
Les, you mentioned earlier that you grew up working in your family owned restaurant. Has your family played a role in the development of Lamesa ?
LES: Absolutely, I mean to be honest my family, my uncle and my dad in particular, are the major investors behind this. They definitely have their say and they have years of experience. We obviously want this to do well, so we’re trying to take this on like a big family. From our staff to our investors to our chef, everyone involved here, we want everyone to feel like they’re a part of the family. So yeah, we’re going to see what everyone has to say and just try and make the best choices.
THERE’S SO MUCH ROOM FOR A PLACE LIKE LAMESA. BECAUSE THE TYPE OF FOOD THAT FILIPINOS EAT, IS WHAT ALOT OF PEOPLE ARE INTO RIGHT NOW. THE OFFAL (TRIPE, PIGS BLOOD, BRAINS ETC), WHOLE ROASTED ANIMALS, WE’VE BEEN EATING THESE THINGS FOR YEARS, IT’S ENGRAINED IN OUR BLOOD. SO IT’S A GOOD TIME FOR YOU GUYS TO BE OPENING UP.
LES: Yeah I definitely feel that. People seem to be more open to trying new things. When people come in we want to create a great learning experience for them as well as a sensual experience. There are so many cultural influences that have contributed to Filipino cuisine so we want to give people an idea of where this food comes from.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MAIN REASON FILIPINO FOOD HASN’T PICKED UP WITH THE GENERAL POPULATION? IT HASN’T CAUGHT ON THE WAY THAT KOREAN FOOD OR JAPANESE FOOD HAS.
LES: I’m not sure, it’s hard to understand even looking at the numbers when we look at population figures for Filipinos in Toronto. We are the third largest visible minority group in the city with no sit down restaurant downtown – until now. I just think the cuisine needs exposure and people have to be educated as to what Filipino food is. I don’t think your average diner in Toronto really has any idea of what Filipino food is and we hope to do our part to change that.
RUDY: I feel it’s really the chefs. I think it’s really part of the community and as it ages the second generation ages. I think now they’re screaming more for it than say 10 to 15 years ago when they were younger and they could get this food at home. They can’t get that food anymore because their parents are aging and not cooking as much.
SO WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS THERE’S A DEMOGRAPHIC OUT THERE THAT HAS GROWN UP, THAT IS MORE AFFLUENT, LIKES TO GO OUT TO EAT, WHO ARE SECOND GENERATION, EVEN FIRST GENERATION FILIPINO—THEY WANT THIS FOR THEMSELVES?
RUDY: I don’t know if it’s just me getting older, but there’s sort of a Filipino renaissance going on, in the way Filipinos are thinking about it. They’re thinking more in terms of their history, they’re trying to take pride in what they are. And it all starts with the youth, so I want to kind of cater that to the younger generation as well.
So do you want Lamesa to be more for the younger generation?
RUDY: I want it to be for everyone, but I want it to be youthful. I want the dishes, these ancient dishes, to be youthful, and if that means being Filipino and using what you’ve got around you well that’s what it is, right?
EXACTLY, SO YOU’RE BASICALLY GIVING TORONTO THE ON-POINT VERSION OF WHAT FILIPINO FOOD SHOULD BE. AND IT’S NOT LIKE YOU’RE GOING TOTALLY OVER THE BOUNDS OF IT, YOU’RE STILL STAYING TRUE TO THE TRADITIONAL CUISINE.
LES: Yeah, because in the end our mission is to bring Filipino food into the mainstream. Rudy already has some great ideas combining local and fresh ingredients with Filipino techniques and flavors that will really surprise some people.
RUDY: But all in all, its more about the culture than this place really. This is just a vehicle.
LES: Yeah, just bringing Filipino food into the mainstream. However we can do that.
Edited by Arianne Persaud
Transcription by Casey Engelman
Thanks to Les Sabilano & Rudy Boquilia
Lamesa Filipino Kitchen