In recent years, Yana Gilbuena has gotten foreigners excited, if not intrigued, at the prospect of feasting on Pinoy favorites sans spoons, forks, knives, and even plates. Since 2014, the ancestrally-taught chef has taken her Salo Project (pop-up Filipino dinners consumed kamayan style over long tables spread with banana leaves) to all 50 states of America, plus eight provinces in Canada, as well as four cities in Mexico, and three states in Colombia.
“I’m making moves to take this to Europe,” she says via e-mail from San Francisco which serves as her home base. “I plan on doing a Salo tour in all seven continents,” she writes. “So far, I’ve done one, just six more to go!”
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From the Pilipino word for “party,” the Salo Project is literally a moveable feast, one that begins as soon as Yana determines the destination of her latest pop-up dinner. She’ll crash on someone’s sofa for the time being, plan a menu based on available and seasonal ingredients in local markets, and prepare meals in a variety of kitchens, from state-of-the art to under-equipped. Fees collected from the dinner are used to finance the next salo, or to help raise funds for a worthy cause, like the victims of Typhoon Haiyan.
Despite the limited sources for ingredients, Yana has consistently cooked up a storm. In a brunch organized in Edgewood, Washington, guests dined on classic arroz caldo elevated with black rice, chicken, and century egg: pork tocino marinated in pineapple, sweet soy sauce, brown sugar, and star anise; appetizers of sous vide egg and atcharang taglagas; coconut garlic fried rice; and bibingka with ube and macapuno for dessert.
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Granted, living and cooking from moment to moment can give one an adrenaline rush, but there’s also the uncertainty and physical and mental exhaustion to contend with. “Not knowing people in a lot of these states and cities, the grueling travel in between states, fatigue, and so much more,” enumerates Yana of the challenges she faced while mounting pop-up dinners in 50 US states for 50 weeks. Despite it all, the gypsy chef said that she has maintained a positive outlook, determined to finish the project she started.
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Nevertheless, the feedback has been encouraging. And her goal remains the pure and simple: “to share my culture and heritage through food,” she says.
“The experience has also restored my faith in humanity. Not everybody is out to get you. Trust in the universe.”