Alexandra Cuerdo’s love letter to Filipino food will have you craving for lumpia, but it will melt your heart too
By Carlo Javier
One of the highlights of this year’s Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF) was the screening of ULAM (Main Dish), Alexandra Cuerdo’s love letter to Filipino food. The documentary unpacks the steady and methodical rise of Filipino food into the consciousness of mainstream America, all the while spotlighting the number of Filipino-American chefs who have become vanguards to a new movement.
Featuring a litany of chefs and restaurateurs that include Alvin Cailan of Eggslut; Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad of Maharlika and Jeepney; as well as Chase and Chad Valencia of LASA, ULAM operates much like the very epicentre of its subject. It is packed with strong flavours and just like a sizzling sisig plate, these flavours pack a wallop. It would be an understatement to describe ULAM as a mouth-watering film, as it is a complete sensory experience that encompasses more than just taste – it is very much a tour de force.
While ULAM maximizes its visual appeal with the aesthetics of food imagery, the somber moments that the film is peppered with offer a much-needed glimpse to the tribulations that chefs – especially Fil-Am chefs with far less established cuisines – face in America. One of the more memorable moments in the film involves Johneric Concordia and Christine Araquel-Concordia of The Park’s Finest in Los Angeles. As they detailed their humble beginnings, Concordia revealed the general lifespan of new restaurants in America’s unforgiving food industry: three months.
One of the documentary’s refreshing aspects was its lack of an omnipresent narrator, which Cuerdo revealed to be a deliberate choice. The directorial decision ultimately pays massive dividends, as not only do the stories feel more personal coming from the chefs themselves, it also allows for their characters and personas to revel. Be it Cailan’s laid-back style, Ponseca’s impassioned pride for her roots, or the all too familiar story of parental expectations by Ricebar’s Charles Olalia.
The most powerful scene in ULAM does not involve any of Cuerdo’s carefully crafted shots of mouth-watering food porn. It is not one of the many galvanizing messages from some of America’s best Fil-Am chefs. It is instead a sequence that centres on a Kamayan-style dinner – more popularly known as a boodle fight. The dinner highlights dishes that become ubiquitous with Filipino cuisine. There’s your lumpia, your inihaw, and your sinangag. There’s your banana leaf and your lechon. Yet what makes this particular scene so resonating is not with its abundance of Filipino-ness – but the near lack thereof.
Surrounding the table is a melting pot of people. They are black, brown, and white. They do not look like me and they probably do not sound like me. But here they are, eating the food I grew up with, in the same way that is inherent to all Filipinos in the Diaspora. It is quietly reassuring, showcasing that there is absolutely more to Overseas Filipinos than the myriad of stereotypes that have racialized an entire group of people. More than anything, it feels like a victory lap.