Pinoy Food For The Soul: Chef Yana Gilbuena, SALO, A Fifty State Filipino Pop-Up Project

Life's a journey, not a destination: Certainly a phrase that Chef Yana Gilbuena has taken to heart these two years. As a self-dubbed "gypsy chef," Yana has traveled to a new state each week to throw a Filipino pop-up dinner on Sunday nights. Called the SALO Project, Chef Yana's ambitious series has received attention from media and fans alike as she brings Filipino food to all fifty states. She's gone to and cooked in places without many of Filipino descent. In this way, she has, quite literally, brought our cuisine to new diners.

Chef Yana is known for her kamayan dinners -- a tactile and intimate way of dining with one's hands, with communal-style seating, where banana leaves, instead of plates, are used. Photos in the series below are from July 2014, when Chef Gilbuena and videographer Cassandra Sicre popped up in Chicago. Before Filipino Kitchen was officially open, we hosted Chef Yana and Cassandra.

Her SALO Project tour is coming to a close, with the two states -- California and Hawaii -- left, she's participating in a special collaboration. (We are, too!)

Kain Na, Cali! is a month-long celebration of Filipino cuisine across the great state of California, with 15 pop-up meals from San Francisco to San Diego. The all-Filipino American chef roster holds a shared pride in their culinary tradition: Chef Yana, Filipino Kitchen, LASA, Nouveau Filipino, Eats by E and possibly more soon-to-be-announced PInoy chefs. Kain Na, Cali! was the brainchild of Chef AC of Filipino Kitchen and Chef Yana, who had been looking for a way to collaborate since meeting in 2013.

Filipino Kitchen kicks off the Kain Na, Cali! month with an interview with Chef Gilbuena, whose SALO Project kamayan dinner is tonight in Chula Vista, California. After today's dinner, Chef Yana will be in LA (Westside) on Thursday, March 5; Sunday, March 8 in Downtown LA; Thursday, March 12, San Francisco; Friday, March 13, in San Francisco at the Feastly Headquarters; Sunday, March 15, SALO X Filipino Food Movement at Quesada Residences in Walnut Creek; Wednesday, March 18 in Oakland; Sunday, March 22 in Napa. Check the SALO Project page, Facebook page and Feastly page for details.

Now that you're 90% or so through the SALO series journey, can you share with our readers what you think you've learned most from the experience? How have your dinners evolved or changed, or have they stayed mostly the same?

I've learned to have complete trust in the universe. Sounds very hippie, but it is. Trust that I am going to be all right. Trust that no matter what, I'm going to find a place to host me, a place to host my dinners and find diners and people to come help and make the dinner wonderful. More than anything, this project has restored my faith in humanity. The kindness and support from strangers is overwhelming and a lot of them have become my friends, not just friends on the surface, but friends that I can depend on, either supporting me further or connecting me with their network when I need it.

My dinners have definitely evolved and keeps evolving. They actually change from state to state, depending on the space, the equipment, the ingredients.

Doubtless you've been to cities/towns where you were the only person cooking Filipino food, whether at home or in a restaurant setting! What, if any, was the misconception that you (or one of your diners) dispelled the most often about Filipino cuisine and how did you do that?

It's a little crazy, but they thought that Filipino food was not spicy, and then I serve them spicy dishes. Most of the time they thought I was just serving pancit, lumpia and adobo. and then I serve them dishes from Batanes or Camiguin and they're really astounded. I'm just glad i'm able to share dishes with them that also astonish me :)

I personally am really interested in solo travel. Can you share any of your secrets that make doing this easier or more interesting?

The secret is not having a plan, being open to the flow and opportunities, saying yes to the why nots. :) Also being savvy, getting to know the local spots, attend local events like art openings. Grab the weekly publications, do research ahead of time. If possible, connect with locals via Couchsurfing or social networks.

With some of the dinners you do, you're able to incorporate local flavor and ingredients. Tell us about one or two of your favorite ways you collaborated or incorporated with local partners on one of your dinners.

I could say I've sourced locally 90% of the time throughout this journey, either through local mom and pop grocers, or farmers or through the farmers' markets. Sometimes I get lucky and I get to go to the farms and source out my ingredients myself. It's such a delight to get to know the people who are responsible for growing or gathering the produce you'll be using to feed people. It's very humbling. I think my most favorites are when I went to meet the Fisher couple in Cordova, Alaska, a writer fishing village south of Anchorage. It was such a wonderful experience. They treated us like old friends. :) It was such a treat to see how they operate, see how they live, their routine -- their overall way of life. Another one was this farm south of Nashville in Tennessee. I even blogged about that experience through farm2me. As for incorporating local flavor I try to be mindful of special crops that only a vegan state would have and throw that in. For example I threw in smoked sweet corn in my arroz valenciana for Santa Fe, New Mexico.

What are the last dinners on your horizon? Any thoughts on those?

I have CA and Hawaii. I only have hope that it will be as awesome as the past ones. But no expectations. I'm very excited for California, as we'll be collaborating. I am looking forward to cooking with AC.

As the tour comes to a close, I know you had set aside some of the proceeds for a charitable organization in the Philippines. Tell us about this organization and how the cause has affected or touched you.

ARK (Advancement for Rural Kids), is a non-profit based in New York whose beneficiary is the island I grew up in. The founder and I have bonded because of our love for giving back to the community. She's not just a non-profit partner, but also a mentor. It makes me warm and fuzzy knowing that I'm directly impacting these kids' lives and not writing a check to an organization, wherein don't know how the money is being used.

What are you plans after the tour comes to a close?

I am due for and r&r, but I'm going to the Philippines to do more research on more regional cuisine and to see the school through. After that, I'll probably keep traveling, go to Central and/or South America. Or go to Europe and do another year of cooking and traveling there. Wanderlust, man.

Anything else you'd like to add?

On my epitaph, I want to be known as the girl who cooked in 50 states and counting. Lol jk.

Sarahlynn Pablo