Growing up in a small apartment crowded with family in Manila, Philippines, Chef Roni Dacula’s fondest memories are of watching his Lola (grandmother), Basilisa, cook for the extended family and sometimes even the neighbors. Filling the stovetop with boiling pots and simmering sauces, Lola Basilisa would make traditional Filipino dishes for everyone to share such as Mechado– braised meat in a tomato sauce with onions, garlic, soy sauce, and calamansi (native Philippine citrus thought to be a cross between a kumquat and a tangerine)-- always served over rice.
“When Lola went on her daily shopping, her thinking was, ‘How much can I buy with how much I have,’” Chef Roni says. “I learned how to cook and to love cooking because of her.”
He immigrated to the U.S. and New Orleans in 2009, but Chef Roni continues to celebrate his Philippine heritage through his cooking and making the connections between his native land and his new home. As a nursing student back in Manila he continued his education in the nursing program at Nunez Community College initially, but as the realities of immigrating to a new country set in he soon pivoted toward its culinary school and graduated from there in 2016.
With his partner, Erin Schott, he started the popup Gatâ, which literally means “coconut milk” in Tagalog (Philippine national language), representative of the coconut and the many ways Filipinos use it: coconut water, milk, the flesh for cooking various dishes and even the husks for polishing floors. Chef Roni wants to show New Orleans diners there’s more to Philippine cuisine than the well known favorite dishes of Lumpia, Adobo, and Pancit. There’s his Lola’s Mechado; Kare Kare–beef short rib braised in peanut and shrimp paste sauce; Laing at Liempo–marinated deep fried pork belly served with braised greens in coconut milk; and many more.
Chefs Brigade Program Manager April Bellow, who has provided the couple with business advice, says that Chef Roni is pushing the boundaries of Filipino street food and showing the Filipino link to Louisiana cuisine.
“Some of the first laborers in New Orleans were from the Philippines, and they introduced dried shrimp to Louisiana,” says Bellow. “It’s not French, Spanish or Italian that makes New Orleans food; it’s the convergence of all of it. It’s almost like Chef Roni is reminding us that the Filipino community has long had a presence in Louisiana and played a role in our food.”
Chef Roni’s sense of community and culture goes beyond just the actual act of cooking, extending into where our food comes from and the effects of climate change. Just as Louisiana has hurricanes, the Philippines has typhoons, and Chef Roni has experienced both understanding how important disaster relief is. When Bellow put out a call asking for food preparation assistance following Hurricane Ida, Chef Roni and Erin were among the first to respond.
As Bellow sees it, Chef Roni is a human conduit linking climate change in the Philippines and climate change in the Gulf Coast, and his perspective is invaluable. When he took a trip to the Gulf Coast with Chefs on Boats, he immediately saw the similarities between the two places and that thinking was cemented when he met a Louisiana oyster fisher on the trip. In the Philippines, stronger and more frequent typhoons have affected fishing areas significantly, and more hurricanes, as the oyster fisher explained to Chef Roni, have affected the Gulf’s water salinity and oyster production.
“It’s the same type of problem,” Chef Roni says. “Climate change is affecting oyster growth, and causing Filipino fishers to go further and further out into the ocean for their catch.”
Chef Roni is openly exploring what the future holds for Gatâ in New Orleans. Opening a brick and mortar restaurant or operating a food truck is always an option. However, the goal he has his eye on is curating specialized dining experiences that demonstrate the historical connections between the Philippines and Louisiana through food. Regardless, he knows for certain that he will continue to promote Filipino food and culture.
“We’re launching our podcast, Eat Filipino Food, on June 25th. We’ve already recorded five episodes, and it’s going to be a great opportunity to learn more about the Filipino people, food and community.”
Instagram Link: https://www.instagram.com/gata.foodph/?hl=en
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