Talking Food, Culture, and Community With Chef Phillip Esteban

One of our priorities here at ThereSanDiego, as we head into the new year, is to do more work to tell the stories of the innovative people that are making an impact on the things we eat, drink, see, and do here in San Diego.

To kick it off, we were fortunate to get a few minutes in the very busy schedule of Chef Phillip Esteban recently.

If you aren’t familiar with Chef Esteban, you are almost certainly familiar with his work, even if you don’t realize it – he’s been a critical part of many San Diego’s most successful San Diego restaurants and was recently named ‘Changemaker of the Year’ by Eater San Diego.

While food is a central theme to just about everything Chef Esteban does, what really intrigued us about Phillip is the work he’s doing outside of the kitchen.

He has a variety of business interests that are all fascinating on their own, but together display Esteban’s bigger purpose: to represent the Filipino community, share its stories and culture, and nurture future generations of Filipino artists, chefs, and entrepreneurs of all sorts to have an impact here in San Diego.

The interview is shared with very little editing to keep the casual, conversational tone that we had.

We bet you’ll find him as interesting as we do! Enjoy!

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
It’s nice to meet you, Phillip. Thank you for sitting down with me today, I appreciate it.

I decided to reach out for an interview right now because I’ve been keeping an eye on some of the things that you’re doing – the new restaurant concepts, the pop-up dinner coming up, and the rumored plans for a fine dining concept – which are all exciting additions to the San Diego food scene.

But in addition to the restaurants, it seems like you have a lot of, I don’t know, you’ve got some unique entrepreneurial perspective going on here because it’s not just food.

You’ve got Open Gym and Wordsmith going on, too. So, I got very intrigued and curious to understand: who is behind this and what is the vision? What is it that you’re building here that is clearly more than just another restaurant group?

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah, I guess there’s kind of a lot to talk about there, because a good friend of mine recently asked me a similar question during an interview, too. And he was like, “Most chefs, they do a signature restaurant, right off the jump”, because you want to put your name in the hat of all the upper echelon food restaurants or food scenes.

Doing a food hall, for instance, doesn’t really fit that plan, right?

ThereSanDiego.com:

Right.

Phillip Esteban:
So, prior to the pandemic and leaving Consortium Holdings, it was just that. I was probably viewing just part of the world.

I’m pretty sure I had, already, a different view, but I was kind of going down that route of, “I’m going to open my fine dining restaurant”, and obviously, with how everything unfolded, that’s probably the last thing I’m going to do.

And he was like, “Well, Phil, you kind of, you did it backward.” And I’m like, actually, I don’t feel like I did.

Because of the things that I learned, especially because of the pandemic…learning operations and business is one thing, and being able to cook food is a whole nother aspect.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Phillip Esteban:
And then even owning a restaurant is even crazier, but the pandemic challenged and changed everything. The landscape completely changed.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Definitely. And very few industries felt it as hard.

Phillip Esteban:
So, you had to view the landscape and look at it through a different lens.

And so, if you think about creating a fine-dining concept like a Born and Raised, or something like that. Everyone had to switch, everyone was going to burgers.

Every Michelin restaurant around the world was doing burgers.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah, a massive shift in approach very quickly.

Phillip Esteban:
And then you talk about profit margins. Fine dining’s 4 to 10%, if you’re even lucky.

And so, what? I’d even spend the rest of 10, 20 years of my life trying to pay back loans, investors.

Keep the doors open and then try and make a living for myself?

So in the end, I don’t think it was backward. Building White Rice and then Weapon Ramen, and then the other concepts that we’re doing; the profit margins, they are higher than your typical fine-dining spot.

So, not super crazy. And you also have a built-in footprint. There’s walkability, there’s instant marketing that the other 34 concepts here can instantly come in and say, “Well, I want to come for empanadas, but I see this over here, going to try it.”

And so, I mean, some people could eat the same thing every day, but the idea is that you’re coming in and trying something new.

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
Explore a little bit.

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah. And, you know, the industry was a pandemic in itself, right? There was a bubble that needed to burst and COVID did that.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah. It’s absolutely true – the industry has had a crazy run.

Phillip Esteban:
So now we’re tackling things that we didn’t in the past, like:

How do you operate and how do you work in a space? Not just physical space, but mental space; mental health, social injustice, social equity.

And giving back to your community, that there are ways to have better alignment and company ethos. You’re talking about people that believe it’s important where you spend your dollar now.

I think people are more aware of that. They want to spend their dollar with someone or something that resonates with them, whether it’s through culture, whether it’s through design, whether it’s through space, experience – a bunch of different things.

 

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Phillip Esteban:
I mean, I’m sure people love the Instagrammable world where you can, “I go here because I can take dope pictures and have good food and cocktails”, but there’s a bigger point, especially with this new generation, of this hyper-awareness of the world around them.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s true. People are looking more and more for businesses and brands that have a purpose or brand that they connect with beyond just the transaction.

Phillip Esteban:
So, it’s just different. And I think you could connect in a lot of different ways. And then, in terms of, as you brought up earlier, the digital space.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

On having a bigger purpose…

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah, you have to develop a bigger purpose and share that story. And it is something that has to resonate, right? People have to see it and get a sense of your brand and what you’re about.

Phillip Esteban:
So we have our operations, we have our brick-and-mortars, and there are a few more things in the works.

But it’s about more than that. I also work to have an impact in my community. I am a Board Member for ARTS, A Reason To Survive. It’s a creative youth program. It’s actually their 20-year anniversary on the 20th of this month.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Oh, cool.

Phillip Esteban:
And so, it’s for underprivileged and inner-city schools and youth, to get creative arts to them. And so…for instance, La Jolla got 15 million for their arts program. National City, where ARTS is, got $30,000. That is a big discrepancy.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yes. And as if often the case, it seems that the places that need the support the most, get the least.

Phillip Esteban:
I also work on the Filipino Advisory Board for Mayor Alejandro Solis, of National City. So, I’m trying to create more visibility and cultural representation, and just someone that looks like me, that when I started cooking 18 years ago, you know, was very hard to find.

It’s a white male-dominated industry. I’ve met mentors. They guided me and they did it, but I never cooked Filipino food other than for family meals at home.

So it took me until 2019 to really search for my own identity. And what is it that I want to contribute as a Filipino chef? As a Filipino American that has traveled, that has experience, and that has knowledge – that I should fill that space, versus someone else.

So that’s been a big, big push. Then after that, the next wave is, like I said, the digital, right? So we’re going to start filming a couple of episodes so we can reach more people.

I don’t know exactly what format yet, but it will be informative. Like the recipes that we do here that kind of bring forth Filipino food in a way. And then possibly a cookbook. Things that help carry you on.

ThereSanDiego.com:
I’ll be honest with you, I’m completely ignorant of it the scale of the Filipino community in San Diego. What is it like here? Is it pretty big?

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah, I believe it’s one of the largest in the country.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Is that right?

Phillip Esteban:
The first establishment for Filipinos was actually in New Orleans, but there are 200,000 Filipinos in San Diego. Well from the last statistics. Ninety percent are either from or have ended up in National City. And that’s where the community gathers in San Diego.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Got it.

Phillip Esteban:
And you know, most people don’t know that National City is Filipino Town. Every other major city has a Korea Town, Japan Town and there’s that visibility, you know? But you could drive through L.A. on the 10 and see, a sign it says, Historic Filipino Town. But that’s the only indication of it even being there.

ThereSanDiego.com:
I would have no idea.

Phillip Esteban:
So most people probably think Mira Mesa is Filipino Town. ‘Manila Mesa’ is like the kind of inside joke. A lot of Asians live there. But National City is technically Filipino Town. Like there are banners on the light posts that say ‘Mabuhay’, which is like ‘welcome family’.

And I think now it’s like this next wave of entrepreneurs of…well, I guess growing up, most Asians and Latinos are always taught to do the safe job: become a nurse, go to the military, become a doctor, things like that. Engineer, you know?

ThereSanDiego.com:
The classic immigrant story.

Phillip Esteban:
Don’t do the creative because you’re going to struggle. Well now, after this first wave, my generation is kind of not doing the traditional. They’re doing the non-traditional creative fields. So now you have designers and stylists and chefs and musicians and creators. And so I think that there’s this hub that’s forming in National City and this new youth coming about.

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
So we’re going to see some really fresh talent coming out of there soon.

Phillip Esteban:
I have a really, well I don’t know if it’s a funny story, but a great story. It was the middle of the pandemic, all the restaurants closed. I’m just coming home because we’re still doing our thing through the catering part. And there’s this young kid in an Amazon uniform putting away the boxes inside of a locker.

And I hit the button to go in the elevator and I just hear like, “Chef Phil.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit. What did I do?” You know? And he’s like, “Hey, I just want you to know that I started cooking because of you.”

ThereSanDiego.com:
Ah, that’s awesome.

Phillip Esteban:
He’s like, “But because everything closed, I had to get a job. And so I’m doing this.”

Phillip Esteban:
So it’s cool that my first home was in National City, and now I get to be back home. Not ‘home San Diego’, but ‘home home’.

And creating things there and hopefully inspiring the next generation of people. I think that’s cool.

On nurturing creativity…

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s very cool. So Open Gym. Tell me about Open Gym.

Phillip Esteban:
So Open Gym is technically a nonprofit. There are five of us. There’s LeeJ Razalan. He owns a CrossFit gym. Background in business. But become like the godfather of dance. So, he started kind of like the urban dance movement: Jabbawockeez, Kaba Modern, Kinjaz. He’s the owner of the Kinjaz and he manages talent. So just like how I do for food and this next generation, he’s trying to help this generation of young dancers. That they could create sustainability and a life through dance.

Erwin Hines, creative director, designer. He used to work for BASIC Agency. So he’s done things behind Patagonia, things you see on Google. But obviously, all these branding and things, that’s all him.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s all his design work. Yeah. Okay, cool.

Phillip Esteban:
I don’t do any of that.

Phillip Esteban:
And Taylor Shaffer, she’s an interior designer. So she does our spaces within our projects. And then Mills, our photographer videographer. And so a lot of different disciplines. Technically, I’m the only one with a true, longest tenure background in food and hospitality. But it’s a group that allows us to look at hospitality through, again, a different lens.

ThereSanDiego.com:
A variety of different perspectives and talents.

Phillip Esteban:
And so Open Gym serves a purpose of just pure creativity. And a kind of a washing machine. Right? You just keep funneling all these ideas in it, but something eventually will spit out that’s amazing.

And a lot of us that are chefs, we could talk about something and view it in one way, because we’re ingrained that way. And then they come at it sideways and kind of just tug and pull because it’s like, “No, this is the way it should be.” It’s like, “Actually, you’re right. That’s so different.” You know?

ThereSanDiego.com:
Got it, so that explains a lot of the creative expression we see in your projects. It’s not just food. It’s art, design, culture…

Phillip Esteban:
That’s right. And then Open Gym as a nonprofit, we started Fish to Families with a lot of other organizations around town to feed families. So we write grants through Fish to Families to then receive funding, to then create meals, and partner up with the local fishermen, the local farmers, the live product. And feed food insecurity.

Through the whole pandemic and all the programming we’ve done, we’ve done over 350,000 meals to this point.

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
Wow. That’s amazing. Congratulations.

Phillip Esteban:
So yeah, Open Gym does a lot, but it is this big mystery.

ThereSanDiego.com:
I love that though. As you said, it’s pure creativity – it doesn’t fit in a box.

Phillip Esteban:
It’s a creative hub. And in a sense, I think it should always be that.

ThereSanDiego.com:
You don’t have to put boundaries around it. Yeah. Yeah. I love that. I mean, it’s one of the things that was just really intriguing to me. It seems like you’ve got an approach that is not necessarily, you know, you’re going to put me in a box. Right? It’s like you’re letting your creative interests…you know, you’re giving them freedom, which is rare.

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole career and I’m fascinated by how in today’s world…you know, I think you’re a perfect example of it by seeing your work here, but there’s more of this…people are not taking traditional routes.

They’re finding ways to explore their creativity and bring it to life and turn it into businesses and revenue and livelihoods, just in different ways. And I think it’s fascinating.

I have kids and my oldest is a senior in high school. She’s an amazing artist. And she’s in the digital animation space. But she’s into all these different forms of art and expression, and I don’t want to limit that at all.

I see her skills and I see this intersection of technology and art that is happening – and the opportunities it’s creating for artists to make a great living in new ways – and I’m so excited for her.

Phillip Esteban:
I have a son that’s 13.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Ok, good for you!

Phillip Esteban:
You know, I probably look younger than I am because it’s the Asian skin (laughs).

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
He’s 13 and he can do so much, like he can do photography, videography, edit, post edit, copy. They can do it all.

And I was talking to a news reporter for Telemundo yesterday. She’s at the Market on 8th quite a bit and she did everything. She set it up, she had her questions, then she goes back and edits, post-edit.

ThereSanDiego.com:
A one-woman crew.

Phillip Esteban:
Get it up online and yeah, I think it was like, even she worked for NBC as well, but nonetheless, she was just like, “It’s so crazy. My generation, we shoot it, we edit, and we send it.”

This new generation is like, all in-house, like dope computers. They can get cameras and everything’s so accessible now.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah. You got the tools right here to do most of it (holding up phone).

Phillip Esteban:
And then social media, the power of social media.

ThereSanDiego.com:
It’s unbelievable.

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah. It’s cool. I am fascinated by just, yeah…just all these intersections to me are just really, really fascinating. The opportunities for people to really express their creativity and try different things and still make a good living, or even make a better living than was possible in the past, because of it.

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah, exactly.

On ‘filling spaces’ as an entrepreneur…

ThereSanDiego.com:
So speaking of different interests…you now have Wordsmith Bookstore. Tell me what that’s all about.

Phillip Esteban:
Well, as a chef, things that I wanted and need as a chef, whether it’s tweezers, tongs or specialty items, things that you can’t just buy at a normal store…every other major city has a culinary hub to buy those things.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
So Los Angeles has Now Serving, San Francisco has Omnivore, JB Prince in New York. There’s somewhere to buy the things that you need.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
And there’s local stuff you could get, like your standard potato box frame, chef coats, your white ones, that’s just it, but this is more or a day and age where they’re adding in style and different cuts where it fits in and frames you well.

There are chef coats and aprons and pants and non-slip shoes and all these other things. For my whole career in San Diego, we’ve always had to order it. You wait for it.

And recently, because we have events next week, and I’m like, I got to get this, I ordered a month ago…and it still hasn’t gotten here yet.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah. Getting product is hard right now.

Phillip Esteban:
And so the idea was just like, there are things that I love and, one. And two, I now have a staff of over 50 people that also buy those same things. We could buy it at wholesale and then also just sell it.

The hard thing about food, it’s so perishable, right? It’s like that bag of spinach, you say, “I’m going to make a salad when I get home,” but it just rots.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Now it’s gone, yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
Versus, I could buy a chef’s spoon and, at wholesale, $15, $10, and then sell it for $25 or whatever. I could sell today for $25 or a year from now on $25, as long as no water damage or things like that.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
But it’s non-perishable, and I want to move into different spaces of business. Not just for the idea of diversifying the portfolio, because I always want to stay within food, but it’s amazing where food can take you.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Definitely.

Phillip Esteban:
And whether it’s…if you are a chef or an educator, a teacher, a student, or a home cook, someone that just loves food, this is something for you.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
And then on top of it, one of my good friends, Don, that owns Playbonsai, he does tropical plants. It just became like, “Hey, do you want to just share the space together?” Because I mean, why not? It was kind of a home goods feel to it as well and so he moved in, so…

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s cool.

Phillip Esteban:
That was the main goal and the main idea for it, and for any new business, I’m sure as you understand as an entrepreneur, it’s gaps in the market.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Of course. And you can see those best based on your experiences.

Phillip Esteban:
And you want to fill those spaces.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
Someone else obviously can. I’ll do it first.

On travel and collaborations with people he’s met along the way…

ThereSanDiego.com:
And what about Weapon Ramen? Ramen isn’t Filipino food, so where did the inspiration come from?

 

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Phillip Esteban:
And I took a trip to Japan in 2017 to learn ramen.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Wow.

Phillip Esteban:
So I studied Japanese for four years in high school and college. I used to be able to speak fluently. I can still write my name.

I can’t speak fluently anymore, but Japanese cuisine is probably my favorite, and ramen is one of my favorite dishes, hence the Ramen shops, but yeah, it was just something that… I went on a trip there to go learn more about ramen and I was, as a chef, interested in fermentation and koji and how to make koji and I connected with a guy on Instagram that…he’s one of the last five koji makers in Japan.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Oh wow.

Phillip Esteban:
So we took the Shinkansen, the high-speed train, from Osaka to Tokyo, but we stopped right out Mount Fuji, where he’s at and he took me and Chef Tony Guan, who was a chef of Underbelly at the time, because we were developing all these Ramen shops, so he came out there with me and we met this guy and he was just talking about fermentation. His family has 190 years of expertise in it dating back to his great, great grandfather.

ThereSanDiego.com:
What an amazing experience to be able to learn first-hand that way. And what about the event that you have coming up? You’ve got these two chefs from DC, right?

Phillip Esteban:
Yeah.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Is that…where do those connections come from and why bring them here for a one-night dinner?

Phillip Esteban:
Well, the power of social media can connect you with anyone in the world.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That is true!

Phillip Esteban:
They were doing a pop-up in Seattle with some chefs that I admire. And these guys have Filipino concepts that are getting very positive response in the market.

So I was like, I’m going to go up there, go to the pop-up. Met them, we hung out all night, went to a Chinese restaurant till like three o’clock in the morning.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Ah, that sounds like fun.

Phillip Esteban:
You know, it’s kind of like the normal chef stuff.

From there, you know Tom and Palo but they did Pogi Boy, which is their Filipino burger pop-ups that are very popular, and we do our burger pop-ups here every once in a while and outside like at the Friendly, or we do them internally here, and so the conversation was like,

“Yo, like, won’t you just come out and let’s celebrate some Filipino cuisine with everything going on?”

We tried to do it during Filipino-American History Month in October, but just timing and so many events already planned. So it got pushed back to now.

So they’re like, “We’ll come out.” So they’re bringing their burgers here. So Wednesday the 17th, we’re going to pretty much not run our menu at all that day.

It’ll be pretty much a kitchen takeover. Pogi Boy and we’ll have our burgers as well. And then just all day.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s awesome.

Phillip Esteban:
Which, the Filipino community, they love their champions. I always tell this joke, “Who was a fan of boxing before Manny Pacquiao?” Now they all are!

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s awesome. That’s good that they are supporting their community.

Phillip Esteban:
So it’s going to be crazy here. It’s going to be bonkers because the community is going to show up.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah. I bet.

Phillip Esteban:
We’ll run it all day. But both chefs are doing their own fine dining restaurants too, which brings me back to that first part of our story which was fine dining…

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s coming up next for you, right?

Phillip Esteban:
That’s the…yeah, I mean, I think so. I think we’re trying to move the locations because I want a space that has a deeper connection to the building space.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah, that’s so important these days to create the overall experience.

Phillip Esteban:
Like actual roots to it. But it is, but this is our first kind of preview night of it.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Got it.

Phillip Esteban:
And so we were like, “Hey, while you’re in town too, let’s do a fine dining dinner.” So…it’ll be six full courses. So you’ll get nine whole bites.

 

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And just really elevating Filipino food. It’s always been relegated to backyard parties and family restaurants.

Where you’re just like, “I want that one. I want that.”

We call it ‘turo turo’, which translates to ‘point point’.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
Then my idea of opening white rice was that Sinigang is a traditional Filipino breakfast.

But the idea is that you could have…we have it any time of the day. You can have it for dinner. But how do you create Filipino food approachable and palpable to a lot of demographics, right?

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
Right. Bring it to a new audience.

Phillip Esteban:
A lot of people are, “Why don’t you open up with White Rice in National City?”

There are mom-and-pop shops everywhere. Why would I compete with them?

I don’t want to do that to them.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Yeah.

Phillip Esteban:
But Liberty Public Market brings in so many different people to try Filipino food who never have.

And doing it in a way where it is palpable to a broader audience. Filipino food is, traditionally, not pleasant to the eyes.

A lot of rice, a lot of stews, black sauces. So it’s not sexy to look at either.

So put in a nice bowl, keeping it simple. Our white rice is our vessel hence the name.

And then just putting the food on top. So now we’ve filled that gap and now, more and more people are trying Filipino food can understand what Filipino food is, and then when they come to Valdez and/or this popup or future events that we do, they know what Sinangag is, they know what calamansi is or uba or different terminology.

Versus doing a fine dining restaurant right off the jump and spending more time having to do education. Like, they may trust me as a chef, but what is dinuguan? Right? What is this? I’ve never heard of this before. Oh, it’s like pork stew, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m not going to order that”, you know?

Yeah. So – it’s bridging that gap – which is what I’m hoping White Rice can do. It will introduce more people to Filipino food and that will feed the fine dining.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That makes a lot of sense. I love it. Let’s see here. What else? Anything else that you would like people to know about that we haven’t talked about yet?

Phillip Esteban:
I mean, we are in construction in kind of our last concept in this whirlwind of things opening, but it is kind of our first brick and mortar outside of the food hall.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Okay.

Phillip Esteban:
So it’s actually like outdoor dining, seating, and it’s called Wildflour. It’s going to be kind of spun from a lot of inspiration from a restaurant called Gjusta in LA.

 

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ThereSanDiego.com:
Okay.

Phillip Esteban:
It’s like a bakery, small plate goods. It’s one of my favorite restaurant groups in LA.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Cool.

Phillip Esteban:
My friend, Manny da Luz, who’s from Point Loma. We used to work for Tender Greens together. When I moved to New York, he left the Tender Greens in Santa Monica and opened up Gjusta for them. So it’s kind of a lot of good seafood, small plates, bread, sandwiches, and natural wine.

Then kind of a take on a Filipino bakery. Filipino breads and sandwiches. Calamansi curd inside of milk buns. Things like that.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Nice.

Phillip Esteban:
That one’s going to be off Adams Avenue in Normal Heights.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Okay.

Phillip Esteban:
If everything goes well, it’s slated for quarter one of 2022. So, that’ll be our first one, and after that, 2022 is about systems supporting our teams and no major projects.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Time to take a breather and focus on operations?

On supporting and representing the Filipino community…

Phillip Esteban:
Yes, although discussions are being had for other projects, we’re not going to really go into anything until 2023.

Another piece that I’m excited about is a community kitchen. I’m calling the project akin to Open Gym, calling it Open Source – so just free knowledge like the internet.

It’s going to be a program for women, people of color, and immigrants, and anyone within the community to then take their food ideas and concepts to market. So we’ll teach them…

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s cool.

Phillip Esteban:
…from recipe development to P&Ls. So now, I’m hoping the future of food in 10 to 15 years from now is powerful women.

ThereSanDiego.com:
The theme of your connection to the community, and giving back to the community is obviously very strong. That’s really cool.

Phillip Esteban:
When I first moved back to San Diego, there was a San Diego Union-Tribune article that came out and it was like, “Chef Phil, the Educator.”

And it was just this kind of time when at that point in the industry, all the chefs were like, it’s hard to find good people.

But it’s like, no it’s because no one wants to teach them anymore. You got to invest in them.

 

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Where 10 to 15 years ago, you could pull anyone off the street and they would be great. They would be amazing chefs.

Everyone was just like, I just want them to know how to do the job. They should apply and know-how to do the job.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Right, right. The labor market is very different now.

Phillip Esteban:
And so I met this Filipino entrepreneur named Tony Oleas. And he was like, I love all the community work you’re doing. And the education thing. And he was like, why do you do it? I’m like, well I just think this is what I should do as a chef.

And he’s like, have you heard the term ‘Kababayan’? And I was like, no, I grew up here. Unfortunately, I can’t speak or understand my language. Part of searching for my identity is through food, so this is kind of bringing me closer to my own roots, but exactly the term ‘Kababayan’ means spirit of community, the civic community within fellow countrymen.

If you have children, to get them to the top of the mountain, the whole theory of it takes a village, but then the rice terraces here, you’re helping the community to uplift everyone. He was like, yeah, you’re being the chef, but you’re also just being your own culture. You’re being ‘Kababayan’. You’re being Filipino. And I was like, cool.

I didn’t know that…the goosebumps came up. I was like, that’s cool. And so, it was a couple of months away and I had seen my family for Christmas and I was like, do you know this term? I just learned this ‘Kababayan’ they’re like, oh yeah, your grandfather was ‘Kababayan’ and I was like, what do you mean?

They’re like, well, in our province, the roads, the ditches, they would all contribute to dig the ditches out so that when it would rain, it wouldn’t flood, the town wouldn’t flood. That wasn’t their job, they just did it.

Your grandfather also built the first school for children in his community. So I was like, in a sense, maybe it was just being Filipino but also part of my own personal lineage and story and paying homage to him.

Phillip Esteban:
And probably to other family members before them, and settling down and helping future generations that look like me that have dark skin and flat noses where we’re told to, like, go to the Filipino market and buy the skin-whitening soaps.

Like, it’s okay to be you. It’s okay to be Filipino and be comfortable in your own skin. And then hopefully be creative and, we always joke, do dope shit. That’s what we say.

ThereSanDiego.com:
That’s a great story, and I think a great way to wrap it up.

It’s been so much fun to meet you. I appreciate it. It’s really cool to hear your story and hear all the things you’re doing to make San Diego an even better place to live and, of course, to eat!

And I’m really looking forward to exploring the Filipino culture and food here. I moved out here just over seven years ago now and I’ve just been blown away by how culturally rich it is; how much there is to offer.

And I’m discovering new stuff all the time – I love it.

Phillip Esteban:
Even for me, the majority of my life is here. There’s still so much I haven’t tried and so much yet to discover.

From ethnic foods to…we’re in this perfect sandwich between LA, this burgeoning culinary hub, getting all these Michelins and chefs all around the world coming, but also sandwiched between Mexico, Tijuana, Baja, Rosarito, Guadalupe. We’re not just a drive-by. There’s a lot here. There’s a lot to do.

And so telling those stories and the people that are doing it in the right way is important.

ThereSanDiego.com:
Absolutely. It’s exciting. Thank you so much.