In Review

ULAM: Main Dish

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars - 'Smashing'
Director/Producer: Alexandra Cuerdo
Producer/Director of Photography: John Floresca
Producer: Rey Cuerdo
Documentary, 80 min.
Premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFFILM)
Review by Jeanne Powell

ULAM: Main Dish had its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival and is one of five films in the Festival’s Launch Initiative.

Director Alexandra Cuerdo interviewed chefs and restaurateurs about the most underrated food culture in the U.S. – Filipino cuisine. In a fascinating 80 minutes, her documentary pulls together lively interviews and mouth-watering images of the complex dishes which compose cuisine from the Philippines.

The key to everyone’s heart is through their stomach.

In the process of introducing the audience to Filipino menus, Cuerdo introduces the audience to a family-centered culture with a multiplicity of variations in cooking styles. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands in Asia. There is no one way to prepare and serve a dish, as these chefs and restaurant owners confirm.

“The key to everyone’s heart is through their stomach,” says chef Alvin Cailan of Eggslut and Unit 120. The challenge has been getting restaurant owners and chefs to believe in the concept, in the execution and to retain confidence that serving this food will attract a following.

Among those interviewed for this documentary are Nicole Ponseca and chef Miguel Trinidad of Maharlika and Jeepney; Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa of Purple Yam; and Charles Olalia of Ricebar. Many started from the ground up with no prior experience in restaurant kitchens. Their determination stands out because their families discouraged them from going into such a hard life and tried to steer them into more dependable occupations – law, engineering, teaching.

Their collective struggle for authenticity and to gain respect for Filipino cuisine forms the heart of this documentary. With colorful interviews, exquisite photos of beloved dishes such as adobo chicken and lumpia, Cuerdo includes images of the chefs shopping in New York’s Chinatown for authentic ingredients, delighted that the merchants there can deliver large quantities of basic ingredients on short notice. Emphasis is on restaurants in New York and Los Angeles.

Documentary Film Review at SFFILM: ULAM: Main Dish
Chicken adobo by Andre Guerrero, from ‘ULAM: Main Dish’. Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment.
Documentary Film Review at SFFILM: ULAM: Main Dish
Behind the scenes with Romy Dorotan of Purple Yam from ‘ULAM: Main Dish’. Photo courtesy of Kidlat Entertainment.

“Value what your mom made you.” This philosophy motivated some of the owners and chefs, who were tired of being mistaken for every ethnicity except their own. Thai? Vietnamese? Indian? No, said one owner. And she gave up a career in advertising to enter the restaurant business.

Once the decision was made to “put Filipino food on the map,” there was a lot of soul searching. How to navigate a variety of recipes and the continuing challenge of not believing in themselves or their culture? So many chefs had been working outside their culture, like Damian, like Andre. Miguel flew back to the Philippines for authenticity, “to be sure he got it right.”

Authenticity is a loaded word, the documentary explains. What was food like before the Spanish invaded? What was food like before the Americas (North and South)?

We are reminded that food is affected by the humidity of a climate. The practice of fermenting allowed the preservation of food in the Philippines. When Filipinos borrow ingredients from other cultures, they adapt as well as adopt. They come up with their own version. Chef Miguel says there is a continuous journey in flavor; so many flavor combinations.

Filipinos love to support success, the documentary says. The chefs help each other, rather than compete.

Always the caveat – because we are Filipino, there are multiple ways we could fail. Initially Nicole was told that “white people are not interested in our food and are not going to pay for it.” She proved them wrong.  Christina said, “technically we should fail – uneducated people of color in a field with notoriously high rate of restaurants going belly up.” And there are micro-aggressions within the self – “I’m not good enough; my color isn’t good enough.”

ULAM: Main Dish – Official Trailer

In the volatile world of restaurants, sustainability relies on cultural bloodlines. Filipinos love to support success, the documentary says. The chefs help each other, rather than compete. And according to Bon Appetit magazine, “Filipino food has finally arrived.”

Congratulations to Alexandra Cuerdo, who is making her debut as the director of a feature documentary. Appreciation to John Floresca for the cinematography. ULAM is now one of the “top 5 food documentaries to watch.” Well worth viewing.

ULAM: Main Dish
San Francisco International Film Festival
4 out of 5 stars

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.