December 1, 2023 — In its quest to elevate its standing among global cuisines, Filipino food has a quiet champion in The Gifted Chef, Jayson Alilin.
As a child growing up in Manila, Alilin was no stranger to good home-cooked meals. His parents ran a carinderia that catered to students and staff at the nearby Villamor High School in Sta. Ana, Manila where he himself attended.
“The popular dishes my father used to cook were paksiw na lechon (roast pig stew), kaldereta (beef stew) and ginataang pagi (stingray meat stew in coconut milk),” Alilin fondly recalled his childhood.
It came as no surprise then that Alilin chose to take a basic culinary arts program at the STI College in Manila. From there, he managed The Metro Concert Bar in Quezon City, spent five years in Singapore as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), and returned to the Philippines to open a restaurant serving Singaporean dishes in Angono, Rizal.
In 2018, the self-branded Gifted Chef was back to being an OFW, this time working at a Triple O’s outlet in Richmond, B.C. in Canada. The move enabled Alilin to bring his wife and kids to Canada.
“I started with Triple O’s on a work visa but unfortunately after two years, they couldn’t renew my visa,” Alilin shared with Canadian Filipino Net (CFNet). He kept looking for work until he received an offer from a fast food outlet away from Richmond.
The Alilin family packed whatever they possessed into an older car and made the 15-hour drive from Richmond to the small town of Vanderhoof, with a population of just 4,000 residents.
Alilin told CFNet, “We actually had no idea how we could travel to Vanderhoof.” He had just failed the driving test to get his novice license, one step up from a learner’s license.
Tenacity prevailed when Alilin took the test for a second time, this time passing it. “I almost hugged the examiner for passing me!”
Aside from working at the fast food chain, Alilin and his family started serving barbecue skewers at the Vanderhoof farmers market held annually during summer with the initial goal of teaching young adults with developmental disabilities to work in a restaurant setup. Alilin’s eldest son has autism.
However, the skewers and expanded menu of adobo and lumpiang shanghai (spring rolls) proved to be so popular that residents began to ask whether the offerings could be made available on a year round basis.
The District of Vanderhoof’s director asked if the Alilins were interested in running a concession inside the Vanderhoof sports arena. Alilin requested that it be run as a full-service restaurant serving Filipino food. The District agreed and Alilin grabbed the opportunity. He soon opened the restaurant the following winter, serving Filipino dishes that were already gaining popularity both within Vanderhoof and neighbouring towns.
The District later offered Alilin the opportunity to run the bigger OK Café the following summer.
“The food turned out to be so good that Filipinos and their friends and family from other neighbouring towns and cities like Prince George began to troop to the OK Café.”
[Editor’s note: The OK Café is one of Vanderhoof’s original settler buildings. It was built in 1920. The café is part of the Vanderhood museum complex. It was originally built and operated as a restaurant and hotel by Tim Chow and George Chuey.]
The OK Café is currently closed for the season, but The Gifted Chef is back to running the concession in the arena. The Café will be back in operation by spring.
The proud father of three and advocate of all food Filipino has this to say, “Filipino food is very diverse as it is shaped by the colonization of different countries, leaving their traditions and influence in our cuisine. We have a variety of hearty food that anybody in this world could easily fall in love with like adobo and spring rolls which drew people to like our food.”