Walking the Talk: Amy Besa

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The victory of one is the victory of all, and with Filipino fare spreading its goodness all around the world, it is only right to make sure that its roots are never forgotten. That’s what Amy Besa aims to do in bringing New York-famous Purple Yam back to the motherland

Here’s some food for thought: The excellence of many of our local raw ingredients and products remain underrated and under utilized.

There isn’t nearly as much interest in the difference between the delicious coconut lambanog and the rare but equally delicious nipa lambanog as these excellent local products deserve. There aren’t nearly as many questions asked about the salts from Zambales and Guimaras (and how they enhance dishes in their own ways, or how different they are from store-bought table salt) as there should be. There isn’t enough hype about the wild and raw honey of Abra, or the black “duck” rice of Bukidnon, or the homebrewed ginger ale. There isn’t enough attention placed on the wonders of the raw ingredients and products that every nook and cranny of our country has to offer.

But the local food industry has been out to change that, slowly but surely bringing back the landscape of Filipino food to its roots, while bringing to the forefront a better appreciation and use of all things homegrown. Amy Besa, co-owner of the New York-famous Purple Yam, is part of this movement. She’s one of those people out to prove that our country’s own produce is distinctly delicious.

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The Talk
To start things off, Amy knew that, coming back and forth from New York to the Philippines, she didn’t want to come up with the usual cookbook. Instead of the common ingredient listing and step by step instruction layout, she chose to do a cookbook with some historical and social context. It was high time someone shone a different spotlight on Filipino food.

“The first thing people do when they define Filipino food is they look at the dishes,” she says. “It is time to move on from dishes to ingredients, to give a different perspective on our food.”

To take a stand against something that most people have become used to is no small task, but Amy took this challenge by the horns; and with her straightforward, no-nonsense attitude coupled with a fiercely independent mind and a passionate heart, her advocacy to champion Filipino food took off.

While most of us would shrink back into the more comfortable recesses of our minds, Amy tells it like it is. She goes on about the usual ‘My Adobo is better than Your Adobo’ exchange, as well as the regional ‘our food here is better than your food there’ face-off, and the reality of it hits. Food became more divisive when it was meant to be unifying. “Of course your mom’s adobo is better! But it’s not important. It makes no sense.”

We have, on more than one occasion, fooled ourselves into believing that the end-all of Filipino food is a singular dish. That is the mindset this food activist is aiming to change.

“When you start looking at food in terms of ingredients, flavor, and terrior, then it makes more sense. Everybody’s food has its own integrity.” Amy also likens the food to people, simply stating that comparing is just no good, and that ‘every individual person has to be appreciated and understood’.

Taking Strides
Her ideas manifested and thrived in Purple Yam, her restaurant venture with husband Chef Romy Dorotan. And now that the New York-famous establishment has made its way back to the motherland, the advocacy is more alive than ever. Their partnership is, dare I say it, perfect: she, the voice, he, the man behind the food. And although Chef Romy himself was not present at the interview, it felt like he was there.

For one, the restaurant in Malate was filled with products that he himself made, shipped here. And Amy described their tandem herself: “We don’t even think about it but we both interact with each other. There are times we disagree and make compromises and just come up with ideas, but we are in sync with our values, which is: food is such an integral part of human nature and of life and culture that you cannot separate it.”

Like the perfect marriage, their understanding of each other and of their solid stance on showcasing Filipino food spans borders. I believe it is because of this that they have managed to not only establish a well-known restaurant, but to also produce a book that sums up both their experiences while pushing forward their Filipino food movement.

The Walk
The book ‘Memories of Philippine Kitchens’ was never meant to just be a collection of recipes. It is more the documentation of Filipino food deeply rooted in culture and melded with their New York lifestyle, meant to break down cultural walls and bring together people who share a love for good, honest food and exciting flavors. It was Amy and Chef Romy’s take on the story of Filipino food.

Writing the book was, in itself, a great eye-opener for the pair. “I learned so much from the creation of this book,” Amy happily sighs. With the way she presented the book so eagerly to me, pointing out little details and telling behind-the-scenes stories, it was apparent that it made as big an impact on her as it did the book’s readers. Dealing with influential people (like photographer Neal Oshima, as well as with several local chefs) truly humbled her. And with so much experience, one would think that Amy has everything down pat with regards to our food.

“We’re all on a [continuous] journey of discovering what this country offers. That’s what makes me wake up every morning excited to do what we’re doing.”
And so the learning continues, and is steadily being applied to Purple Yam Malate, which she describes as a realization of every idea ever born back in New York and on our own shores; it is a way of thinking, a set of values – the walk of the talk.

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Carrying On
Amy tells me that, if it weren’t for Chef Romy, her palate wouldn’t be as developed and these ideas would never have taken shape in her mind. So dynamic has been their decade-long collaboration that their taste buds could easily tell you the back story of whatever you’re eating – bread is old, fish isn’t fresh, meat has been frozen, salad tastes of the refrigerator.

This is the skill that this pair wants to actively share. “If people start taking notice of their food and start learning to differentiate and discern when food has no integrity, then I think the [food] industry will have to listen.” Thus continues their Filipino food advocacy that is now being passed down to younger chefs that Amy and Chef Romy mentor themselves.

A success such as theirs isn’t to be taken lightly. It is staggering, and the Filipino
people have welcomed this and embraced this as the country’s own. As such, it
requires a constant care, a conscious effort to keep the ideas and values afloat,
and a familiar hand at work on every dish prepared. But the couple is more than
willing to let their baby go, passing on their knowledge and experiences (and business)
to a younger generation who possess the same passion for Filipino food as they do.

“It is all a collaboration,” Amy explains, eagerly parading her team of young chefs
who are learned in their own ways about the workings of the kitchen and beyond. “I teach them, and I also learn from them. They learn from my experience, I learn from their sensibilities.”

What is taught is a whole world of ideas centered on the celebration of local ingredients and locally made products as they are brought to the forefront and showcased for the entire
nation (and the world) to see.

With Purple Yam serving what Amy describes as comfort food using the best possible local ingredients prepared in the best possible way, and with their new weekend pop-up in SM Aura, they are living out just that. From buko pies to cheese tarts, to tocino and bread, the stall serves as an extended venue of voicing out what it is exactly that they are aiming
to promote.

The underlying benefit of all of these movements that Chef Romy and Amy have started – from the accumulation of local ingredients to uphold, to the marketing and sales – is that there is a bigger market that seeks bigger demand that gives local farmers a better livelihood (basic economics since, fun fact, Chef Romy actually has a PhD in Economics).

“This is part of our culture. Farmers work hard to produce these, so you honor them by eating their produce.”

In a way, they are coming full circle, paying it forward in the best way all out of a deep
love for their heritage.

“We’re at that stage of legacy,” a radiant Amy points out, coolly sitting back with a kamias pop cocktail in hand – her own concoction.

True enough, she and Chef Romy have been on a journey of digging deep into our food’s roots and showing them off all around the world, championing a noble cause. It’s only right that, on their return from the concrete jungle back to the pearl of the orient seas, a huge celebration be thrown. They’ve been throwing Filipino food celebrations day in and day out for decades!

With both their restaurants (Cendrillon from 1995 to 2009, and now Purple Yam) being
written up in almost every food magazine and newspaper here and abroad, it’s safe to say that the Dorotan-Besa tandem have done a good job in carrying the flag.

But the battle isn’t won. The Philippine food industry, Amy believes, has a long way to go in terms of loving its own. The celebration of Filipino food and ingredients – cooking and eating with our native ingredients and actually buying and using local – needs to continue. So, here’s some more food for thought: the next time you make a grocery or market run, let your senses and Filipino instinct do the work. Give those amazing Filipino products a chance at your kitchen.

Enjoy Amy Besa’s signature recipes: Mango Tart with Quick Puff Pastry and Grilled Whole Fish with Citrus-Butter Sauce

Article by HARMONY ADIAO
Photography by GABBY CANTERO
Makeup by PONTI PONTIVEROS

Shot on location PURPLE YAM, MALATE
Purple Yam is located at 603 Julio Nakpil corner Bocobo, Malate, Manila. For inquiries, you may call (02) 523 3497.

This article was originally published in the February-March 2016 issue of Breakfast Magazine.