The Faces Behind the Food

Monday, January 19, 2009 54 comments

Toiling in anonymity

In response to my post about comfort food, many of you shared your favorite soothing dishes, which ranged from kimchee soup to the many incarnations of pasta. However, a few of you also brought up an intriguing point: the comfort you felt was derived not from the food itself but from the person who prepared it. 

My SIL LouAnn at Oyster Food and Culture wrote that she loves her mother's curried shrimp but admitted that it bears deep meaning only if Mom makes it. And Mediterranean Kiwi, who blogs at Organically Cooked, offered this comment:
"I am comforted by all kinds of food . . . and the most comforting food of all is the one presented to me and cooked by others."
The feelings evoked by comfort food - of being cared for and coddled - come from the loving acts of others, whether it's a husband bringing breakfast in bed, a grandmother making her special caramels for Christmas, or a college roommate baking brownies for a cram session. For some, those feelings are deeply embedded in particular foods and are potent regardless of who prepares it; for others, the thought that someone cares enough to expend time and energy on their behalf imbues any food with a special quality. Of course, this latter point assumes a close personal relationship between the giver and receiver, which led me to wonder: is the food still special if you don't know the cook from Adam?

We tout the pleasures of home-cooked meals but most of us still enjoy eating out and that means being nourished by strangers. The term is relative, however - by virtue of reputations for extraordinary culinary skill, outsized personalities or both, certain chefs have become celebrities who are as familiar to us as our own families, even if it's unlikely we'd ever meet. They come into our homes through television, books and the Internet, and some of us have even learned how to cook from them - a role traditionally played by our mothers and grandmothers. We may never taste a morsel of the food they create and yet we have no doubt that the experience would be transcendent and special (thanks to rhapsodic reviews from more fortunate foodies). 

But for every Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller, for each El Bulli and The French Laundry, there are thousands of unheralded souls at corner bistros, storefront diners, food stalls and pushcarts, whose food is eagerly consumed but whose efforts are, for the most part, unrecognized. How often have I focused on the dish in front of me, savoring the pleasure of eating, with nary a thought to the person who prepared it?  

Too often, I realized, as I went through the photos of our recent travels in the Philippines. Image after image of dishes and drinks remind me of the wonderful meals we enjoyed but only a few depict the faces behind the food. In places such as the Salcedo Saturday Market in Makati City, they are folks like the young man selling ice cream from a cart emblazoned with a carefully handpainted name ("Celso Boy") and the woman proudly offering an amazing array of inihaw fish and meat as her companions tend to the grilling behind her. 

I stopped to take pictures but didn't bother to speak to them, to ask questions that now come to mind: are you Celso Boy? Is this your own business? Is that your family at the grill? Are these your recipes?  I was so enamored of the surroundings and the food that I virtually ignored the people who generated the market's vibrancy and created delicious dishes.

But then, there were those vendors who could never be overshadowed by their fare; indeed, their personalities drew my attention and added to the flavor of their offerings. There was the gregarious Ike Miranda of TonG (pronounced 'ton-Gee') Coffee who handed me a generous cup of  his dark, aromatic brew and spoke with obvious pride about personally selecting the beans, creating the blends, and overseeing the roasting process. I might have passed over his product on a grocery store shelf crammed with other brands but hearing firsthand the passion in his voice about his conscious efforts to offer high quality made me feel as if these beans were roasted especially for me.

Ike Miranda and TonG Coffee

And who could possibly overlook the proprietor of the food stand Gigi La Crêpe, a Tagalog-speaking Frenchman named Gilbert Rault, whose burly physique belied the delicacy of his authentic Breton crêpes and galettes? Preparing them alongside stalls of strange tropical fruits, freshly caught seafood and grilled pork skewers, he deftly flipped dainty little crêpes from the griddle onto parchment paper, to be buttered and sugared before being handed over to an eager appetite. Each plate is made to order by Rault and every component of the dish receives his full attention as it cooks. You may have to wait in salivating anticipation but rest assured that at that moment, you will feel as if you were his most important customer. 

Gilbert Rault and his griddle

I know it's impractical to believe that I can meet every sous-chef or short-order cook who will ever prepare a meal for me; in fact, it's likely that most would rather not be accosted by some strange Asian woman. And quite frankly, there are food service providers to whom I am nothing more than just another order. But for my part, I can at least be mindful that there is an individual behind the counter or kitchen doors and in those instances when I do make their acquaintance, I've found that even a brief encounter adds a personal - dare I say 'special'? - component to the food. They may not create my meals with the same sentiments as my loved ones but these anonymous chefs are no less deserving of my thanks when they provide a satisfying and enjoyable dish. 

If you're ever in Makati City on the weekend, please visit the Salcedo Saturday Market and its Sunday cohort, the Legaspi Market, and say hello to Celso Boy, Ike and Gilbert for me! 

TonG Coffee
Ike and Narda Miranda
Tel: +722-2894

Gigi La Crêpe
Gilbert Rault
Tel: +632 729-7783

For an extraordinary story of real behind-the-food heroes, check out Comestiblog's post on the "Unsung Heroes of 9/11".


  • Anonymous said...

    Another excellent thought-provoking post! We started thinking more about people who actually prepare the food after our incredible experience at the Chef's table at the Dining room at the Woodlands. The Chef de Cuisine for example does so much work and rarely gets the credit. And how loving were all the finishing touches by the Executive chef. Each dish was personal to all that contributed to it. It was amazing!

  • Chef E said...

    Tangled- You write so eloquently...and your profound wisdom is wonderful...I too like to visit vendors...I almost blogged about one we ate lunch at in the middle of now where one day while we were fishing, but they had many cars stopping...and I had a version of an Italian sandwich I had never had...thank you for sharing makes my mind wander to wonderful memories of my own!

  • Joie de vivre said...

    Sadly, I think the majority of places I go out to I am merely an order. I will be mindful next time of the people who prepared it though. Thanks for the book recommendation. I don't have to have my arm twisted very hard to be swayed by a book though. I'm going to check tomorrow to see if my library has it.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - The resulting dish is sometimes so wonderful that it captures all the attention. As I try new recipes and work on my cooking, I have a new appreciation for those who do it with such skill, day after day.

    BTW, you mentioned the Woodlands - is that in or near Charleston, SC (Summerville?)

    Heather - They really are - I'm embarrassed to say that I often give a hurried "Thanks!" as I reach for whatever I've ordered. I don't even make eye contact because I'm already focused on eating! I hope to change that.

    Chef E - Thank you! I'm so happy to hear that it brings such happy memories.

  • Maria Verivaki said...

    wonderful to see smiling faces behind the food on display - it makes you want to eat all the more.

    living in a small town on a mediterranean island, it is not so easy to find such food courts (as i've come to call them from my birthplace, new zealand). As for ChefE, it brings back nice memories.

  • Anonymous said...

    Beautifully put and insightful as ever. You remind us that the "why" of chow has a lot to do with the "who" of chow. I guess it's part of why I like, when I can, to shop at open markets. You get to see the people behind the stalls and their enthusiasm, interest (and sometimes cooking advice!) means that I feel more of a connection to the food I'm buying. And if I should ever get to the Philippines, I know a couple of markets I'm going to visit... :)

  • Lori said...

    Such great thoughts and points. I struggle with this all the time. I hate the language barrier I have in Brazil. I try so hard to learn Portuguese, but can't get to the point where I could hold a meaningful conversation like you mention. Every time I go to the feira I am filled with questions I want to ask the vendors. I want to beg the lady who makes all the sweets to take me home and show me how they are made traditionally.

    In Brazil I've noticed the same kind of divide we are experiencing the in the US. The younger generation doesn't cook and would rather buy their traditional treats. I know there is so much knowledge I could gain out there from the older generation if I could only get a better grasp of the language.

  • Anonymous said...

    In London certain farmers market organizations, like FARMA, require someone who is connected with the farm (works the land or directly associated with) to sell the product (i.e. they can't just hire a random person to sell their goods). This ensures that they can provide answers to all your questions. Also, they take pride in the products they sell.

    I've found that engaging the vendors in conversation provides so much knowledge and if you develop a relationship with them they try harder to provide the best for you.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Joie - Definitely let me know if you enjoy the book! After reading it, you'll probably recognize a lot of the principles in my posts. As for feeling like just another order, I definitely have had those moments.

    EDLCG - Thank you so much!! I'm so excited because this is the second lemonade award I've received, the first courtesy of 5 Star Foodie. Both are greatly appreciated!! I will post links to the blogs I'm passing it on to as soon as I can.

    5 Star - We have been there and it was a marvelous experience. The food was delicious but the staff and their service were absolutely outstanding and so very gracious.

    Mediterranean Kiwi - Your earlier comment, as you can see, inspired this post! I can be very shy about serving food that I've cooked to family members; I admire those who literally stand behind their dishes!

    Daily Spud - Exactly! They are always so enthusiastic about their creations - it's not only about transactions but also communication. When we visited Dublin, went to a weekend market in Temple Bar. I could've spent the whole day going from stand to stand, chatting and eating - that would've been a perfect day! (Alas, Kilkenny beckoned.)

    Lori - I didn't even think about language barriers! I'm trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese in preparation for the day (don't know when) I finally visit and it is one of the hardest languages I've ever come across!! But keep at it! The best part about eating out is the variety to which we are exposed and hopefully, it will inspire us to try it at home, as you want to. It would be a shame if food traditions and recipes were lost because there was no one to hand them down to.

    Gastroanthropologist - That's a great requirement, having the producer serving as vendor as well. That's the problem with groceries, isn't it? The packaged products are so impersonal; they must rely on marketing to create a 'narrative' of intimacy, like a picture of mother and child on a can of soup.

    I have so much fun asking questions not only because I learn so much but also, it is infectious to see another person's enthusiasm!

    Cris - I feel the same way about Brazil! As much as we want to return to the Philippines, my husband and I have agreed that if we can swing a big trip this year, it will be to your homeland!

  • Anonymous said...

    Wondering when you visited the Woodlands - during Scott Crawford, Tarver King or the newest Nate Whiting? We were there with Tarver and we are so super excited because he just joined a new restaurant 20 minutes near us in Virginia and we're going to visit on Valentine's Day. Check out my review on the Dining Room at the Woodlands on my website.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - I read your review: what an amazing experience that must have been! I'm sorry to say that our visit to Woodlands pre-dated my evolving appreciation for fine cuisine so I don't know who presided over the kitchen. However, I can tell you that it was during the summer of 2001 - do you know who it was at that time?

    World in a Pan - Thank you! I'm pleased you enjoyed it. And I greatly enjoyed visiting your site - I look forward to reading more!

    Jo - Bon voyage and happy eating! Those 2 restaurants just scratch the surface of what's available (if you have a hankering for sinigang, try Barrio Fiesta in Brgy Poblacion - it's on Makati Ave and just behind a block from my parents' house).

  • Anonymous said...

    I love that Saturday market in Temple Bar. I don't get there half often enough and I don't have much of an excuse for not doing so - I could walk there in about 45 minutes from my house! - it doesn't get too much more local than that :)

  • Anonymous said...

    I think your chef at the Woodlands must have been Scott Crawford - he is now at the Georgian Room in Sea Island, another 5 star, and he is amazing!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Daily Spud - Please let me know the next time you go! We had arrived in Dublin the day before (a Friday morning) and were scheduled to pick up a rental car to begin our cross-Ireland travels so we couldn't stay long. So, until we return, I can only go to market vicariously through you!

    Hornsfan - Thank you! I hope you'll continue to enjoy the posts. BTW, my SIL graduated from McCombs b-school so I've got my Longhorns tees!!

    5 Star - Too bad I can't turn back the clock and go back armed with this info so that I can fully appreciate having had the opportunity to dine on his creations. I can only hope I'll get another chance, both to eat at Woodlands again and to sample Chef Crawford's talents.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Selba - Your blog is amazing! I love all the photos of the food vendors and the food they create. We don't see anything like these in US cities (not counting hot dog and pizza vendors). I must learn more about Indonesian food so I look forward to reading your blog.

  • Anonymous said...

    I always wonder who the people behind our plates are. And I am curious also to know where they eat, what their favorite dishes are.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Mariana - My curiosity about them, I'm sorry to say, has only been piqued recently as I cook more and understand how difficult it can be to put together one dish, much less for so many people! I get so anxious worrying whether or not my husband or whomever I'm feeding will like what I've made. I can only imagine what these chefs, cooks and vendors must go through.
    I wish I'd asked that question - I'm sure we'd discover some new places that we might not consider on our own!

    BTW, I wanted to thank you for your awards list! I've particularly enjoyed Rachel Laudan and Organically Cooked's sites - I'm so happy I found them through you!

  • Dee said...

    What a beautiful post & these photos are just fabulous. I do think it's not what they cook but the fact that they are preparing it for us. Of the memories our family holds dear are those of meals prepared by our family members no longer with us. I still yearn for my Grandfather's meatballs & my Grandmother's pralines. A family that passes recipes from generation to generation, hands memories which will live on.

  • Kiezie said...

    A wonderful post. I love getting to know the people who bring their wares to my local farmers markets. It is wonderful and really adds to the reasons I go. It was great to read your post!! I now find myself talking to perfect strangers at the grocery store, comparing ingredients, asking what they are cooking with it. It makes my trips last twice as long, but I have so much fun!! :) Stop by my blog today, I have a little gift for you!!

  • Unknown said...

    Oh miss Tangle I do love how you write! My husband just made me grilled cheese sandwiches yesterday and I can tell you that the best stuff on earth even if it is simple comes from someone who loves you! The few times I have eaten out I always make sure I give my compliments to the chef because I realize how much goes into cooking! My favorite story I love to tell is of my stepson James when he said "You know why your stuff tastes good Christine?" And I said "No, why?"
    Because of all the love you put into it." You may have heard me talk about it before but that will be in my heart forever and is especially when I cook or bake! Thank you for this wonderful post!


  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Dee - Beautifully said! Although we lose a little something when a dear one has passed away, their recipes are still a link. Come to think of it, instead of saying that a recipe loses a little something, I should say that it gains a little something with each generation. That's reason enough to make sure that we them down!

    ChefBliss - Thank you - it really made my day to know that you made and enjoyed one of my recipes! One of the reasons I so admire vendors and food providers is that they have enough confidence in themselves and their work to put it out there for us. I'm still nervous cooking for others or even putting out a recipe b/c I have yet to achieve that full confidence. Maybe by talking to them, I can learn to trust myself and my abilities.

    Christine - Thank you for your lovely comments. Don't ever stop recounting that story - it's a deserving testament to you that James had such a wonderful, spontaneous reaction to your efforts. Think about it: you probably are and will be the touchstone to his best memories and comfort foods! 8-)

  • Reeni said...

    I eat at a lot of locally owned restaurants, rather than 'chains' and have met some of the sweetest people and fantastic cooks. The one that really comes to mind is a small Mexican restaurant-the owner waits on us and his wife prepares our food. She always comes out to say hi and talk with us. And they both come over and say good bye to us when we get ready to leave. They make us feel special, and that makes them special to us.

  • Anonymous said...

    TN, I'm spoiled because I can have these great discussions with you via the phone, or sometimes if we're lucky in person, sending Mr. Noodle for a bottle of wine.

    I love seeing who prepares the food because it really completes the experience. When my sister and I were in Singapore, our guide wanted us to have an American style meal so he took us to a Hawker Center where a vendor specialized in hamburgers. They were so excited to have 2 Americans ordering their burgers that the folks working behind the counter came over to our table several times to check up on us, and see what we thought of their food. While I may not have chosen my last meal in Singapore to be hamburger, I'll never forget the kindness, curiousity, and shared culinary enthusism of that encounter. That was one of those rich experiences that make travel so rewarding.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Reeni - When its so personal like that, you feel like you're not just enjoying a meal - you're supporting someone's goals and reinforcing their decision to take such risks as opening a restaurant. You show your support and in turn, they show you how much they appreciate it. How wonderful that you have such a great relationship with that couple!

    Oyster - We have some long conversations, don't we? Lori above mentioned that language barriers can sometimes pose problems but common interests help to overcome it. From our own experiences trying out other culture's cuisines, we know how important it is for us to feel that we got it 'right' - the fact that they came out often to check on you tells me that they wanted to be sure they did justice to 'your' cuisine instead of just putting it out there as if you were simply another customer. How sweet of them!

  • Anonymous said...

    A tagalog speaking frenchman? I don't think I've ever met such a guy. Lost of potential for awesome fusion there.
    Thanks for the beautiful post :)

  • Chef E said...

    Tangled, I posted a recipe for dosai and that is what you make idlis out of silly! Look back on the sambar post it is highlighted, and really easy to make...

  • Anonymous said...

    I agree that the comfort does come from the preparer.

    My daughter loves my mom's chicken breast that she cooks in her cast iron stove.

    Mind you, I know how my mom makes it, use the same seasonings, and every time she says "it doesn't taste like Nana's!"

  • Anonymous said...

    I loved reading your post! I grew up in Bgy Olympia in Makati and remembered going to the small wet market near Trabajo St. I enjoyed watching the vendors create those sweet smelling breakfast of sticky rice my Lola and I used to have before shopping. Salcedo Market wasn't there when I lived in Salcedo village but visiting at least twice a year, friends have taken me there and we all enjoyed fantastic dishes and definitely some "characters". I will definitely look for Ike and his TonG Coffee next time. And a Tagalog-speaking Frenchman? Intriguing!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Raquel - Hi and thanks so much! My parents are currently living in Brgy Poblacion and we lived in Quezon City until moving to Canada when I was about 6yrs old. The last time I was in the Philippines was 18 yrs ago so this trip was such a revelation for me. Salcedo market was awesome but I didn't get a chance to go to a real wet market - that's on the itinerary for our next trip!

  • Anonymous said...

    I haven't been back to the Philippines for a at least 3 years. I am definitely going to squeeze in a trip to the Salcedo market on my next visit! Thanks for awakening delicious memories...

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    lalaine - You're welcome and thank you for coming by! I hadn't been back to PI in 18yrs so everything felt like it was a brand new experience. Salcedo Market was really something else but there are so many other outdoor markets that I want to visit when (not if!) we return. Love your blog and all those marvelous recipes, especially for Filipino dishes. I look forward to reading your blog often!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Comestiblog - It was such a wonderful story that I wanted to let others know! How marvelous when people who might otherwise remain strangers can make such close connections (especially when your first connection was through food!).

  • Anonymous said...

    i totally agree about what you said about TonG coffee! we just recently visited the salcedo market and i could not leave without a pack of coffee!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Mrslavendula - We have just one bag left! I e-mail Ike Miranda at TonG and told him that I'll send my mother to get some more when she comes to the US for a visit later this spring. Until then, we have to ration our beans!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Mr. & Mrs. Lavendula 8-), we are hoarding them like misers! But hopefully, they will last that long. I've got an aunt who'll be visiting Manila in April so we may not have to wait as long as we thought for my mother to re-supply us. Thanks for your concern! 8-)


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