Meet Yana Gilbuena, The Traveling Queen Of Filipino Food

For one woman, 50 states meant 50 chances to put Filipino food on the map.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

Filipino cuisine doesn't get nearly enough love - just ask globe-trotting foodie Yana Gilbuena.

For Gilbuena, who spent time living in both L.A. and NYC but who grew up in the Philippines, finding food that reminded her of home meant either outrageous prices or long treks out of her neighborhood, if not both. It just wasn't accessible.

"I couldn't get the food that I grew up with, the food that I was craving," Gilbuena, 32, explained. "I just felt like no one else was [offering it] and I really wanted to share the spectrum of the cuisine."

"I couldn't get the food that I grew up with, the food that I was craving."

The old saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention and, driven by the lack of options when it came to Filipino food, Gilbeuna created the Salo Project: a series of Filipino-themed pop-up dinners. Pop-up dinners, sometimes known as underground restaurants, are spontaneous dining events held in unconventional spaces - picture a dinner party at an abandoned factory or the eclectic dining room of a friend-of-a-friend. They have become an increasingly popular way for curious foodies to try new and interesting foods in an intimate setting. The unique dining format was the perfect fit for Yana's goal of introducing the world to everything Filipino food had to offer.

Gilbuena and a documentarian set out on a journey across the country. Traveling primarily by bus and train, Yana hosted intimate dinners in each one of the 50 states over the course of 52 weeks - no small accomplishment, especially for someone with few established connections in the culinary world.

"I don't have chef buddies that I went to school with," the self-taught chef explained. "There was a lot of cold-calling and presenting myself as I am and hoping to God they would get what I do and believe in what I do, enough to trust me and let me take over their kitchen."

Thanks in part to feverish social media networking, the dinners were a resounding success. While the documentary never quite made it off the cutting room floor, Yana was so pleased at the end of the US tour that she then spent two months doing the same thing in Canada.

"At the end of the night, not only have they shared a meal...they've established friendships."

"For me, the dinners were not just about the food - it was an experience. The food was set on banana leaves and it's all communal - everyone eats with their hands - and I make it a point that people get to know other people so it's not like, dinner with a bunch of strangers," Yana explained. "Whether they came because [Filipino food] is a cuisine they wanted to explore or they're Filipino and they want to reconnect to their culture through food, I make sure that, at the end of the night, not only have they shared a meal, but they've established a few friendships as well."

No matter what's on the menu for any particular night, Yana makes a point of incorporating into every dinner at least one dish each to represent the three main regions of the Philippines (Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao). Pancit (or noodles) are cultural favorites, as are lumpia - the Filipino version of spring rolls - and roasted suckling pig (lechon).

Good food and good friends often go hand in hand, which makes the project's tagline - "to catch and to gather" - even more fitting. The phrase is a loose translation of the Tagalog word "salu-salo," which can mean either "a big party or gathering" or "to catch."

Yana will be catching and gathering in the name of Filipino food in South and Central America next and from there, she hopes to one day bring the project to Europe, Asia, and Africa. It's the life of a globe-trotting food fanatic, and not one that Yana ever imagined when she first moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines in her early twenties.

Back then, she was a pre-med student, and though she ultimately decided against attending medical school, her resume wouldn't even mention food for quite a few years. Gilbuena has worked as a behavior therapist, studied architecture at the graduate level, and spent the bulk of her professional life in the furniture and design industry. Throughout this time, food may have only been a hobby in her life, but it was the creative outlet through which she found the most joy. It only made sense - from the time she was young, food had always been an integral part of Yana's identity.

"I've always been exposed to food [and cooking], ever since I was a kid," said Yana. Having grown up in Visayas, which lies smack dab in the middle of the Philippines' three main regions, Yana was exposed to both northern and southern cuisine, and she learned early on how to prepare meals. "My grandma sent me to the kitchen as form of punishment when I was younger, and that's how I got to know how the kitchen works."

What started out as a childhood punishment later became a cherished hobby, and when Yana saw all her friends begin to host pop-up dinners, she was inspired to put her own spin on it.

"I wanted to do one, but I wanted a more cultural aspect to it," Yana explained. "That's when I started doing my Filipino pop-up dinners and it kind of evolved [from there]. It just so happened that my employer at the time laid me off and I just kinda took it as a sign from the universe that maybe this is the right path I'm supposed to take."

Yana and her friends took the show on the road for a test run, and after hitting four cities in four weeks, she had all the confidence she needed to make it a full-time thing. Still, when a friend first suggested the idea of hosting dinners in 50 states over the course of 52 weeks, she didn't quite know where to start.

"[My friends] said 'You'll figure it out,' and that's exactly what I did. I don't think I ever looked back."

And why should she? The Salo Project was one giant leap of faith that more than paid off. Watch a video campaign for the project below, and stay connected with Yana and her adventures by following the Salo Project on Facebook and Instagram.

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