Like many chefs, Aaron Verzosa has struggled over the past three years to pull Archipelago, his Filipino restaurant in Seattle, through the pandemic and its ripple effects. Earning a James Beard Award nomination was a moment of validation.

“To be able to amplify and show stories about Filipino-American culture, the communities here, specifically in the Northwest, and really the immigrant story that my parents came with… I was very honored to be able to show what it was the sacrifice and being able to represent the region in that way,” said Verzosa, who is nominated for Best Chef: Pacific Northwest.

In the culinary world, the awards are the equivalent of the Oscars. Three Filipino restaurants will be represented at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards ceremony on June 5 in Chicago.

Abacá, in San Francisco, earned an Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker nomination for Vince Bugtong. And Kasama, in Chicago, earned a joint nomination for Best Chef: Great Lakes for husband and wife Tim Flores and Genie Kwon. Last year, Kasama was nominated for Best New Restaurant and also became the first Philippine restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. Past Filipino-American winners include Tom Cunanan, who snagged Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2019 for his now-shuttered Washington, DC restaurant Bad Saint.

All of this recognition is welcome praise for a cuisine that has historically been stifled by colonialism and a general lack of appreciation. These chefs are part of a younger generation giving a voice to the Filipino-American experience through the language of food.

Before joining Abacá in January, Bugtong said he was having an identity crisis as a pastry chef at an Oakland cocktail bar. He wanted to make more Filipino desserts, but at the same time he felt it lacked authenticity. At Abacá, he said, chef-owner Francis Ang gave him the freedom to explore his culinary roots. Since then he has experimented with dishes from the pre-Hispanic days of the Philippines, such as rice-based desserts or kakanin in Tagalog.

“In the short time I’ve worked here, I’ve definitely learned a lot,” Bugtong said.

He likes to play with ingredients from the Philippines. For example, he wants to make a granita with barako coffee, which is grown there, and accompany it with muscovado jelly and milk flan ice cream. Leche flan is the Filipino version of flan.

Bugtong doesn’t care if something is unconventional and outside the usual traditions of Filipino culture.

“My thought process when I come up with things is, ‘Do I like it?’” he said. “Do you represent me as a Filipino-American? Then the second thing I think about is, ‘Is this accessible to other people? Filipino or not? And then I think of a composition that makes it aesthetically beautiful.»

In Seattle, Archipelago, so named because the Philippines is made up of 7,100 islands, has been offering a seasonal tasting menu since 2018. Verzosa and his wife, Amber Manuguid, wanted a «Pacific Northwest restaurant first and foremost.» But there is also an intrinsic «Filipino American» to the meals.

For example, Verzosa could swap the tamarind for wild cranberries. He makes his own version of the Filipino banana ketchup with sweeter root vegetables or root vegetables.

With only 12 seats in the restaurant, Verzosa chats with all the customers.

“When we have Filipinos coming from the Philippines and we have Filipinos here from the US, whether they are first, second or fifth generation, there is a really beautiful way to connect with them in a different way,” Verzosa said.

“I think the most important thing to realize is that there is absolutely no way to be a Filipino.”

Neither Verzosa nor Bugtong seriously considered a culinary career until after college. Verzosa grew up on a diet of PBS and Food Network cooking shows, as well as the cooking of her father, her aunts and uncles.

“I would come home from school, eat my dad’s food and watch these shows,” said Verzosa, who was originally headed for medical school. «At some point, he said to me, ‘Hey, listen, Aaron, if you love to eat as much as you do, you need to learn to love cooking.'»

Bugtong abandoned his plans to become a teacher and enrolled in a Bay Area culinary school in 2014. As a child, he had shown no passion for making things from scratch.

“I did things with Betty Crocker that I thought was rude, like substituting milk for water,” Bugtong said, laughing. “When he was a kid, he used to put beaten egg in Chips Ahoy! and bake them. They came out very sticky on the inside and crunchy on the outside.»

Filipinos have heard off and on for the past decade that their food is having a moment, poised to be the next big thing in American cooking. Its staple foods include steamed rice, meat, fish, and sweet, salty, and sour notes. Dishes such as adobo (a meat braised in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic), lumpia (spring rolls) and pancit (fried noodles) are already part of the zeitgeist.

Yet Filipino restaurants make up just 1% of American restaurants that serve Asian food, according to a Pew Research Center analysis published earlier this month.

There is no explanation why other Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, became more entrenched in the restaurant industry.

One reason is the “channeling” of early Filipino immigrants into particular occupations, according to Martin Manalansan IV, professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In the 1920s and 1930s, he said, they came to the US to work in agriculture. After 1965, they mainly worked in more technical fields such as nursing and engineering.

Many young Filipino Americans were discouraged from becoming chefs “because that was considered so low, especially if your parents are nurses, doctors, engineers, whatever,” Manalansan said.

Also, Filipino food was often dismissed as a fusion of Chinese, Spanish, and a dash of American food. That perception bothers Manalansan because he doesn’t recognize the creativity of Filipino culture.

«The food revolution of the late ’90s was really … about being adventurous and being called ‘foodie,’ being into more ‘exotic’ and interesting cuisine,» Manalansan said. «Filipino cooking was considered a bit homey, a bit indifferent.»

Whether this year’s James Beard love interest is a coincidence or not, Verzosa says there seem to be more successful and rising Filipino chefs than ever before.

“Over the last five, 10 years or so, they are finally reaching out and developing their own voice, and wanting to show their own families, their own communities, their own regions,” Verzosa said.

“Having the trade and the ability to make delicious food, obviously that has to happen to tell those stories.”