By Mark Lester Ranchez
Chef Joel Navasca was not one to brag about his accomplishments, not even after winning the island’s highly lauded Best of Hawaii last year, and getting an average 4.3 stars on Yelp. Instead, he beamed sincerely at me and recalled with eagerness his good old days in the incipient years of his career within the food industry. Sitting across me in the make-shift sit-in eatery at Tiano’s food truck location in Waipahu, he confided how it all started when he worked as a dishwasher at Maria’s Mexican Food in the 80s. “That was my first exposure in the business,” he said, noting how he was exposed to the restaurant’s ins and outs.
However, it wasn’t until he started working as a line cook at the Fisherman’s Wharf, in Kalihi, that he was spurred into considering food and cooking seriously. “That’s where I learned how to cook from the scratch,” he recalled, disclosing to me how he had learned from the restaurant’s cooks the “basic reasonings behind the certain ways foods are prepared”— an epiphany that would change his life forever. He’s been perfecting the food experience ever since.
When asked about the inspirations behind his restaurant, Tiano, Chef Joel said that he came from a family of cooks. In fact, his father was known in the Philippines for his caldereta, and his mother for sweet delicacies, like puto de maya and suman. However, the idea of serving only Filipino dishes wasn’t enough—he thought that in order for the business to be marketable, it had to cater to many varying tastes. “Cooking is subjective,” he added. “It is what you know and what you have experienced.” And so from his gastronomic experiences when he was still in the Philippines, and his various food exposures when he migrated to the Hawaii, Chef Joel created a unique scheme of food experience that involved local, American, and Filipino flavors, and would culminate in the establishment of the restaurant in 2016.
But there is still a more far-reaching vision and mission behind his second venture into the food business (the first time was in 2014, which had failed because of diverging interests between him and his partner). He said it was to expose more authentic Filipino flavors to a bigger audience in the island, to “bring [the flavors] in slowly, consistently, gradually,” and to offer resources and mentorship to aspiring Filipinos who want to delve into the culture’s food experience. “If I had the same resources I have now 20 years ago,” he speculated, “it wouldn’t have taken me this long.”
With the growing popularity of his restaurant on the island, and his pursuit to capture wider varieties of patrons, Chef Joel decided to make it accessible to everyone and everywhere by acquiring a food truck. The first food truck was acquired unintentionally from a car purchase, and has since become a part of a bigger plan—to bring Filipino flavors to those who seek them. The restaurant has then obtained more trucks for this sole purpose. “If you want Tiano,” he said cheerfully, “then we’ll bring them to you.”
When asked about what he would tell his doting customers and new patrons, he said he wants them to know two things: 1) the Filipino cuisine is as diverse as the ethnic tribes they came from, offering not only one but many flavors that represent each of the ethnic cultures, and so we should treat each of them unique and individual; and 2) for Filipinos to patronize their own flavors, to “give consideration to our own,” he suggested. If these two statements are openly met by the market mass, the Filipino cuisine will surely elevate itself from the limbo that it found itself in. “We need collaboration to push us forward,” he said.
Tiano’s Restaurant not only caters Filipino flavors to its patrons in its three locations on the island but it also does community and fundraising events. For more information, contact Chef Joel Navasca on the restaurant’s website, mytianos.com.
Editor’s Note: If you know an inspiring Filipino individual (or organization) in Hawaii and want him/her to be featured, contact the HFC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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