“I feel like all my training and time working in professional kitchens has brought me back to where I began. It’s like I’m finally ready to be able to cook the food my great grandmother would make me.”
So if our chef de cuisine at The Cypress Room Roel Alcudia has come home at last, his is a fitting first post for our new blog series exploring the formative influences outside our restaurant kitchens that make our chefs who they are today.
Alcudia was born in 1979 in Iloilo, the heart of the Visayas region of The Philippines where milkfish from the ponds outside the city center find a place at the dinner table. Visayas forms the geographical heart of this archipelago of the South Pacific, and if it sounds Spanish you’re right on. Settled and colonized by Spain after Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in 1521, The Philippines today has a population of about 100 million people and is the seventh-most populated country in Asia — the 12th most populated country in the world. An additional 12 million Filipinos live overseas, comprising one of the world’s largest diasporas. So why as a cuisine does its identity so often go misunderstood – or not known period in our global dining consciousness?
“The Filipino people are excellent chameleons,” explains Alcudia. “It’s a culture that has existed in a firmly rooted identity crisis since colonization. We know how to assimilate. Maybe too well.”
Alcudia grew up in a family of farmers, raising cattle, pigs and chickens and growing indigenous fruits and vegetables. The kitchen was his great grandmother Enicita Segovia’s. She cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday for the house and the workers at the farm with whatever she could forage in the fields and whatever they might have on hand. Alcudia now credits this early experience with teaching him the importance and appreciation of the delicate balance of where our food comes from. “We ate what we had and not what we wanted,” he reflects.
It was a lesson easily forgotten when his immediate family moved to NYC in the winter of 1992, with consumer culture at a fever pitch. Like most middle class immigrants, achieving the American dream in the States was the end game, and it was done humbly and with hard work. Alcudia’s dad Roque was a commercial fisherman in the Pacific Northwest and commuted to see the kids in mom Eleanor’s care as often as he could, about 4 to 6 times a year in 2 to 4 week increments. Alcudia soon focused his attention on fine art, from rogue beginnings in graffiti. He studied classical realism and oil painting at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. It wasn’t until age 21, late in the chef game, that he decided cooking was his calling. He enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in 2002, which would set him on a path to become the chef he is today.
Alcudia’s pedigree is very New York and very classic, by the book. Per se… Craft… Veritas… Barbuto… He found his way as a young chef in a rich layer cake of high-end restaurants, training with only the best chefs right out of the gate. Colicchio… Jean Georges… You’ll recognize the names of his peers from that journey, too; they form today’s supernova of culinary stars-in-the-making leading kitchens from New York City (Justin Smillie, Upland) to Los Angeles (Matt Molina, Mozza.). In May 2005 an intimate 65 seat restaurant called Veritas is where Alcudia found his first real home with chef/partner Scott Bryan as his mentor.
“Through him I learned the virtues of humility and integrity while practicing and honing the flawless technique that he implemented and demanded from his staff,” Alcudia reflects. And when he was ready to leave, it was Bryan who led him to Jonathan Waxman and the simple, stripped down approach that would provide a necessary counterpoint to all that structure, a balance to his culinary point of view. It’s where we ultimately found him, three plus years in as chef de cuisine, with a perfectly cooked 20 pound striped bass for Michael’s Lemon: NYC table to show for himself. He didn’t bleep it up, as Chef likes to say. An offer to chef The Cypress Room soon followed. Timing was right, we had the Waxman seal of approval, and Alcudia packed up his life and moved to Miami.
“I’m starting to feel comfortable as a chef,” Alcudia explains. “My approach is unique. I don’t really have a point of reference. It’s kind of how I feel on a given day. The food can kind of switch from French to Italian to Spanish in like a second.”
On my visit, it was all about home, and Alcudia chose three dishes to make reflective of his native culture and food he’d eat at as a young boy. Each dish is simple enough for the home cook to make at home without an exact recipe. We shopped on 163rd street at the Asian Market conveniently positioned on Chinatown row across from King Palace BBQ, a Cantonese style haunt he frequents for the best kind of day or night off comfort food with sous chef Mike Beltran. You can shop there too and maybe stop in next door for some post-marketing lotus root with king mushroom (a personal favorite!) Practice will make the dishes below perfect, or, even better, will make them your own.
Lumpia: Crispy spring rolls made with shrimp and pork, wrapped in wonton sheets, fried until golden and served with sweet chili sauce which he prefers store bought (“It’s just like making your own ketchup. It always ends up tasting like BBQ sauce…”) You want a 2 : 1 shrimp : pork ratio. This is aggressively minced with carrot, onion and garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper. Working with one sheet at a time, separate a wonton wrapper from its stack and lay on a clean work surface. Paint the two edges meeting at a right angle away from you and form a long baton of filling about two inches from you. Don’t overfill your wonton wrappers. Begin rolling and folding in the edges like a tiny burrito. Roll to seal and set aside one by one on a plate. Heat vegetable oil for frying – you’ll know it’s ready when bubbles form around the handle of a wooden spoon – and work in batches of four until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve each sliced in two pieces diagonally. If you are entertaining, make it pretty with a garnish of cilantro and scallion cut on the bias.
Carne Frita: Marinated boneless beef chuck often served over rice (Alcudia prefers an heirloom variety of Japanese style rice called Kokuho Rose) and eaten for breakfast. Slice the beef and 2 medium white onions as directed below and marinate for at least 2 hours with 2 cloves of roughly chopped garlic, the juice of 1 orange, 2 lemons and 1 lime, and 1/2 cup of soy sauce. Stir fry over medium high heat with some oil in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven.
Grilled Chicken Soup: This is decadence exemplified and my favorite dish of the bunch. But you might ask, why grill a chicken just to put it into soup? Alcudia’s dad, credited with this dish born perhaps from a drunken stupor, might respond why not? Soup is a special dish and the grilling of the bird before stewing is a way to build flavor without hours of cooking. All you need is one 2-3 pound chicken (Alcudia likes the young organic one from Publix’s Greenwise line,) 2 medium white onions, halved, 4 Roma (plum) tomatoes, and a small handful of serrano chilies. Cook over properly stoked and preheated charcoal grill until done, pulling off the tomatoes and peppers first, followed by the onions and then the chicken. Not cooking the chicken through until done will result in a stringy final product in the soup.
Once the grilling is complete, take a couple of cloves of garlic, a thumb of ginger and a stalk or two of lemongrass, mince them and then grind with a mortar and pestle. In a dutch oven over medium high heat, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and the aromatics. Roughly chop your grilled ingredients and add them to the pot. Add 2 cans of coconut milk and 1 can of water. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. I can picture the little ragamuffin now, the wild child of the family kicking up storm clouds in his path as he raced down the dirt road home from school to eat piping hot bowls of Dad’s fragrant soup. We prefer to savor with some ice cold San Miguel or even a Michelita with spicy salt rim… if you’re not the one responsible for cooking! Think of it as the Margarita’s answer to the Michelada (Mexican beer with Clamato, lime and chili-spiced rim.) Home at last!