Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Yin & Yang of Dining: A Conversation with Chef Tim Luym of Poleng Lounge

In just two weeks I’ll be traveling to Honolulu, which I’m totally excited about. But unfortunately that also means I’ll be gone when the special food event, East West Eats, takes place on May 8 (Thursday night) at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

This is the second year for this fund-raiser by the San Francisco chapter of the
Asian American Journalists Association, featuring some of the city’s top Asian chefs. Since I can’t be at the event in person, I decided to meet with one of the featured chefs. Of the list of participating chefs and restaurants, Poleng Lounge and its young chef, Tim Luym, were on the top of my list of people to meet.

I’ve heard a lot about Poleng Lounge since it opened in the summer 2006, and my friends and I keep making plans to check it out but never seem to get out to that area of San Francisco, now popularly known as NOPA (north of the Panhandle).

Poleng Lounge is a hip music destination that also serves as a neighborhood restaurant bar. Chef Luym (pronounced loo-em) and his partners have created a space that’s zen-like upfront but cool and energetic in the back. Accenting everything is the authentic Asian cuisine from Luym, reflecting his Chinese-Spanish heritage along with his exposure to other Asian countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Chef Luym’s food created so much buzz that he was named in 2007 as one of the San Francisco Chronicle’s
Rising Star Chefs.

This past week I visited Chef Luym, 29, at his restaurant-lounge to learn more about his approach to cooking and the rise of Filipino cuisine.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Ben: So tell me how you got into food, because I know you didn’t start off planning to be a chef. Weren’t you actually in marketing?

Chef Luym: MIS (management information systems). I had a business degree. Honestly, coming out of college I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do. But the hot thing at the time was working in the high-tech industry. I liked business, but with a concentration on computers. I ended up doing some programming and some database work and online marketing work for about three years. That was soon after that whole dot-com bubble kind of burst. … I’m just naturally a hard worker. I usually give 110 percent in everything I do. But I couldn’t see myself moving up in that corporate kind of “Office Space” environment. (He was referring to the 1999 movie.)

So one day I cooked steamed tilapia with ginger and scallions similar to what you find in the Chinese restaurants, with the recipe from my mom. And as a joke, my roommates I was living with said “this is really good, you should go into cooking or something,” because they knew I was unhappy with my job.

B: So what happened next?

CL: I was at the point that I couldn’t do this Office Space thing anymore. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so it was either cooking school or film school. But if I went to film school I had to go to New York or LA, and I was really comfortable around the Bay. There was a good culinary school in San Francisco (the California Culinary Academy) so I decided to make the choice then.

B: Did you cook often for your roommates?

CL: Yeah. It was really budget-type stuff. (laughs) College cooking and I cooked what my grandma and mom used to teach me. … A lot of braised pork dishes, Chinese fish. My mom always experimented. She had a really good palate.

B: Did your mom do a lot of cooking when you were growing up?

CL: She did a lot of cooking. For some reason my dad was always at work so after school I would help my mom. I was the rice boy. That was my chore. I always cooked the rice.

B: Did you have one of those rice cookers or did you cook it from scratch in a pot on the stove?

CL: Eventually we did get a rice cooker. But in the beginning I had to do the pot thing with the fingers. (Note: Using the index finger is an old trick to measure how much water to add to make the perfect rice. I like to stick with the rice cooker.)

B: So did you grow up in the Bay Area?

CL: I was born in Manila (the Philippines). When I was 3, my family in 1981, we all migrated here and lived everywhere. We started in San Francisco and then got raised in San Mateo, Palo Alto, went to college in San Jose and found my way back to the city.

B: I heard your parents moved back to the Philippines?

CL: About 10 years ago they moved back and me and my sister ended up staying here.

B: So did you and your sister have to cook for yourself?

CL: Actually, I went to the Philippines to study for one year when they first moved back and then decided to finish up high school here so I could get a better chance getting into a good college. And then stayed with family and friends but then moved into the dorms.

… My sister did cook a lot. Even my brother. Everyone but my dad cooks. So my dad loves to eat. (laughs)

B: There always has to be someone to do the eating. Who would you say influenced you the most for your food?

CL: Probably my mom and my grandma.

B: How did your grandmother influenced you?

CL: I used to visit the Philippines every year, or every couple years. …Every time we’d go there she being the grandma would always cook all kinds of traditional Chinese dishes that she was really proud of but sometimes as a kid you just want your fried lumpia (similar to spring rolls) or stuff like that. Every time we had dinner at her house when we’d stay there for the summer, she’ll always cook fresh Chinese lumpia with wrappers and braised pork and pig trotters—different things like sticky rice. And then it kind of grew on me.

And every time I’d leave to come back here, she’ll always ask if I wanted to learn some recipes or to take some recipes with me. Because she’ll say if you ever get hungry, you’ll have something easy to make. You can take care of yourself. I guess the big thing with food is she doesn’t want us to go hungry.

Recently over the past five years or so, I realized with her cuisine and what she’s doing it’s really traditional stuff that you can’t really find because she grew up with it and she lived in the Philippines. So I gained a new appreciation for the Chinese dishes that she was feeding us, because as a kid I didn’t really understand. I just thought food is food.

B: Tell me how Poleng Lounge came to be?

CL: It came about when I was working with a bunch of friend-acquaintances and this idea came about. This guy Desi Danganan, one of the managing partners, he pulled together a group there was six of us in the beginning to pitch this bar-restaurant-tea-lounge-night-life idea. He was pretty deep in the promoting scene with the night life, so that was his strength. And there was another investor his strength was kind of like general managing, financial stuff like that. So they were looking for a chef. I decided to take the risk. I used to also deejay and promote so I thought that’d be a really fun kind of venture.

B: Did you guys already have this location in mind?

CL: No, they were searching for spaces. And this came on the market. And the real estate was for sale with the business. That was when we knew that it was the spot to invest in because with our banking strategy, owning the real estate is one of the smartest things to do especially in the restaurant business where there’s a high rate of failure.

B: What were you hoping to do when creating the menu?

CL: The original plan was for this to be a successful night club that served food. We thought liquor would make the most money, so just building around that. I was cooking French food (for Charles Nob Hill and then Fifth Floor) but obviously that wouldn’t work here. And so I love street food. Like every time I would go home and travel through Asia, just the simple things you find on the streets or beer food. So I thought that was a great idea to kind of utilize here.

… I don’t really enjoy too much fusion. I mean, I think fusion is great. But I just wanted to portray some of the things I’ve tasted or seen with the culture behind it. So I wanted to also use the identity of the country.

B: What is it about fusion food that made you decide you didn’t want to replicate it at Poleng Lounge?

CL: I’ve tried a lot of Asian fusion food and it’s something that I find exciting and I learn from it. But it’s not something I can eat every day. So being this kind of neighborhood here, being a neighborhood restaurant … I didn’t feel it was right to do that.

B: You wanted to keep it very simple?

CL: Right, very simple. But also give the homage almost to these random cooks and street stall hawkers.

B: When you try to recreate the street food, do you find it a challenge to make sure it’s authentic because you might not find the right ingredients?

CL: I try really hard to source that ingredient. Like sometimes for calamansi citrus I’ll drive down to Sunnyvale because the lady totally grows it on her tree and she barters with the grocery store and then I’ll go to the grocery store to get it. … Pandan leaves we’ll get from Hawaii. But also we try to keep as much local sustainable stuff too but it’s really hard with Asian ingredients because of the competition with all the Chinese restaurants. The growers I talk to, the producers, the vendors, it’s not worth it for them to produce all those organic Asian greens because there’s no market for it. The (Chinese) restaurants around won’t pay those prices.

B: Your menu reflects food from all types of Asian countries, but is there one country’s cuisine that’s more dominant?

CL: I think just recently it’s been leaning a lot more toward Filipino food, partly because I have some roots in the Philippines but also because recently there’s been a trend with a lot of interest in Filipino food.

B: I noticed that too. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because there’s a large Filipino community in the Bay Area?

CL: I think that’s a good start, the fact that there’s a good-sized Filipino community. But it’s also a little unexplored. Because with Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, you can find that anywhere in the U.S. But Filipino food, the only ones they’ve had here was like the canteen-style almost. … It’s very cafeteria-like. You get these huge portions. … A chef in New York opened a place that’s pure Filipino, an upscale Filipino restaurant and it’s doing really well. Down in San Mateo, Bistro Luneta opened up, it’s kind of Filipino fusion also. It’s opened peoples’ eyes to what Filipino food is and also the different ways it can be portrayed.

B: I’m actually not very familiar with Filipino foods. How would you describe it? Is there a particular characteristic like how Thai food uses peanuts and limes and Vietnamese food uses fresh herbs?

CL: There’s three types. There’s native Filipino food, Chinese-Filipino food and Spanish-Filipino food. Native Filipino food is a lot of pork, local vegetables, beans grow well. There’s not a lot of vegetables like tomatoes. The citrus would be calamansi. Fruits: mango, jackfruit, durian. And I guess a lot of stews. All the vegetables dishes, native Filipino dishes, are very stewy, like Chicken adobo.

B: Is braising really popular?

CL: Yeah, yeah, they have oxtails, braised chicken, braised pork. I think the reason for that is it’s a Third World country. If you eat a stew like in Ethiopian cuisine or wherever, if you have a nice, rich sauce it’s not very expensive. So the sauce on the rice is actually more of the meal than the actual chicken or pork because of the financial situation of the country.

At the same time by using a lot of vinegars and salted fish, like dried fish, it helps preserve the food because it’s a warm country. And so the acidity and saltiness of these dishes acts as a preservative so it doesn’t spoil quickly. Any culture or any region, the reason why they cook this way or the reason why they do these things is not because they read it in a cookbook. It says something about their culture and lifestyle.

B: So what have you tried to bring to the menu at Poleng Lounge that’s reflective of the Philippines?

CL: Right now we have a secret menu.

B: Oh, what’s that?

CL: On our menu there’s only so much space to list like 20 dishes. And some dishes a lot of people, especially other ethnicities, might be a little offended by. Like a pig’s head or trotters or gizzards or eating just like chicken skin, where in Asia it’s like a delicacy. Like salted eggs and century-old eggs. We’ve had instances where people almost freaked out or like, “what is this?”

So we decided to develop a secret menu for diners who are more experimental or regulars who know the things that we do and are willing to try new things, and it doesn’t take up any space on the menu and we don’t take the risk of offending someone.

B: Do you need like a password for this secret menu? How do people order off of it?

CL: (laughs) Basically you just ask your server. Sometimes they’ll see if you order certain things, like we have bone marrow on the menu—it’s pretty common but some people might not think it’s too common. So if it seems like you’re ordering more the adventurous things rather than more of the basic things, sometimes the server will say you might be interested in the secret menu.

B: When you were first describing Poleng Lounge, it really seemed to have a lot of identities—a tea room, a lounge, a restaurant, a bar. Was that on purpose?

CL: It was on purpose. It’s kind of dangerous if you have too many identities. But we were all first-time business owners and it was out of a little bit of naivety.

B: You wanted to see which stuck?

CL: We ended up tying everything together. When you dine here you’ll see tea is pretty big here. We’ll cook with tea, in some of our dishes, some of our curries. We have a big tea menu with 35 loose leaf teas. It’s not the main part but it’s still there. The night life and the bar is also just as big a part as the restaurant so we try really hard to tie it together and make it seamless for a diner who might want to stay for dancing. Every now and then people won’t understand it but for the most part I think we’re able to transition from a restaurant to a bar.

B: You want them to get that all-in-one experience?

CL: I guess so. Yeah.

B: So then they won’t ever leave.

CL: (laughs) Yes. And that’s why Desi chose the name Poleng, because Poleng (in Balinese) is the dualities, the yin and yang. So you have the tea aspect which is very healthy and relaxing and you have the liquor aspect. So it’s plays off the opposite. … We have the dinner aspect where people are dining and enjoying themselves and we have the dancing aspect where it’s more energetic.

We did the interview outside in the lounge and dining area, which has a warm fireplace in the center and trickling waterfall along one wall. In the corner is the DJ booth for music. Afterwards we walked to the back room known as the Temple Room, where there’s room for dancing and a lot of ambient lanterns and a statue of a female goddess.

B: So I heard you used to be a deejay. Do you still do that?

CL: I wish I did. My nights and weekends are completely gone because I work. After work I just enjoy other people’s entertainment.

B: Did you start doing it in college?

CL: When I was in high school, I lived in Palo Alto. There’s a college radio station, the Stanford Radio station, and my brother got me into hip hop music. And so I called to do an internship there and I was able to do an internship from 3 to 6 in the morning, the graveyard shift on Saturday nights, and found out that was my first real love, music, deejaying. So I did that all throughout high school and college and realized the music industry is pretty cutthroat, and I’m a pretty nice guy. (laughs) … And it was something I couldn’t do forever. No one wants to see a 50-year-old DJ.

B: How did you get involved with the East West Eats event coming up?

CL: Just networking and meeting. We do a lot of benefit events, donating food—it’s a good way to give back to the community. It’s also good PR and marketing. … One of first group I joined was the Asian Chefs Association. Through them I networked with other Asian nonprofits like the Asian Art Museum and some of the groups fighting human trafficking in Asia. We have a lot of roots in Asia so we thought it’ll be very beneficial to support the nonprofits especially in the Asian communities because they’re also the ones who support us.

B: There’s a really interesting lineup of Asian chefs. Is it easy moving up in the kitchen as an Asian chef? I think the assumption is it is pretty easy in San Francisco.

CL: Now the industry has changed a lot from before when it was based on the French structure. Plus there’s a lot of Filipino Americans and Asian Americans finding themselves in the kitchens. … And with the help of the media like “Top Chef” or the Food Network having Ming Tsai, (Martin) Yan, (Masaharu) Morimoto. Last season on “Top Chef” it was a Vietnamese American who won and this season they have a Filipino chef there too. I think it’s really helping to break that stigma for women chefs and minority chefs, too. But I remember starting out, most of the chefs in the limelight were Caucasian and a few Latinos and a few Asians. But with what’s going on now with the media and the work ethic of Asians, it’s really changing.

B: But I think it’s still true when you think of San Francisco and whenever they talk about the best chefs, you probably might see Charlie Phan of Slanted Door mentioned, but he’s like just one of all these Caucasians that reach that celebrity status. Why do you feel that is?

CL: The Asian culture, in general, it’s just old school the way I was brought up. We’re not very outspoken or braggadocios. We get our work done. We believe in what we do and keep that integrity rather than searching for attention here and there.

B: So what are your plans for Poleng Lounge? Do you plan to expand it?

CL: The group eventually does want to expand. But for me it’s more the integrity of having a story behind the food. Because Asian food can easily get lost with your American-Chinese foods and your fusion foods. Especially deep-rooted Chinese foods, it can easily get lost in misinterpretations. It’s almost like you need to know where it came from to move it forward.

Special thanks to Chef Luym for taking time out of preparing for the dinner rush to sit down and talk with me. He had just started cooking for the evening—that evening he was making jook, a Chinese porridge—so I didn’t get a chance to see any of the finished products. So I suggest you check it out on their Web site. For me, I hope to visit in the near future (and will definitely ask for the secret menu).

If you’d like to get a taste of Chef Luym’s cooking style and those of other chefs, including those from restaurants like Betelnut, Straits, Butterfly, Red Lantern and Three Seasons, then check out this year’s East West Eats on May 8, starting at 7 p.m. at the Ferry Building.

Hosts for the evenings will be ABC7 reporter/anchor
Alan Wang and "View From the Bay" co-host Janelle Wang. Tickets are still available at a cost of $115. You can order them online here. Remember, this is a fund-raiser to help Asian American students pursuing careers in journalism. I used to be one of those kids. :)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Chef Ben, how cool to be in the know about the secret menu. I love stuff like that! I've been there before and sampled a lot of their delicious appetizers, but now I want to go back for secret stuff...