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At the intersection of craft and culture, chef Phillip Esteban finds home

Chef Phillip Esteban
“Not to discredit any of the other Filipino chefs and what they’re doing and what they’re creating, it’s all amazing,” chef Phillip Esteban said. But especially now, with all of the discussions about equity and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, “I think there’s a unique opportunity” to put Filipino culture front and center.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

National City native embarks on a series of new projects, including one that will bring him back to his South Bay roots: a Filipino fine-dining restaurant he’s calling Well Fed

Chef Phillip Esteban stood in a bustling Liberty Public Market, looking like one of the squadron of customers and foodies in the lively food hall that was once home to the former Naval Training Center San Diego. He talked loud enough to be heard over the din, telling a journalist about his latest culinary project, Weapon Ramen. It had been open for only 11 days, and “it came together in 10 days,” he confided. Space No. 009 had previously been occupied by RakiRaki, but the pandemic forced the popular ramen chain to pull out.

Esteban heard about the vacancy from friend Matt Gordon, the prominent chef from the now-closed Urban Solace who joined Coronado-based Blue Bridge Hospitality in 2019 as vice president of operations. Blue Bridge, the force behind Liberty Public Market, had just lost RakiRaki, and the permitting process would be long — unless the new occupant just happened to be a ramen shop, too. Esteban thought: Why not take over the space and open his own ramen shop? So in the span of just a few days, the idea became a reality, and Weapon Ramen was soon headed for Liberty Public Market.

On a recent sunny spring afternoon, he guided a reporter just past the cash register and into the kitchen and, for 10 minutes, dived into a TED Talk-like explanation of every menu item. His eyes lit up as he talked about the precision that goes into each bowl of ramen — from how a gadget known as a refractometer is used to reach ideal broth density to how the black cod is marinated in miso just long enough to achieve the perfect flavor.

Launching a new eatery in a matter of days is decidedly off-brand for Esteban, a man whose days are spent meticulously planning next steps, obsessing over ingredients and painstakingly refining menus. The booth inside the Point Loma food hall was the first of two brick-and-mortar concepts at Liberty Public Market. The second, the Filipino bowl eatery White Rice, opened July 2 under the culinary guidance of Esteban and chef-kitchen manager Jan Tejada.

In a way, it’s a long way from his early childhood exposure to food in the South Bay kitchens of his grandmother Soledad and his uncle Jerry. But in a way, too, it’s exactly where Esteban knew he would be: in the kitchen doing what he loves.

Finding himself

Esteban grew up the middle child in a family of seven children, born at Balboa Hospital to a Navy father and a nurse mother — “your stereotypical Filipino family,” he said with a laugh.

He knew early on that cooking and food would play major roles in his life.

“I was always surrounded by food,” said Esteban, who was raised in National City and Paradise Hills, neighborhoods dotted with mom-and-pop Filipino bakeries and point-point joints (the English translation of the Tagalog phrase for fast-food eateries known as turo-turo).

“I cooked with my grandmother,” he said. “I have pictures of me and my grandmother in the kitchen cooking. I have a sweet tooth, so I love chocolate and carrot cake, but she just got tired of me asking her every day for it, so she gave me the recipe and taught me how to make it.”

Now, at 39, Esteban is embarking on a series of new projects after years of working in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York. He’s standing at the precipice of a fast-evolving San Diego culinary terrain, a landscape that’s at once daring and erratic.

He’s part of a new generation of Filipino chefs who are unapologetically putting Filipino food where they feel it belongs: on mainstream menus. And like the others — such as Rancho Bernardo native Nicole Ponseca (Jeepney in New York) and pop-up maestros Chad and Chase Valencia (LASA, now closed, in Los Angeles) — he’s doing so boldly. And with a purpose.

“The only time I ever cooked Filipino food was at home or the family meal for restaurant staff,” he said.

A big part of his goal is not only to put Filipino food on restaurant tables but to put Filipinos in the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anyone that looked like me when I started cooking 18 years ago. There was no one brown, no one with a flat nose.”

Esteban is one of just a handful of Filipino chefs in San Diego kitchens, with even fewer as executive chefs. Although the local roster of head chefs includes some Filipinos — Tara Monsod at Animae and Danilo “DJ” Tangalin at Waterbar among them — there’s room for improvement, Esteban said, and he thinks he can help by being a mentor to young chefs.

At Morse High School, “there were no resources that said I could do this for a living,” he says. “I was again a typical Filipino kid where my parents, they weren’t necessarily against creative fields, but they were like, you have to do the safe jobs: become a doctor, become a lawyer, join the military. So cooking food wasn’t something that I thought I could do for a living.”

Chef Phillip Esteban during a photo shoot shows the tattoos on his hands, which say "hold fast"
Chef Phillip Esteban remains laser-focused on his goals, but during rocky times, the tattoo on his fingers remind him to “hold fast and stay the course.”
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He attended San Diego Mesa College with the goal of transferring to the University of California San Diego, but at the urging of a roommate, he dropped out of college to attend culinary school in 2003. Esteban found food once again, or perhaps food found him. Either way, it was a journey he was eager to embark upon.

Food, in a way, opened doors for Esteban — opportunities to do what he loves to do, first at The Guild Restaurant & Lounge in Barrio Logan and eventually at Michelin-starred chef David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. He returned to San Diego, with a stint at Jason Knibb’s Nine-Ten in La Jolla before launching The Cork and Craft in 2014. In 2019, he was named the research and development chef at CH Projects, the prolific San Diego-based hospitality group behind Ironside, Morning Glory, Born and Raised, Polite Provisions and other high-profile dining and drinking establishments. In 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, he was named chef of the year by San Diego Magazine, which lauded his charitable efforts cooking for front-line workers and donating a meal for every one purchased through his catering company Craft Meals.

All that time, Esteban could never shake off a nagging feeling that always brought him back to his culture.

“Like anything in business, you have to look at the gap in the market,” he said. “And that gap in the market is my own culture — things that I grew up with and knew.

“Not to discredit any of the other Filipino chefs and what they’re doing and what they’re creating, it’s all amazing,” he said. But especially now, with all of the discussions about equity and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, “I think there’s a unique opportunity” to put Filipino culture front and center.

Just 12 miles south of Liberty Station is Esteban’s next major project: Well Fed, an elevated-dining Filipino restaurant he’s planning to open in 2022 under the umbrella of Open Gym, a hospitality and lifestyle company he started with others in 2019. With Well Fed, Esteban’s eschewing the traditional San Diego dining locales for his boyhood home of National City. It’s a gamble, but one he doesn’t plan on losing. Once open, Well Fed is expected to be an anchor of redevelopment efforts in National City, including a public market called Market on 8th, where Esteban plans to open a second Weapon Ramen and a culinary shop and bookstore called Wordsmith.

“Being back in National City now, it’s refreshing and exciting to see what’s happening when I walk through the neighborhood or when I’m in a local shop getting boba or whatever,” said Esteban, who has a sizable presence on various media platforms, including the Food Network’s “Chopped.”

Even more exciting, he said, “is, and it happens once a week, when a young person comes up and says, ‘I just want you to know I started cooking because of you.’ That gives me so much joy and fulfillment. No matter the accolades or the food I make, I think that’s the most important to me — that now, the thing I didn’t have, I’m able to create that for the next generation.”

Chef Phillip Esteban during a photo shoot.
Chef Phillip Esteban recently opened two eateries at Liberty Station and is now aiming his efforts and energy at National City, where he grew up.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Perfect time

Conversations with Esteban may start with food, but they eventually veer into something bigger than food, something bigger than him. Given where he’s been and where he is, there’s “a greater purpose of creating a pipeline for the next generation of cooks that look like us, that look like me,” he said.

He hopes this mindset, at the intersection of craft and commerce and now culture, flourishes. There is a certain sense of responsibility that comes with being a chef, he said, even more so when you’re a chef of color.

“I understand the weight of that — to represent the culture,” he said. “I could cook all day and get by and get a job and run somebody else’s thing, but that would be a disservice to our own culture and the opportunities and experiences I’ve had. There is this next wave, and if we don’t take what we’re doing seriously and show it in the right light and with the right intention, it would push our own culture back.”

His parents and people in that generation were “more accepting of (the American) culture because, to them, it’s better. Growing up, it was important for all the new arrivals to learn English first — in a sense, canceling out our own culture.”

He added: “All this trauma (comes from) what our parents taught us because they wanted us to live a normal life — be Americanized. In a sense, we lose who we are.”

Now, “as I talk to more and more Filipinos, they resonate with that search for identity, finding out where you came from.”

For Esteban, that process is personal.

Before opening White Rice and as he works to launch Well Fed, Esteban said, “we’re doing this deep dive into everything, whether it’s learning about music, textiles ... . To some degree, there are some aspects of the culture that are a part of the Fil-Am experience but others that are completely removed from the culture — how do we bridge that gap?”

White Rice, he said, is one step in that direction. Through the rice bowl concept, he gives Filipinos and Filipino-Americans a taste of home, literally. Well Fed, he said, will take that up a few notches.

“We’ve been so used to adapting into American culture that, even for me — I can’t speak or understand Tagalog — this is a search, a true search of my own identity through food,” he said.

And with Well Fed is “that big hope” to fill a fine-dining void when it comes to Filipino cuisine: “There is no fine dining in National City. So yeah, if you’re going to go somewhere, you’ll go to Villa Manila or Zarlitos, Erlinda’s, Tita’s. You’re going to your mom-and-pop shops and getting your turo-turo. But if you’re looking to take your family out to experience Filipino food and culture in a way that you haven’t, it’s not there. I think, right now, we’re in that perfect time.”

Honoring his heritage

During his years at culinary school, at the Art Institute in Mission Valley, “you’re taught to write (profit-and-loss statements) and business plans,” said Esteban, who’s written numerous business plans that outlined “eight concepts that have stuck,” including early iterations of White Rice and Well Fed.

In school, he was taught about being able to cook and conceptualize culinary concepts. “Nowadays,” he said, “you have to be able to speak eloquently, to have personality, to be able to talk on TV, and handle that pressure. ... There’s so many different aspects of the business now — from social media presence to marketability, PR.”

“When you go to culinary school, they don’t tell you you’re working 16-hour days and for a very long time, for minimum wage,” he said. “I left culinary school with $72,000 in debt. My first job was $7.25 an hour. How do you pay culinary school on a minimum-wage job?”

“Being in this industry now for 18 years, you see things that perpetually happen in our industry — low pay, long hours, mental health struggles, suicide, alcoholism. There’s a ton of different things.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, Esteban said, and he wants to be a part of that change. That’s why, under the umbrella of Open Gym, Esteban and his partners are putting a premium on “the importance of family and mental health.”

The father of two boys — ages 7 and 13 — Esteban said he wants “to be the best father that I can become ... and in a sense prove to them, not just as a father but as a person of color, if you chase your dreams and your ideas, it’s not just about speaking about it but acting on it.”

That’s why he’s not just cooking in kitchens these days. All over town, he is using his voice by serving on boards, including National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis’ Filipino advisory committee.

“Now we’re dabbling in spaces outside of food that can create true positive change and impact within San Diego — within our backyards and communities and neighborhoods,” said Esteban, who champions causes such as AAPI representation and food insecurity and serves as a board member of the South Bay-based nonprofit A Reason to Survive (ARTS).

All this doesn’t surprise San Diego chef Tina Luu, a culinary instructor who, Esteban said, “was part of my journey since Day 1 — she believed in me even when I didn’t.”

Esteban “is an extraordinary human being, cook, food artist, chef and entrepreneur, among other things,” Luu said. “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for over a decade and can say without reservation that he is 100 percent a ‘total package’ culinarian. Whatever the project — and I’ve experienced most of them firsthand — he delves deep into the nooks and crannies. It’s one of many ways Phil sets himself apart. His attention to detail is relentless — his mind and hands touch it all.

“At the heart of his work, and my favorite part of how he does it, is his tribe — his family and friends. I love how he brings people together and how he honors his Filipino heritage. ... Phil’s pride in his cultural heritage and his desire to share the flavors of his roots using amazing ingredients and thoughtful cooking techniques are foundational, making the results delectably powerful.”


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