Yana Gilbuena journeys across the 50 states cooking up Filipino dinners for strangers

Yana and her friend Kyle appear on actor Anthony Anderson's cooking show.

Yana and her friend Kyle appear on actor Anthony Anderson’s cooking show ‘Anthony Eats America’

By Cristina DC Pastor

You’ll never know where she will turn up next because Yana Gilbuena is constantly transiting from state to state, city to city, table to table.

Yana – whose birth name is Ma. Diana — is a nomadic foodie or a sojourning chef, one on a constant pursuit of the ephemeral feast which she prepares for people she’s never met, in places she’s never been to.

“I’m a wandering gypsy,” she said when interviewed by The FilAm. There. She found the words for me.

Although she is based in New York, technically, she has no house there! She has no car either. She lives on the kindness of strangers and the power of social media to connect her to them. As this rolling stone gathers no moss (no rent, utility bills and auto insurance either), Yana found her calling: The Salo Project, where she is on a self-imposed tour of all 50 states and serves up a Filipino meal in each of them. By our interview last week, she was on her 35th state!

“Fifteen more to go!” she laughed.

When all 50 states have been covered, where is she going next? “I don’t know…Europe?”

The Salo Project is a pop-up dinner where Yana whips up a five-course meal ‘kamayan’ style and serves them on banana leaves. She serves “original and traditional” Filipino food one by one instead of everything in one boodle layout. Her only caveat: no plates and no utensils.

“Part of the concept behind The Salo Project is this idea of a shared community,” said Yana. “People don’t know each other but they come for the food.”

There’s got to be some logistical kinks, but Yana has anticipated and addressed each of them. Here’s how a Salo dinner evolves. She decides on a destination and, through contacts and social media, looks for restaurants and basically anyone who would be willing to offer her a kitchen and a location to serve up her feast. That is the easiest part.

Once a date is set, she gets the word out a week before through her network and again through social media. She announces that she will be in, say, Boston. Yana said the ideal number of guests would be 20, but it all depends on how many people actually book reservations.

“I’ve cooked for anywhere from four to 80 people,” she said. “Definitely a mix there.”

The location is not always confined to a restaurant. It could be in an art gallery, a private home, a café, or a church. Collaboration is key. A Salo meal costs $50 per plate.

“I do my research and find people who know people. If the local chef has a crowd, we do a joint collaboration. I try to do that all the time,” she said.

Her guests are mostly non-Filipino.

“They love it,” said Yana referring to the wholesale experience of cooking Filipino dishes for strangers. “They find it interesting, and I find it’s a good way to promote Filipino food.”

For Yana, cooking began in the Philippines where her grandmother used it as some form of punishment. As an only child who was a ball of energy, misbehaving meant she would be sent to the kitchen to chop up onions or keep an eye on chicken being fried till it’s ready to flip. “She didn’t want to deal with my energy, so she sent me to the kitchen,” she said.

The young Yana actually enjoyed being sent to her ‘quiet corner.’ Her mind and taste buds wandered and she began to experiment with ingredients and tastes and aroma. The first dish she made for her ‘lola’ was Pasta Alfredo. She swore she didn’t use bottled cream sauce!

At age 20, she came to Los Angeles to join her mother, and later moved to New York to be on her own. She did pop-up dinners in Brooklyn, and had a eureka moment of transporting them around the country.

One thrill of an experience leads to another. One day, she found herself cooking ‘kaldereta’ on the AOL web series “Anthony Eats America,” hosted by “Black-ish” actor Anthony Anderson.

“They wanted to present home-cooked food and diversity and so they were like awesome because I’m Brooklyn and I’m Filipino food,” she said.

On the show Yana and her friend Kyle talked a little about Filipino food and the custom of eating with bare hands. The show closed with Anderson scooping up steaming hot rice and ‘kaldereta’ and declaring “Masarap” through slightly scalding fingers.

The Salo Project goes to Des Moines...

The Salo Project goes to Des Moines…



...Boise. Is Europe next for Yana?

…Boise. Is Europe next for Yana?

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