Culinary artist Jenn de la Vega: ‘You can make sandwich with Ulam’

Jenn serving her famous Pulled Pork Adobo randwich. Photos courtesy of  Jenn de la Vega

By Harvey Barkin

Who says you can’t make a great sandwich by slapping ulam in between toasts?

Food stylist and cookbook collaborator Jenn de la Vega says, “Sandwiches can certainly start as ulam between bread.  I encourage folks to try putting their dinner leftovers in a sandwich. You might be surprised by the combination.”

Jenn left her music industry job early in 2000 and drifted between a restaurant gig and theater. She connected with friends via Twitter and Tumblr then experimented with different sandwich concoctions on them.

Jenn realized part of the monotony in New York city office life is the same salad bowl or fast food with scoops of roasted veggies and protein every day. This gave her the idea for her Randwich (random sandwich) business in Brooklyn where she comes up with a specific sandwich du jour. Her menu is a “mash-up of her Filipinx heritage, Spanish tapas, artisanal cheese, and 90s inspired fast-food cuisine.”

Customers would let her know their allergies then send payment via Venmo. She would arrive at a specified time with sandwiches.

“Instead of tips, I asked for Instagram photos and (for them) to tag me.”

Randwich became a social media phenom. According to Jenn, “My blog was named a Best Tumblrs to Follow in 2013, Best Sandwiches in New York City (said) DailyCandy and (was featured) in Thrillist.”

But “it was a little too much for a side project and I wasn’t ready for a sandwich shop. I decided to form my own catering company. Ten years later, I balance catering with cookbook collaborations. People can still request random sandwiches but I now require an order minimum.”

Jenn’s take on the hotdog
Another randwich from Jenn’s recipe

Jenn has collaborated on books new and fusion like testing recipe for Angela Dimayuga’s and Ligaya Mishan’s Filipinx (Abrams) and contributing sheet pan chicken tinola recipe to Cathy Erway’s Sheet Pan Chicken (Ten Speed Press).

In eight years of cooking, she even put together 100 recipes with Showdown Comfort Food Chili and BBQ (Page Street and MacMillan).

Jenn even appeared in Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games on Food Network, Roker Media’s CheckShock with Justin Warner on Twitch. She is a judge for The James Beard Awards and Specialty Food Association SoFi Awards. She grew up on Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Ina Garten on Food Network. Her family is scattered over Iloilo, Bacolod and Manila.

But “the dish that transformed everything for me was roasted garlic. It sounds so simple but the way that it can exist is in two extremes: spicy when raw, crunchy when fried and then sweet and mellow as it roasts – this opened my mind about transforming all food in a similar way.”

She focused on sandwiches because she found them “ubiquitous and infinite. It’s a format that has rails: it needs to have bread, sauce and filling. It’s easy to transport and fast to put together.”

“I did find that customers were drawn to my adobo pulled pork.” It kept evolving “from sliders to large sandwiches piled with ‘slaw or atchara. It’s slow cooked pork shoulder, pulled and broiled with brown sugar so it retains crunch when you re-introduce gravy.” She also makes a lot of sandwiches with pinakbet and liempo.

For greens she “likes to use arugula because it’s spicy like tinola (malunggay) leaves. But if I’m cooking outside, I opt for heartier vegetables like cabbage and carrot ‘slaws which love to soak up sili spiced vinegar.  I’ve become a huge fan of using atchara with a heavy hand instead of relegating it to a small pile on the plate.”

Jenn (standing, left) holds her recipe book with her grandma (seated) and her mom at a Barnes & Noble launch.

The perfect plating

Because Jenn is a food stylist, plating is important.  

Jenn says, “I help bring realism to photo and video shoots. I do not use special effect tricks or chemicals to bring about deliciousness. The food is carefully prepped and cooked a la minute. I work with photographers and prop stylist to plan the look. They source the backgrounds, table linens, plates, flatware and, sometimes, botanicals, if it makes sense in the story.”

But to Pinoys, Jenn thinks, there could never be a hero sandwich to save them from the life-long habit of massive carbs ingestion. “Filipino food is so multitudinous that I don’t think it could be contained in a sandwich.”

“I don’t think you can ever replace a  steaming helping of rice. The way I come up with recipes is to use familiar vehicles like sandwiches, pasta and salad to introduce Filipino flavors. I follow a lot of pop-ups (unexpected events in unique spaces) and restaurants on Instagram. I get inspired by people like Dapscancook (who is developing dinuguan blood sausage on a coconut biscuit), KusiNola making achuete shrimp po’ boys, Flip Eats with hot chicken tocino sandwiches, TitoBoysBurgers with insane-looking longanisa chopped cheese (New York City’s version of the Philly cheesesteak) plus his liempo banh mi, and Swell Dive in Brooklyn doing Filipino tacos.”

But when it comes to cooking for herself, Jenn says, “I would like a Thanksgiving family meal with New York Times food columnist  Ligaya Mishan; Chef-owner of Seattle’s Musang Melissa Miranda;  Executive chef who combines French with Filipino cuisine  Ria Dolly Barbosa;  restaurateur husband and wife pioneers  Romy Dorotan and Amy Besa; and  chef-author and eggslut sandwich creator  Alvin Cailan. It would be so cool to cook with them, rant about our days, joke and share a meal.”

© The FilAm 2022

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: