Irenia's Ryan Garlitos champions Philippine soul food
In early 2016, when chef Ryan Garlitos opened Irenia, the Orange County native had no clue that Philippine cuisine would be the next big thing to hit California. Garlitos, who was formerly Taco Maria’s sous chef, just wanted to branch out. His dream was to cook his version of soul food – with a Filipino twist. And diners whole heartedly embraced him and his food. We chatted with Garlitos and asked the young chef about his menu, where he gathers ingredients and how his grandma made him the chef he is today.
Coast: What most inspires you?
Garlitos: My grandma was a great home cook. That’s where my love of food and cooking stems from. She grew a lot of her own vegetables, made her own sausage, her own preserves, everything. I always liked cooking. I enjoyed eating food. But it was a hobby for me.
Coast: How did your hobby transform into a career?
RG: I went to culinary school for maybe two semesters, then I started working. I learned more with hands-on experience compared to what I was doing in the classroom. I worked on a food truck for two years until they got the restaurant space. Not long after that I answered an ad for Taco Maria. I had heard of Carlos (Salgado) and I Googled him extensively. He has a pretty impressive résumé. I figured I could learn a lot from a chef that has a track record like his.
Coast: Eventually you became Taco Maria’s sous chef. How did your time there influence you?
RG: : I learned a lot about what we share. We use tamarind in Filipino food; we also use pineapple, a lot of coconut, tropical fruit. There’s this connection to not only Spanish cuisine but also to Mexican food and ingredients. In my research and reading about Filipino food, Mexico was the liaison between the Philippines and was trading partners with the Spanish. So you can argue that we have a lot in common with Mexican cuisine. There are things that diners can find familiar even if they aren’t Filipino.
Coast: How do you introduce people to Filipino food?
RG: Our adobo dish with pork, braised greens and beans. To me that’s very Southern. There’s a comfort food tone to that dish. So people who aren’t familiar with Filipino food see that on the menu and say, ‘That’s soul food right there.’ There are a lot of influences that help us bridge the gap.
Filipino food itself has a lot of facets that are familiar because it’s influenced by Chinese, Southeast Asian and Spanish cooking. Then you have the American influence. If you look back to WWII-era Philippines, there were a lot of American GIs stationed there. That spawned the love of things like Spam and ketchup and shredded cheddar cheese. Filipino spaghetti is a completely American-inspired dish. That’s what makes the food interesting, and in a sense that’s what makes it more accessible.
Coast: What ingredients are you excited about cooking with now?
RG: When we can, we use heirloom rice from the Philippines. There’s a woman from Montana that started a fair trade organization where Filipino farmers who have been growing heirloom rice varietals for generations sell them to chefs around the country. For our rice pudding, we use their heirloom purple sticky rice.
Coast: Do you have any favorite purveyors?
RG: Wild Local Seafood (wildlocalseafood.com) – they’re all about fishing responsibly and they only fish off the coast of California. They get whatever is good, whatever is local, whatever is abundant and sustainable. They are a mom-and-pop organization run by a husband-and-wife team. He’s a fisherman and she runs the business side. I first came upon them while working at Taco Maria. They sell a lot of by-catch too, like octopus, but only what was caught while fishing for prawns.
Coast: What chef do you most admire?
RG: : I really latched on to Sean Brock’s philosophy … how he started researching heirloom varietals of vegetables and grains, his preservation techniques and his pickling. His style is like (Southern) “grandma cooking” but refined. There’s a lot of technique behind it. But, at its core, those are dishes that he grew up eating on the farm. Personally, I never want to stop learning – whether it’s something new about Filipino food or produce or a different technique. I’m interested in continuing to create something that is worthwhile and meaningful.