Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao is the innovative chef at No Worries and a 15 year culinary extraordinaire of Filipino vegan food. Established in 1998, No Worries are a vegan food service, offering a new and healthy take on traditional Filipino dishes on Bay Area in San Francisco.
Jay-Ar Isagani Pugao took his mother’s original cooking methods and added a vegan twist to them. Instead of using meat for a predominantly meat based food culture, he uses an array of substitutes, ranging from soy protein to wheat gluten to tofu and seitan. He has been a pioneer in Filipino vegan cuisine and continues to innovate many traditional appetizers, desserts and entrees into vegan cuisine with origins from the Philippines. Native Province caught up with him to find out more.
"I like to tell people I went to Mom's University."
How did this Filipino vegan food concept come about?
When I was younger my mom had a heart attack. The doctor told her it was due to stress and diet. That's when I decided I'd try to force my mom's hand by becoming vegetarian - to coerce her to cook healthy meals for the family. In doing so, she got creative and found "mock" meats from Chinatown. I vividly remember eating the fake meat in one of her Filipino dishes and immediately thought that she was trying to pull one on me. I got upset and reminded her that I was vegetarian. She then showed me the opened package of fake "chicken" and my mind exploded.
"the flavor comes from the sauces.
And the sauces come from our culinary hearts"
How did you learn to cook? Did you go to cookery school or learnt from family members?
I like to tell people I went to Mom's University.
Are you vegan? What was it made you become vegan?
YES, 18 years STRONG. As stated earlier, originally became vegan because of my mom. But as I gained knowledge about the benefits of veganism, my reasons evolved. So now, instead of telling people I did it for my mom, I tell people I do it for Mama Earth. AND ALLLL THEEEE ANIMAAALLLLLLSSSSS!!!!
Vegan has been getting a bad rap lately as bland, how do you make sure your food is not "bland"?
We do this by studying the original, authentic ways that our cuisine is cooked and then innovating to be vegan by changing the protein, So instead of meat, we use seitan, soy protein, tofu, field roast - to give it the innovative vegan twist. But the flavor comes from the sauces. And the sauces come from our culinary hearts.
There has been a big insurgence of all things Vegan recently how do you stand out from the crowd?
We consider ourselves pillars of the vegan community, especially in the Bay Area. We've been around for over 15 years - whether catering, the restaurant, food demos, or the food truck. Our work and food speaks for itself. Our longevity speaks for itself. And I can guarantee that the thing that separates us is our passion for this work. We truly believe in environmental restoration and making vegan food delicious and that will always provide us a platform to do the work.
Where do you get your ingredients from?
Local spots, Chinatown. We get our fake meats from Layonna's Market in Oakland - 443 8th St Oakland, Ca.
Filipino food is very meat orientated, how do you achieve the same taste with vegan ingredients?
Although you may be right in our food being meat-heavy, I'd like to emphasize that the flavor comes from our sauces. If you can figure out how to cook the sauce, you can achieve the Filipino flavors with ease!
What has the reception been like? From non Filipino's and most importantly Filipino's?
When we started, for the first 10 years I received soooo much resistance, so much hesitation and so much criticism - mainly from Filipinos. We hit a turning point when No Worries was featured in Adobo Nation. In the segment, I remember telling the host that most of our clients were Americans and many Filipinos didn't want to try our food because it wasn't something they were familiar with (or open to). I then talked about how Americans were more interested in healthy eating, as well as the "exotic" flavors, and our restaurant was always filled but not with Filipinos. All of a sudden, everyone and their lolas were showing up - which was great. It was actually my intention in the first place, but never panned out until Americans led the way. It told me a lot about our people, our mindset. Now, we get customers from all walks of life.
"many of us were trying to so hard to
assimilate into the American culture
that we hid our food"
What is the most popular dish?
Apritada is the dish that put us on the map.
Could you share a recipe with us?
Why do you think Filipino food has not been as exposed as for instance other Asian foods like Thai, Malaysia, Vietnamese?
a lot of my answers go beyond food -
I honestly think that as a people, many of us were embarrassed of our food growing up. Whether because it wasn't accepted and we were ridiculed for it, or because many of us were trying to so hard to assimilate into the American culture that we hid our food. I remember my dad telling me his co-workers would complain about the smell of fish in the breakroom, or people being grossed out by something they'd never seen (fish with eyeballs). Experiences like this go beyond my family and I'm sure many Filipinos faced this. But how many continued to not give a fuck? not many. Nowadays, because Americans are seeking exotic, authentic cuisine - it's acceptable that you have Balut in your home. The point is, as a culture, often times I've witnessed our people waiting for the approval of Americans before we find value in it.
If you had one Filipino dish to live on for the rest of your life what would that be?
How do you come up with your recipes?
I take original recipes and find ways to veganize them.
Where do we have to go to sample your food?
Come to the food truck in the Bay Area!!
What do you want people to feel when they eat your food?
I want people to taste possibility. You can eat delicious food while giving care to our tender planet.