How Yana Gilbuena is Hacking the Restaurant Business
Yana Gilbeuna might pop into your town for a week or so sometime soon. She calls it crashing. It’s like couch-surfing, but for chefs. The 34-year-old chef packs light, but her cooking packs a punch. The SALO Series pop-ups create a meal unlike any other. The dinners are in a style called kamayan—a Filipino communal meal on banana leaves with no utensils. The meals at once honor Filipino heritage, bring the traditional cuisine to the spotlight, and as Gilbuena says, “decolonize” Filipino culture.
“I wanted us, Filipino-Americans and Filipinos in general, to honor our heritage and keep up our tradition and not feel ashamed that we eat with our hands,” she says. “This is what we’ve been doing since before colonization and I feel like the effects of colonialism are very deeply rooted in our culture. I wanted to use food as a medium to start decolonizing.”
Admitted cultural heaviness aside, Gilbuena says the meals are just a ton of fun and the reaction has been better than she expected. Diners are pleasantly surprised, too.
“It’s been really refreshingly amazing,” she says. “The Philippines is an archipelago. Some people don’t even leave their islands so they’re used to whatever food is around them. To bring dishes from the south or other regions in the Visayas where I’m from, it gives people a sense of wonder.”
Gilbuena has hosted pop-ups in all 50 states. She started her first tour in 2014. After that she went international, making stops in Canada, Colombia, and Mexico. For a meal unlike any other, the business side is something entirely new, too.
During her tour, Gilbuena would pop into a town on a Monday and scope out grocery stores, local farmers markets, and what’s in season. Later in the week she’d scope the location—somewhere she’d chosen or, more recently, a restaurant that has invited her to host a dinner. Depending on the day of the pop-up and the kitchen she’s given, Gilbuena might prep everything the day of the meal.
“I’ve learned to be very efficient in the kitchen,” she says. “People will say to me, ‘You need only 4 hours of prep?’ It freaks other chefs out.”
If Gilbuena is hacking the chef’s workflow, she’s also hacking the restaurant business. Pop-ups are a great way for brick-and-mortar restaurants to bring in more revenue and expand their audience. For a day or two per week, restaurants are likely to close to clean up and restock. Let the staff rest, Gilbuena says, and bring in a pop-up chef to provide a totally different experience.
“In a sense, if you’re a savvy business owner, when you’re closed on Sunday or Monday, you could have someone like me, a pop-up chef, come in,” Gilbuena says. “You’re already paying for the space so you’re increasing your market because you’re going to be reaching a different kind of demographic than with your normal restaurant.”
Pop-ups do more than just raise a restaurant’s bottom line, she says. They can also raise a restaurant’s profile.
“People will think you’re hip, you’re cool, you’re supporting all these local chef artists that come and it’s a win-win,” she says.
The variety pop-up culture brings is the spice of Gilbuena’s life—a single restaurant post over the past several years would have been too routine for her, she says. With several years and loads of experiences under her belt, Gilbuena is taking a little break from touring.
That doesn’t mean she’s staying put. Invitations are rolling in for her to bring kamayan style to restaurants throughout the U.S. She also just secured a sponsorship that will have her cooking in Europe and the Middle East later this year.
Her experience has given her a unique vantage point. She’s working on a book called No Forks Given that will be released this spring. She’s also seen and experienced firsthand how the restaurant business is changing.
“I’ve crashed, or technically staged, in a couple of kitchens at this point so I got to see the whole interaction from the back of house to the front,” she says. “I definitely see more globalized cuisine. And definitely now the restaurant industry is more fluid—there are restaurants that are focused solely on pop-up chefs. And there’s definitely a lot of immigrant cuisine, which I’m really happy about.”