In honour of Filipino Food Month, I thought it would be nice for us to get to know the brains behind Roni B’s Kitchen.
I have never met Roni prior to our interview, which I was horrendously late to (perks of being Filipino AND a stay-at-home mum). Roni graciously met with me still, and it was such a fun and informative interview. Roni is like the Tita that doesn’t take any sh*t from anyone. Headstrong and determined, Roni B’s Kitchen is as successful as it is because of Roni.
Born in Ilocos Norte, as an only child, Roni learned how to cook just by watching her family cook. “My way into cooking was through baking when I was 12 years old. I started baking because my mum doesn’t bake. I just learned from cookbooks and watching people cook. If I wanted to discover new things, I would go to restaurants and try to decipher the favours and replicate them at home. But baking is where I started.”
Baking seems like a far cry from the cooking Roni does now, so I asked how she transitioned from baking to the cooking she does now.
“From baking, I started cooking non-Filipino food because Filipino food was always served in the house. So for me, it was trying to discover new things. Christmas is my favourite time when I cook the Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) dishes. I cook for the family, you know, glaze the ham. I’d say Christmas and Easter are when I splash together the festive flair of Filipino food. Also, I had to learn how to cook at university and when I lived on my own. I just did a lot of reading and experimenting.”
It’s been 20 years since Roni first moved to the UK. 20 years and the exposure to Filipino cuisine in the UK has only just begun. As someone who was born and raised in the beautifully diverse city of Toronto, I was spoiled for choice on what type of cuisine to have on any given day. I was baffled by the lack of diversity in the cuisine available in the UK. It only makes sense that Roni would take matters into her own hands.
Inspired by the lack of Filipino food in the UK, Roni felt it was time to shine a light on our food.
“I noticed that whenever there was a potluck I attended, my Filipino dishes would always be the first thing to go! And that was an indication that it was time for us to bring our food into the spotlight. But we need to be confident to talk about our food.”
Roni lived in the US for some time before moving to the UK. While there, she would read and learn cooking from Betty Crocker's cookbook, the Delia Smith of the US. Years later, watching YouTube videos of Filipino-Americans when they talked about Filipino food growing up, “They all mentioned a sense of shame about our cuisine because it smells, it’s pungent, it’s black. But I was never ashamed of our food, I celebrate it. Josephine’s was one of the first Filipino restaurants in the UK. If you look at the reviews and people would say ‘Oh it’s just brown sauce’ or ’It’s just all dark sauces’. Now, if you listen to all the bloggers, they call it ‘a rich, mahogany sauce’. Two different ways to say the same thing. It’s just perspective.”
Perspective with an underlying sense of racism? The British are known to stick to tradition and their fear of the unknown. Roni agreed that there is some racism in the critique of our cuisine, but she also joked “You know the Brits, they’re telling you off, but they’re also being polite.” She laughs and jokes that she likes to return the favour whenever the chance arises.
As a side note, Roni shares that British people often called adobo ‘curry’.
“It absolutely annoys me!”
When Roni shares this, I am baffled. Curry and adobo are two completely different things. But I am also slightly not surprised by the ignorance. With Filipino food only just getting its spotlight, many will want to compare it to things they are familiar with to make it feel safe. I only hope that it is just a starting point for people’s journey into learning more about our cuisine and culture.
The many faces of Filipino Adobo
Roni also brings up another surprising fact. Many of her new customers tend to be over 50s. She notices that they tend to be former ex-pats or people who used to travel a lot, and so, are open to trying new things. “They will ask me questions and say ‘Oh that’s interesting’ and compare it to something that they’ve had and buy multiple products.”
As Roni stated in our chat earlier on, Filipino food is so flexible and versatile. “It’s simple and rustic, until you understand the flavours. There is so much layering of flavours in our cuisine, so much history. I’m not talking Spanish influence, I’m talking well before that. It’s such simple food, yet so diverse in its flavours and nuances.”
In our discussion, we talk a lot about what inspired Roni to start her business, but I wanted to know more about what or who inspires Roni. “Doreen Fernandez is such an inspiration because she’s one of the first food historians, and we lost a lot of pre-Spanish time food history. It’s really hard to find things about our food history and Doreen was the first to look into our food, its history and place in the local landscape.”
Another inspiration is Glenda Barreto. “The way she envisions Filipino food is so elegant. She’s one of the first. She opened Via Mare Oyster Bar, a fine dining restaurant and Via Mare Cafe serving Filipino comfort food, like arroz caldo and pancit palabok. And it’s amazing. I always go back there whenever I come to visit. She did all the state banquet dinners since the Marcos’. She has served royalty and dignitaries. She showed everyone how elegant our food can be. To me, she is one of those who started it all.”
Photo courtesy of Via Mare Catering - local fruits with local chocolate
At the end of our lively discussion, I ask Roni if she has any piece of culinary knowledge she would like to share with the world.
“Cooking is about balancing flavours. And knowing what elements to cook. You need to learn how to work with your ingredients. Learning how to work with all the different combinations of flavours. This is what cooking is all about. You need to balance all the flavours: sour, salt, sweet, and bitter. “
As soon as I close my laptop, it’s clear to me why Roni is as successful as she is. For starters, her products are incredibly delicious (the Kalamansi marmalade and Ihaw Ihaw BBQ Sauce are my favs, and I’ve been eyeing the Garlic Chilli Paste). So much innovation, so much flavour, and flavour that illicit memories of home (Canada and the Philippines). Roni’s determination is also a factor in her success. It’s clear to me that Roni knows what she wants and will work hard to get it. I have no doubt that Roni will become a household name and a huge player in the Filipino Food Movement in the UK.