Chef Philip Esteban is helping raise Filipino cuisine to the forefront of San Diego’s culinary scene, while also working with friends to run a nonprofit called Open Gym that provides meals, community programs and resources to underserved communities. Esteban works as a board member for A Reason to Survive, a nonprofit creative program providing an outlet for underprivileged youth, and also serves on the Filipino Advisory Board for the mayor of National City. An initiative he’s actively working to push is the creation of a Filipino Cultural Center in his hometown of National City, known as San Diego’s Filipino Town, where visitors can celebrate food culture. His current culinary projects include White Rice, Weapon Ramen and Craft Meals Catering, with a culinary shop and bookstore Wordsmith coming soon.
On how the pandemic motivated him into taking action
The pandemic completely decimated the food industry, not just from the chef standpoint in restaurants, but the entire ecosystem — from drivers to companies and products, to produce and even the fishermen and women. This made [our nonprofit] Open Gym a necessity. We partnered up with fishers and then used our catering entity, Craft Meals, to apply for grants and provide funding to feed families in need. It’s called Open Gym because we’re friends from different industries who were trying to figure out how we could create systems and spaces within the community that help uplift underrepresented groups and create more visibility for people of color. Places like where I grew up, there’s not a lot of diversity or opportunity, so it was just this idea of an open gym that anyone could come to and work on things, develop ideas and create spaces.
The majority of funding we get is from donors and by grant writing. In the beginning of the pandemic, I was listening to a podcast with José Andrés, and he basically said with World Central Kitchen, which is a nonprofit, what he does is write grants and use government and state funding to then hire restaurants to provide meals in the community. So I called my lawyer and asked if Open Gym, as a nonprofit, can write grants and then hire restaurants ourselves to produce these meals. We connected the dots very quickly rather than waiting for policies and politics to happen.
“I’ve been cooking for about 18 years, have worked in three Michelin-starred restaurants ... and the unfortunate part is that when I started cooking, there was no one who looked like me in the industry.”
As the pandemic started, our catering business was something we thought we could use to help first responders and provide meals. Being Filipino, I knew half the nurses in the field were Filipino, and it was easy to create silog rice bowls as a meal option. With every meal that was purchased, we donated one out to the community.
On helping to combat food insecurity
Growing up in National City, which is a smaller city outside San Diego with about 60,000 people, social equity and opportunity aren’t as prevalent as other affluent areas. National City is a blue-collar community with a lot of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and that’s where a lot of the food insecurity is. It was already happening there before the pandemic, but people just became hyper-aware of it.
I feel like there’s a better way to do business and hospitality with a more conscious mindset — while also working with local purveyors, and fishermen and women to do produce and fish recovery — that you could create a sustainable business model while still helping people in need. And that’s one of the missions for Open Gym and the Fish to Families meal distribution program that we created.
During the pandemic, fishers would still fish, but they didn’t have anywhere to sell because all the markets were closed, overseas trading was closed, and restaurants were done as well. With all the community work we were doing at Open Gym, the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group reached out and said there’s a protein deficiency within underserved communities, particularly among the food-insecure. We created a program together by purchasing fish directly from the fishers, and purchasing produce from local farmers, then taking the fish and butchering it and turning it into meals, while also training our staff. Then we partnered up with 12 other nonprofits for distribution in San Diego to do home and door deliveries and walk-ups. We do something like 1,600 meals a week, but to date, during the entire pandemic, we’re now over 350,000 meals. It’s always no questions asked — if you need food, we’ll give you a meal.
One family — a husband and wife with two children — hadn’t eaten in four days when we showed up to bring them prepackaged meals. We also brought in donations of canned goods, toys and other things just to help them through.
There’s also nearby Kimball Towers, which houses hundreds of people who are 65 and older. In June 2020 they hadn’t received a single meal, boxed produce, or any type of assistance from the city, state or government level since the start of the pandemic in March. We kept asking and trying to work with the city, since these people who are pillars of the community had no help. So, we did our one-for-one [buy one, donate one] and saved all the meals, then provided 700 meals to those residents.
On having great mentors and serving as a role model to the next generation
I’ve been cooking for about 18 years, have worked in three Michelin-starred restaurants, hotels, privately owned restaurants and catering. I’ve also traveled the world and the country. And the unfortunate part is that when I started cooking there was no one who looked like me in the industry. I had amazing mentors, but I didn’t have mentors who were Filipino and didn’t know any chefs who were Filipino. I would always cook Filipino food as a family meal for staff, and at home, but never in a restaurant.
“About 10 or 15 years ago, you only needed to know how to cook and that was it. But now you have to understand social media, TV, how to write ... You don’t just need 10 tools, you need all 100 to be accepted and for Filipino food to finally have a seat at the table.”
Prior to the pandemic, I did a lot of internal searching and what I say was it was a year of self-identity, and was trying to understand what it means to be Filipino American with all the knowledge and experience that I’d built up. I thought about what I’m trying to give back to the food industry, my own community, and the next generations of cooks and chefs who look like me.
Over the years, people have tried to push this Filipino food movement, but I just don’t think the culture was ready for it to happen yet. I think a lot of it has to do internally about the way that we perceive our own culture and the way that we portray it. About 10 or 15 years ago, you only needed to know how to cook and that was it. But now you have to understand social media, TV, how to write and all these different things. You don’t just need 10 tools, you need all 100 to be accepted, and for Filipino food to finally have a seat at the table. I think it’s a long time coming.
I’ve been lucky enough to have great mentors that guided me in the right direction to help me find my space and what I wanted to do with my career. Now, to get messages from chef mentors over the years who say, “I’m happy that you’re doing what you’re doing,” means a lot. Recently I was waiting for the elevator near a young kid I didn’t know, who was wearing an Amazon delivery uniform. And then he says, “Hey Chef Phil … You know, I had to stop cooking because everything closed [during the pandemic], but I just want you to know that I started cooking because of you.” It’s so cool to see that and to have this next generation be inspired … It’s everything.