Alexandra Cuerdo - Director, Producer, Editor
Alexandra Cuerdo is the Filipina American film maker behind“ULAM: Main Dish”. As a director, producer, and editor she recognized the rise of the Filipino food movement and took the step in telling that story. A conversation with Allie is full of passion for her work, the film, and her story. Having attended UCLA Film School and worked all positions in film production (assistant, production manager, assistant director), it was a conversation with her father that started the idea for Ulam, and with the support and encouragement of fellow Filipino Americans on set (John Floresca and Matt LIbatique), Allie got to work.
Ulam, a food documentary about the rise of the Filipino food movement, is the first of it’s kind. An independent film that tells the stories of a new vanguard of Filipino American chefs, Ulam covers restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City creating modern Filipino cuisine. By sharing their journeys through the food industry (origins, sacrifices, work to run successful restaurants) Ulam is a series of one on one interviews, allowing these pioneering chefs to share their stories in their own words.
I recently spoke with Allie about her work with Ulam and what is coming next. Below is a look into our conversation.
How did the idea for Ulam begin? What were you doing prior to creating “Ulam: Main Dish”?
Ulam started as an idea over dinner. My dad and I were talking, he is also a film producer and has been working for Columbia Pictures for 30 years. He had an idea to do a film about Filipino food with a college friend. Over dinner I asked, “are you doing anything with it? Can I try it?” I heard this idea and connected to it on a personal level. The Filipino American identity communicated through food. I was born in the US, so it's always been a process of reconnecting.
In my career before Ulam, I was woking for other people. I was assistant at Columbia, production manager for Disney Imagineering, assistant director for Independent, pretty much all the positions in film that were connected to production in film. Nothing really felt right, I was always working for other people. I thought, “I went to film school, what am I going to do with it?” I met John Floresca on a film set in New York. We were 2 of 3 Filipinos on the set. The third was his boss Matt Libatique, John knew I was a huge fan of Matty and John set us up for lunch. Matt worked on Black Swan, Iron Man, and was my film school hero. He gave me a list of Filipino food in the city. I told him I wanted to do the documentary, and he said do it! So that summer after I finished the job, I worked on a few more sets and I worked on my pitch.
I would pitch chefs cold. We didn't have the backing of a major studio, or network, it was purely independent (financed and produced). I was just walking in with my ideas and my dreams saying "hey, would you be interested in being a part of this” that was nothing like we've seen before. I grew up eating Filipino food at home and in Filipino restaurants in West Covina. It was still a place that was mostly a Filipino immigrant space. So it still felt to me like a space that I didn't fully inhabit, as someone born in the US with all of the privileges and freedoms. I wanted to make my own path and saw the chefs doing the same. Those were the ones I pursued, pretty aggressively! I was really passionate about it. Restaurants were important as a way to point at something and say, “this is my culture and you can experience it”, a place to meet and be comfortable.
Did you always want to make a movie about filipino food? Or did you want to do something else/a movie about something else?
I have a million movie ideas. This is just the beginning. It made sense. At the time (about 3 years ago) no one was talking about it. Filipino food has always been good. Some of the restaurants have been around for 20 years. For some reason when we were making the documentary, the press was buzzing about it. There were all these non Filipinos trying Filipino food saying it's damn good. And for me, and so many Filipinos, we're like, “that’s cool.” I've been eating this since I was born. For me, the documentary was an attempt to claim that. For a Filipino to claim Filipino food, I thought was very important.
I was asked why there was no narrator for the film and it’s because I wanted the chefs to narrated their own stories. A lot of times people of color stories are narrated, so I wanted to have them do it. It's our time to be able to claim our food. We can no longer ask permission to claim our own culture. Personal stories are so compelling and they're irrefutable. This is their experience, told to you by them. It's powerful to tell our own stories, that's my intention, to highlight chefs that were making Filipino food and willing to talk about their journey and struggle. It was so fascinating to see what they all went through to get to where they are now. I've always been fascinated by success and failure. These chefs had all experienced failure and heart break.
I did the film over 3 years, and we realized there were all these themes that came up in the edit. They were all going through the same thing. The film brought the chefs together. So many of the chefs defied their parent's expectations, they were the black sheep of the family, they went out and took a risk. It's really inspiring. As a daughter of immigrants, it's inspiring to hear that someone else could do it, that it can be done. We can make our parents proud just by pursuing our own career paths. I'm not a chef, I'm in film. I felt like it was a parallel story to my own. It resonated with me, personally. As my first film I wanted to make a very personal movie.
How was your idea received by the interviewees and then by the general public?
For chefs it was interesting. At the very beginning, I think a lot of people didn’t know where the project would go. I felt positive that the chefs were very excited about getting to talk with another Fil Am. There was a camaraderie. There is an easy trust there that your stories are being told my someone who is of a like mind and who is also dealing with the same problems day in and out: people not knowing your culture, casual racism, asking “where” are you from. Just having that bond already, established so much. From there on, the movement grew. 3 years ago we were just at the beginning of the rise of Filipino food in the US. We caught that wave, at the right place, right time, with the right questions. I focused on NYC and LA because I was in LA and my cinematographer was in MYC. These cities are our home. If we did it now, we would take it on the road, all over the US. There’s good food in San Francisco, San Diego, DC. There so many awesome restaurants now. Thats also an amazing thing.
We saw the movement grow. We saw the press grow. We saw the Filipino food on the front page of the NY Times food section and were honored to be in that article. We were in the right place, right time. We had talked to premiere chefs.
Reaction from the world, it’s been a wild ride. We had our world premiere in SF International Film Festival in April and from that point on, we've sold out maybe 70% of our screenings, and we've filled 95% of theaters. It's been overwhelmingly amazing. We did not expect this level of love! We didn’t expect this amount of love from the US, Fil Am community in the Us, and the general film audience. From people watching the movie, we had people come up saying this movie changed their lives. Someone said this helped them want to pursue a culinary career. In San Diego there was 300 person kamayaan feast that was put on for the film. And they're now doing every month. It's totally wild, the impact of the film on the specific communities it's been hosted in has been insane. I had no idea people would be so excited and changed by it! It would strengthen the community at the point of changing it. And elevated the conversation to a national stage. It got good press, and has been featured in the NY Times, LA Times, Vogue, Buzzfeed. Everyone is very excited about the film. The reception has been amazing.
What is your favorite filipino food?
Recently I've been re-obsessed with my Lola's kare kare. I just went home to CA and we celebrated her 90th birthday, what a boss. She's an amazing woman, she also raised me. Her kare kare is the bomb, it’s the best, savory nutty with bagging and veggies. For dessert, that’s a tough one. Ube ice cream is pretty much a winner. Quezo real ice cream, too. If i had to pick. But I really do love it all.
What's coming next?
We are going international with it! There’s a Canadian premier this fall in Toronto. We want to visit a lot of other cities that I think have a smaller Filipino community and we will see how it is there. Boston, Denver. We are doing a full Fall tour. We hope to kick start a conversation about Filipino food. This film is for us, the community, Fil Ams, for the world to introduce people to Filipino food. We didn't write the bible on it. We are opening the door.
Maybe Ulam 2??
We would love to do Ulam 2! Especially now that we know so many great chefs around the country. And around the world!
So you will be in London on Tuesday.
From the success of the film I was nominated and am receiving an award for 100 Most Influential Filipina Women around the world by the Filipina Women's Network. My parents are also flying out for my mom's birthday.
Photos courtesy of Allie Cuerdo