Yana Gilbuena is dreaming of banana leaves in Antarctica, heaped with a feast of chicken feet, pork intestines and crab-fat rice.
If she has her way, the bottom of the world will be the last stop on a pop-up dinner tour that in two years has taken her across the United States, Canada, the Philippines and part of South America. She calls it the Salo Project, from the Tagalog word salu-salo, meaning party.
Ms. Gilbuena, 32, has no professional culinary training, only evangelical zeal to share the cuisine of her childhood in the Visayas region of the central Philippines.
Nor does she have a steady address: She cadges space on couches (most recently at a colleague’s home in Houston) while cooking five-course dinners in borrowed, sometimes comically underequipped kitchens.
“I don’t trust people anymore to have even the smallest essentials,” she said. Tongs, scissors, bottle opener: “They always say, ‘It’s somewhere here.’”
In a folding purse not much larger than a pencil case, she carries the tools she can’t live without, including tweezers, a meat thermometer, a peeler, a tiny whetstone and, most precious, a Japanese mandoline.
It is stained like a crime scene. Made by Benriner, it has a guillotine-like blade set at an angle, for faster slicing, and a plastic frame, the better for traveling light. It yields slices of scrupulous uniformity and requires little effort or skill — particularly helpful when Ms. Gilbuena has volunteers in the kitchen.
“Sometimes I get people who are afraid of knives,” she said. Then again, the mandoline has its risks: It has shorn off her fingertips at least three times.
She was raised in Visayas by her lola, or grandmother, while her mother worked as a nurse in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. “I was such a little brat,” Ms. Gilbuena said. “I would get sent to the kitchen as punishment, to help the cooks” — tending the fire, making pancit (noodles), wrapping fish in banana leaves. “I hated it, then loved it.”
After she graduated from college with a degree in psychology, she moved to Los Angeles. She couldn’t settle on a career path: behavioral therapy, architecture, antique hardware. She wound up in Brooklyn, working for a children’s furniture company and moonlighting on a neighborhood blog, reviewing pop-up dinners.
She missed Visayan food and saw an opportunity. Her first pop-up was in Bushwick, where she made chicken binakol in a pot as high as her waist. “I didn’t know how to properly portion things,” she said.
On the road she has learned to improvise, converting a panini press to make tocino (sweet cured pork), baking rice in the oven to free up burners and simmering alligator in coconut milk in Mississippi.
Her kit has diminished over time. She recalled with a sigh “a really good, wide spatula” that she gave to a chef in Medellín, Colombia, when she saw how few kitchen tools he had. But she won’t sacrifice the mandoline, which she needs to achieve the precise julienne of achara, a palate-cleansing pickle of green papaya and carrots.
Each dinner pays for the next. She has no plans beyond a hope to cook on every continent.
“The only place I couldn’t find banana leaves was Bismarck, North Dakota,” she said. “In Colombia, we just cut banana leaves off the trees.”
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