Bad Saint's Tom Cunanan learned Filipino cooking in his mom’s kitchen
By Erin Williams, Photography by Kurt Powers, Space Division Photography
As the sixth of seven children, Bad Saint Head Chef Tom Cunanan was the kid in his family who found the most enjoyment in the kitchen. This fact was not lost on his mom, who, in addition to raising her large family in Prince George’s County, MD, was also a nurse.
“My mom, she spoiled me and my baby sister more than the others,” he remembers of her indulgences. Cunanan was born in the Philippines and moved to the States when he was 3. When it came to helping out with the cooking or tagging along in the garden, “I was the go-to son.”
For his birthday and holidays, he always requested his favorite dish: “Filipino spaghetti. It’s ground pork and hot dogs and tomato sauce, but it was awesome. She was really good at it.” Add a lot of store-bought Parmesan cheese—“the Kirkland brand”—and you’d have a meal, he says.
His mother also made dinugugan (pork blood stew) and kare kare, a meal of braised oxtail and peanut butter. “That was actually her signature dish, and that is one of my most fond memories of my mom: cooking that together,” he remembers. “She would make that dish all the time.”
When he grew up and became a professional chef, Cunanan spent time in kitchens that led him far away from his home cuisine, places like the Southern-focused Vidalia, seafood-filled DC Coast and the French restaurant La Chaumerie. But Cunanan shied away from making his beloved Filipino food.
“I didn’t get it how I could make it work. I thought the food didn’t look pleasing at all. The presentation was going to look very brown and I didn’t think people would actually like this food. Pork blood stew—who’s going to eat that?”
He didn’t find his focus on the food of his native country until around five years ago, when his mom was diagnosed with cancer.
“She wanted to write down her recipes. So I gave her composition books, Moleskine books. While she was on the couch, [she’d] watch TV, write down recipes.” Like most handwritten family recipes, her writing pattern was a stream of consciousness, with margin notes on where to get the best deals on ingredients. She included directions, but few concrete measurements.
“Most of the recipes are Filipino; some of them are stuff that she made up. Like ‘fish dish with tomatoes’—nothing crazy. I just kept telling her, ‘Keep writing recipes.’ And the stuff that I really wanted to know was there, she wrote it all down in those notebooks.”
As she wrote, he worked to replicate them with her by his side. But it wasn’t easy for him to get it right on those first tries. “I just remember she’d always yell at me,” he laughs. Pandesel, a traditional Filipino bread recipe, was one in particular that he kept trying to tweak—mostly because the measurements were inconsistent with the ingredients listed. “I made it, like, every single day. Her recipes would consist of using a thumb-sized amount of butter ... just take a handful of flour and put it into a bowl. She just did everything by feel.”
That trial and error was key for him being able to understand the methods behind not only his mother’s cooking but Filipino cuisine as a whole. Cunanan’s mom lost her battle to cancer in 2012, but she had given Cunanan the foundation he needed to find himself—and his culinary stride.
He started by launching a small Filipino catering company, Tarsier Catering, where he focused on the basics: pork sandwiches, topped with chicarone and served on pandesel with dumplings, a perfect intro to Filipino food for DC eaters. His name made its way to Nick Pimentel, who was co-owner of the restaurant Room 11 at the time and was seeking a new head chef. While Cunanan didn’t get hired at Room 11, he did gain the support of Pimentel and started doing Filipino pop-ups where he developed a following for his pork blood stew, lumpia (fried spring rolls) and ukoy (shrimp fritters).
In 2015, the transition from pop-up to permanent location became official with the opening of Bad Saint. The tiny restaurant has remained packed ever since, winning national acclaim and a James Beard Award nomination for Chef Cunanan. On the menu you will find ginisang ampalaya, a vegetarian dish that translates to “bitter melon.” It was one of the dishes he prepared for Pimentel years ago during his tryout, and it’s also one of Cunanan’s most personal meals. Known to help fight cancer, he remembers his mom eating it every single day.
“That’s never leaving the menu. It’s like the only memory I have left—when I look at it, I always think about her.”
In addition to the bitter melon, the restaurant’s pork blood stew and kare kare dish originated with his mom’s recipes and countless traces of her teachings are evident in Cunanan’s food. In creating dishes for the menu, he each dish must pass this test: “I make sure the Filipino flavors are there, and then ‘Would my mom eat this?’ If she wouldn’t eat it then I wouldn’t put it on the menu.”
“I feel like she gave me direction to my life. Before cooking Filipino food I had no idea what I was doing,” he says of his culinary career path.
Now, it’s clear.
“She taught me to cook her food. It’s the best gift that she ever gave me.”
From our 2017 Spring Issue.