I first met and interviewed Rodelio Aglibot at the opening of “Me Geisha”, his restaurant in Rome, in early December 2015. Although he divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles, he is a globetrotter so we have seen each other several other times in Rome. Aglibot’s curriculum is much too long to summarize. Suffice it to say that at age 49 he is a chef, restaurateur many times over in several US cities, food consultant, frozen and prepared food entrepreneur, food tour guide, TV personality, and writer. He has over 40 concept openings under his belt. It could be said that, rather than a menu, opening restaurants and food businesses are his specialties. One of his proudest accomplishments is his non-profit charity named “In Chef’s Hands”, which connects individuals with special needs who have a passion for food and cooking with chefs in the Chicago area.
Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of food?
I grew up in an immigrant family. My parents were Filipinos and I grew up in Hawaii. Being an immigrant family we cooked a lot and all together. We went to the store everyday. Giving each other gifts and happiness was by cooking. We sat together. We shared. Food and eating were an emotion. To this day, when I go to visit my folks, they don’t ask me “When are you coming?”, but “What do you want to eat?” So for me that’s what food is. That’s the core of why I ended up becoming a chef. To me food is conviviality and emotion. You’re giving of yourself, when you cook. You are creating something with your hands and your soul. Eating is essential to life, both biological and spiritual. Food is not an inanimate object to adore, to put on a pedestal. Instead, whatever we chefs create should be grounded in feeding our soul not simply our body.
Growing up in Hawaii most of my first memories of food are seafood and fish, Filipino cuisine of course, plus Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese. One incident I remember was, when we were at the beach, my father picked up some seaweed and said, “Eat this!” and so I did. So from the age of four or five, I’ve always eaten many different combinations of cuisines. For example, there’s also a lot of Portuguese influence on the food in Hawaii, even if most people don’t think of that. I didn’t discriminate. My parents let me decide if I liked a food or not, but I was encouraged to taste everything.
At the inauguration of your then newest restaurant “Me Geisha” in Rome in December 2015 you told me that from early childhood you wanted to be a chef; what were your indications of this vocation?
My father was a chef in the US military so we moved around a lot, but he was also shipped away, so being the oldest male in the family I cooked. I mastered cinnamon rolls and baked beans. I was probably 11- or 12-years-old. I also helped my mother peeling carrots and lots of other vegetables. Being curious I would go to the store and buy zucchini and mushrooms, put them in batter, fry them, and then eat them all.
Later, by that time we’d moved to California, when I was 16 and had my first job, it was at a “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. I would make dough at home and stuff the nuggets in to improve their taste. I was curious and creative at a young age. However, being Asian and the oldest male, my parents’ expectations were for me to go to college so I went to UCLA to become an engineer, but I found out very quickly that that was not my passion. Then, when I was 21, my younger brother was killed in a car accident and my life was molded from that point on. My motto became: “You must do what makes you happy, but find that.” I struggled with making my parents proud being first-generation Americans by becoming an engineer or following my heart. I think a lot of people have this decision in their life so that’s why I went to culinary school at 25.
You also said that your parents were your mentors. What did you learn from them?
They drew my palate. Although my Dad was a professional cook, my Mom has particularly sensitive taste buds. Once my father was making stew and she tasted it and told him he had not washed the meat. At first he insisted that he had, but in the end had to admit she was right.
Your nickname is “Food Buddha”; why?
Fifteen years ago my career took off when I became the Opening Executive Chef of “Koi”, the celebrity studded and juggernaut restaurant in Los Angeles. The experience helped build the foundation of my career. I earned my stars because I created innovative menus of Asian dishes. I started to give interviews and to meet with the press. I became friends with Food Television producer and cookbook author JoAnn Cianciulli, and Mara Papatheodorou, the former traveler editor of Bon Appétit. They nicknamed me “Food Buddha” because they said I never gave them an answer that was similar to anybody else’s. They said that I talked about people, love, life, and not ingredients. Not to mention that I looked like a Buddha. Joking aside, I think it’s because I put such strong conviction in the things I believe in. I have a Zen approach to the world and to cooking. To be a chef is a privilege; it’s the only art form that uses all five senses, that’s how special it is.
In a nutshell how would you define your cuisine?
Approachable, transcendent, and very personal.
You were born in The Philippines, grew up in Hawaii, and now live between Los Angeles, Chicago, and Italy. So you yourself, not only your cuisine, is fusion. What are your specialties?
Asian food, but my first job as a chef was in an Italian restaurant in Presidio Heights in San Francisco called “Magic Flute Garden Ristorante”. Asian food didn’t come to the surface until the mid-1990s when I was working as the opening sous chef with Joyce Goldstein and Gary Woo at the “E & O Trading Company”, a Pan-Asian restaurant. It was there that I began to hone my own culinary identity. Joyce encouraged me to follow my heart. Of course, being Asian myself and growing up in Hawaii where Japanese cuisine is very strong, Asian flavors were very natural to me and had already molded my palate and my style. My specialties are crispy rice and black cod.
Give me a Filipino, a Hawaiian, an American, a Japanese, and an Italian characteristic of your cuisine?
My food has the melting-pot spirit of Hawaiian, the love of being Filipino, the simplicity of Japanese, the huge portion size of American, and again the love of being Italian. Filipinos and Italians are similar in their closeness of their families, their respect for their elders, their love of food and holiday celebrations.
What are the essential qualities of a top chef?
A love of people, understanding history because cooking reflects culture, respect for the farmers who produce our ingredients, constant refueling our creativity, which I do through travel. Our legacy is not built on a dish or a restaurant; our legacy is built by those who work with us. You should hope that as a top chef you inspire your junior colleagues to take on whatever principles and values in life they need to help them succeed. I don’t have any children so over the years my cooks have been my children. I teach them more life lessons than cooking lessons.
How did your collaboration in Italy come about?
Over ten years ago, I had just closed my restaurant in Los Angeles and was planning to take ten months off and just travel around the world. Then I got a phone call from the Italian-American businessman Giuseppe Tuosto asking for my help in setting up a Japanese menu at his restaurant in Hollywood and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since. Three years ago we set up “Me Geisha” in Salerno, near Giuseppe’s hometown, and then last December in Rome. Our culinary philosophy here is 3B: dishes must belli or beautiful to look at, buoni or good to eat, and benessere or make you feel well. “Me Geisha” is a brand so we plan to open others in Rome and Naples before going north in Italy.
How often do you come to Italy and for how long each time?
As of now every six to eight weeks for two or three weeks at a time. I have wanderlust. I live to discover new places and to taste new foods.
What are your newest and forthcoming projects?
“Fire Fin Poké” opened on June 2, 2016 in downtown Chicago. Another two are opening in Chicago in the Fall. Giuseppe and I opened “Suriso Poké Shop” in Salerno on August 5th. It’s the first Poké shop in Italy. We opened another “Me Geisha” in Pompeii in October.
What do you like the most about your work?
A combination of travel, exploring different places and foods, learning about different cultures, not to leave out eating. It’s fun to say, “I eat for a living.” I also love the creativity of cooking. I was not meant to be a one-restaurant chef. I’m a person who creates and builds teams. I’m that kind of artisan.
When I seen other chefs being consumed by the pressures of the industry, forgetting why they love to cook so they drink too much and abuse drugs.
Is your culinary philosophy: “Follow your heart, cook for love and you will be loved; a great chef doesn’t create great dishes…a great chef inspires great chefs.”?
Yes. A tragedy of life is not to find one’s passion…a greater tragedy is to know one’s passion and deny oneself of its treasures.
Other chefs that you admire?
Jaqcues Pépin. I collaborated on one of his cookbooks. I admire his culinary skills, but also his modesty. I also admire Joyce Goldstein and Alice Waters for being ahead their time. Not to forget the deceased Giovanni Leoni, the chef of “Buca Giovanni” (now closed), on Russian Hill in San Francisco, because, when I worked there, every evening at 5 PM the entire staff sat down and ate together. That was his way of reinforcing the importance to him of his staff—an essential aspect of being a top chef. He was also composting in the early 90s. He grew his own vegetables and raised his own rabbits. He too was ahead of his time.
You are not only a chef; own restaurants in many places worldwide; have a catering business, another of frozen foods, and still another of take-away prepared foods; are a consultant, television star, and writer; in short you are a jack-of- or fusion-of-many-food-trades. Did I forget something? How do you manage everything?
Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are my role models. The Renaissance Man. I take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. I could define myself as “The Renaissance Chef”. When I can learn something new, I go for it. I definitely try to use all parts of my brain, whether it be the business aspect, the consultant side, maintaining my own restaurants and brands like my frozen food line, or cooking and creating new dishes. I function better when I have a lot of things going on. I don’t suffer from anxiety. I’m not a procrastinator. I get things done.
Do you consider yourself restless and dissatisfied or tireless and incurably curious?
Incurably curious. For example, a travel company based out of Dallas has hired me to create food tours that don’t yet exist. I’m trying to create food tours that other chefs would take. Each day starts at a local market and then it evolves. I’m the guide. So far I’ve done them in Hong Kong, Hawaii, San Francisco, and around Naples in Italy.
Up to now we’ve talked about Rodelio Aglibot the professional; now I‘d like to know more about Rodelio Aglibot the person. For example, what are your favorite foods?
Three Filipino dishes that I always ask my mother to make for me: boulalo which is a beef shank soup, kare-kare which is an oxtail and vegetable stew cooked in peanut sauce, and dinuguan which is basically a spicy stew made with pork blood. If I could choose any chef in the world to cook a special meal for me, the chefs would be my parents. If I could choose three dinner companions, they would be JFK, Elvis, and Michelangelo. The background music would be Bob Marley.
I love Italian gelato, especially vanilla, hazelnut, and coconut, as well as cookies.
An ingredient or dish you don’t like?
The American yellow mustard they put on hot dogs. I like bitter foods, but not bitter melon. It’s a Filipino gourd.
Your favorite wine?
I’m a white wine drinker so I would say Gewurztraminers or Rieslings. I like highly acidic and balanced wines with not a lot of residual sugar.
Your favorite color?
Your favorite restaurant in Rome?
What’s your zodiac sign?
I’m a textbook Capricorn.
What is never missing in your home refrigerator?
Eggs. I could eat eggs everyday.
Chefs are known for having collections, especially of fast cars, motorcycles, or fancy watches? What about you?
Cookbooks and knives. On the personal side I collect passport stamps on my own passport. I keep my old passports.
If you had not become a chef, what other profession would you have chosen?
Lead singer in a rock band or a pop music star. If I could be gifted with any other talent, singing would be my choice. I would like to be Enrique Iglesias.
Do you have a pipedream for the future?
To become a father one day. That I can still do. If not natural, I’ll adopt. My two older sisters are adopted, so I’m certainly open to that. I take me with me. I’m the common denominator in my life’s story. So if I can’t get on with myself, I’m in trouble. Even if it’s a cliché, remember that you only live once. So live like it’s your last day. Live everyday to the full. I would also like to be a writer because I think I have something to say.