Eric Dee thinks big. The ambitious man behind the places many Filipinos have come to love has noticed a strong upwelling, the slow building of a wave that will put Filipino cuisine front and center. Not only does he want to ride this wave, but he also wants to be the one to push it to shore by establishing Mesa, his crown jewel, in America.
Mesa, which Dee proudly labels as “stylized” Filipino cuisine—the real definition behind their sellable catchall term “modern”—opened in Los Angeles in the middle of 2017. After evolving from a local version of various Asian restaurants where diners grill and barbecue their own food to establishing around 30 Mesa branches in the Philippines by the end of the year, Dee feels that it’s finally time to take the brand overseas, boosted by a slow but steadily increasing recognition of the merits of Filipino cuisine.
“It’s a big step, but I think with the exposure of these celebrity chefs saying Filipino food will be the next big thing in mainstream cuisine, there’s no reason not to believe that,” the confident Dee says. “You have Vietnamese, you have Thai, you have Korean, you have everyone else in Southeast Asia that’s represented in mainstream cuisine, but never the Philippines.”
And so strong is Dee’s certainty in the burgeoning power of Filipino cuisine and its potential on the world stage that he has chosen to make an interesting gamble and open the first American Mesa away from a Filipino enclave. Instead of playing it safe and setting up shop in a neighborhood that’s run by Filipinos like, say, West Covina, he wants to roll the dice and open somewhere more upscale—somewhere a 100 percent Filipino restaurant would be 100 percent alien, like Beverly Grove just outside East Hollywood. “After seeing other Filipino restaurants in New York City, we felt that there was actually an opportunity to put it right smack in the middle of everyone else, not in an Asian town,” shares Dee.
He feels that it is the characteristic of Filipino food to be bold—with all its strange yet daring flavors that are quite a “punch to the tongue,” as he describes his foreign chefs’ reactions to it—which has carried and will carry the reputation of our cuisine. So even if, to an outsider, it seems like an unwise maneuver to make a big splash in a wholly foreign environment, Dee is willing to play his cards.
The best way to play those cards, he shares, is to do as the Americans do and scale down. If you want to make the biggest impact, then it’s best to minimize the menu to emphasize the sure hits. Instead of offering a diverse menu of around 30 dishes, Mesa in Los Angeles will be offering go-to local fare, such as their signature crischon (Peking duck-style lechon) and boneless crispy pata, among others in a selection of around 10.
“It’s a big step, but I think with the exposure of these celebrity chefs saying Filipino food will be the next big thing in mainstream cuisine, there’s no reason not to believe that,” Eric Dee says. “You have Vietnamese, you have Thai, you have Korean, you have everyone else in Southeast Asia that’s represented in mainstream cuisine, but never the Philippines.”
It’s all part of a philosophy that favors adapting to many different tastes and marketing, instead of rigidly standing by how dishes are traditionally made and selling authenticity. There’s a battle of ideals between purists and revolutionaries involving what is actually better, but at the end of the day, is it not better if more people appreciate and get to partake in what Filipinos enjoy, especially if it improves the food millions love in the process?
“We want to be the definition of good Filipino food,” Dee states. For all of his big concepts, what is true in all of them is that he provides a premium experience without taking on any tangible pretenses. He will give you modern, stylized Filipino, but he never wants to exclude you from it. Nor does he want to paint it with a patina of true authenticity, with all the preconceived notions such a concept carries. He just wants you, no matter where in the world you are, to have good food and he wants to do it his way.
“We want to be the benchmark. [We want people to say] ‘I have a foreigner here, let’s go to Mesa. You want to try Filipino food? Let’s go to Mesa.’ I think at the end of the day, it’s what gets through the person.”