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Salo-salo: The traveling chef who cooks for strangers to help the Philippines

Take Two host A Martinez, left, is seen with The Salo Project's Yana Gilbuena, right.
Take Two host A Martinez, left, is seen with The Salo Project's Yana Gilbuena, right.
Yana Gilbuena

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Yana Gilbuena always wanted to cook the food of her homeland, the Philippines, for as many people as possible. She just hadn't quite figured out how.

But then, Typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, and Gilbuena sprang into action.

She sold just about all of her stuff, packed up the basics, and embarked on a journey through the U.S. Her goal: Raise money for typhoon relief by gathering strangers for pop-up dinners with authentic Filipino food.

Her idea ultimately became The Salo Project. Gilbuena said salo is short for the Filipino word salo-salo, which means gathering or dinner party. But if it's said in a different inflection, it can also mean to catch. She incorporates both meanings into her dinners. 

"I like to source the ingredients locally and seasonally, so it's the other nuance to the word 'catch' in salo," she said. "I also like to gather strangers for these dinners, because I like that they either are interested in Filipino food, or have had Filipino food, or are Filipino and want to reconnect with their roots, so it's nice to see them intersect at my dinner, otherwise they would not have even met."

Finding local ingredients for Filipino dinners in different states can sometimes force Gilbuena to get creative.  

"It was Bismarck, North Dakota, that I felt like I had a really, really hard time finding things," she said. "They had a supermarket, which was great. They had soy sauce, they had distilled white vinegar, but the rest of the products were just not there. So, I kind of had to make-do with what I had to make a Filipino dinner with what they had."

She said the cuisine is well-received, no matter how unfamiliar it may be to some people.

"I was in a hunting lodge in Alabama, it was called the Sawtooth Plantation, and it just so happened the guy had venison, and elk and wild boar, so I got to use these meats and put them in a very Filipino manner," Gilbuena said. "But they loved how I cooked it." 

She says it's been a meaningful journey to be able to give back to the land she loves. In developing The Salo Project, she partnered with Advancement for Rural Kids, or ARK, a group that teaches children to grow their own produce. ARK helped Gilbuena set a realistic fundraising goal. She was able to visit the Philippines in May to meet the kids she's been helping. 

"It's a slow rebuilding process. A lot of the times, they had an influx of all this money, and relief, but it's always six months after that they need more help to just kind of get back on their feet," she said. 

Gilbuena recognizes that all of this, in great part, has been achieved through the kindness of others.

"It really warms my heart how many people out there are so kind, and so giving, and just really want to help out and don't want anything in return," she said. "I don't even know how to repay the people that I've met along the way who've opened up their homes to me, drove me around, showed me their city, introduced me to their friends, and made my dinner happen. I have no idea, but I am very grateful that they've been so generous and kind to me."

Next stop: South America.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.

Yana Gilbuena blogs about her travels. You can keep up with The Salo Project here.