Private chef to Drew Barrymore, Pilar Valdes, tells us what she misses about the food scene in the Philippines

Today, Pilar Valdes is Drew Barrymore's private chef, a regular on Barrymore's talk show and even co-authored a cookbook. However, she was not always enamoured with the idea of being a professional chef. In fact, she began in the non-profit, philanthropy world, where she worked for around 10 years prior to deciding to make a pretty major career change. 

"To be honest, I didn’t really cook much as a kid, but when I moved to New York, I started cooking out of necessity and as a way to ease my homesickness. I think I started out as a pretty horrible home-cook!" What stayed true was that she loved eating, and the emotions and memories that came with gathering in the kitchen or around the dining table. She would flip through cookbooks after long days at work, deciding what to cook, while remembering her mum's house, fragrant with the perfume of freshly-cooked roast beef and garlic. 

"Eventually, I began my catering company Kickshaw Cookery in the fall of 2010 with my dear friend, Binh. We were both feeling restless in our respective fields of work and were grappling with answering the “What’s Next?” in our lives question. Before that, the thought of considering a culinary career had never crossed my mind, let alone the idea of starting my own business. Neither of us had any business background or formal culinary training. What Binh and I did have in common was a strong work ethic, a passion for food and feeding people, a particular culinary palate and a healthy obsession with details," Valdes shared. 

See also: How Did Pilar Valdes Become Drew Barrymore's Private Chef?

Life's winding road led her to meet Drew Barrymore. Valdes eventually become the private chef to this Hollywood star, and a dear friend as well. "Becoming Drew Barrymore’s private chef and joining The Drew Barrymore Show has been a surreal experience. When Drew first asked me if I’d consider being on her show, nerves and self-doubt took over, as I’m naturally a private person who is most comfortable behind the scenes and by a stove. I was probably mid-sentence airing the reasons why I was second-guessing myself when she just said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. You’re an amazing cook, and I’ve been on TV all my life. We got this.” It’s incredible to have someone in your corner like that," Valdes divulged. 

Today, these two have recently come out with a cookbook and constantly share wonderful recipes on The Drew Barrymore Show. With a vibrant life overseas, far away from the Philippines, we wanted to know what Valdes missed most about the flavours of home. Read on to find out where she likes to eat when she visits: 

See also: A Taste of Home with Sydney Cebu Lechon's Will Mahusay

What do you miss most on the food/drink front when you are away from The Philippines or haven’t been back for a while?  

The fruit. 100 per cent. Savoury dishes I can usually cobble together in some shape or form (never as good as back home though!) but there's nothing like the quality of the fruit back home—atis, mangosteen, mangoes (specifically manggang hilaw), and chico. I miss those the most. Plus, calamansi. What I'd give to have a small calamansi tree in my apartment!

What is the first dish you want to eat when you return, and where do you go for it?

My mum always prepares arroz caldo as soon as I get home. I've been living in New York for 20 years now, and I have so many memories of my flight arriving in Manila at around 1am and sitting with my mum at the dining table, while the rest of the house is dark and asleep, having a warm bowl of arroz caldo.

Do you have a favourite restaurant in the Philippines? For fine dining and for more casual experiences?

I am really a homebody, so I end up eating a lot of my meals at home with family and friends. That being said, there's always one or two new restaurants that my sisters will take me to for us to try. The food scene back home is exciting and shifting so much, there's never enough time to get to it all. In recent years, I've really enjoyed Toyo Eatery (and Panaderya) for that special night out. I love Manam and Sarsa for Pinoy food; and then there are restaurants that my family has been going to for over three decades— Sugi, Milky Way and Korea Garden— that always make me feel like, I'm home.
If you have visitors/guests with you, where do you go to give them a real taste of the Philippines?

Trying to capture the taste of the Philippines in one go is so hard. I think the beauty of our cuisine is that it is varied and complex, and that a lot of it also is about ambience and spirit. But things that are really dear to me... are street food (I love fish balls and dirty ice cream), all the kakanin we can eat, anything inihaw, going to the local dampa, and eating regional specialities (both my parents are Kapangpangan so I'm partial to those).

Do you take any food or treats back home with you from the Philippines?

Always, taba ng talangka and some form of tuyo in oil. Wrapped in a ton of newspaper and bubble wrap. I love how those are probably the two most deadly things if they explode in my maleta. Living on the edge! And then probably adobong mani and some Filipino rock salt.

Where do you go to find authentic flavours of home where you live?

Luckily, there are some great Filipino markets close by in Queens, and that's where I'll try and source my bagoong and itlog na maalat. For vegetables, I'll usually head to Chinatown in Manhattan, and they'll have 85 per cent of what I'm looking for. I also like to swap out some traditional ingredients with some local ingredients from the farmers market, but still use the classic condiments (hello, Datu Puti) to keep the flavours familiar.


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