The following was originally published at the Baguio Chronicle, November 6-12 issue.
John Wayne Formica used to burn hours cooking pan-seared salmon in his home in Chicago. Today, after being welcomed to strangers’ homes, having the best Vietnamese seafood alongside its equally good and cheap beer, and second helpings of local balut, he finds himself cooking that same recipe in the kitchens of a well-loved Baguio restaurant.
It was early in May this year when Formica, who had once served in the US Army before deciding to take cooking to the next level, decided he would want to travel the world to—what else—eat.
“If someone asks you what cuisine you cook, and you’d say Asian, have you really been to Asia?”
This was how this Lebanese-Italian chef put his travels to perspective.
“This is for my research and development. I am here to learn, and I’ll take advantage of whatever opportunity I can get into [along the way],” Formica says.
This decision to travel is reminiscent of the popular Elizabeth Gilbert book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” where the author embarks on a journey of discovery to three countries.
Of course, Formica had something bigger in mind for the long term—something that tasting the world’s cuisines would hopefully give the right perspective to—
“My very own restaurant,” he says.
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And so he began what would turn to be a cross-country tour via motorcycle for a month, from Chicago to San Francisco and four other states in between. It was then when he named himself the Traveling Cowboy Chef and created a website where he chronicled all his travails on the road.
He cooked for a lot of homes along the way and also did professional stages—a tryout for a chef to cook in other restaurants—for research purposes. He cooked with chefs at Asian, American contemporary, and French kitchens.
This motorcycle tour also found him working at a farm in Denver, Colorado, making cheese. Denver, which has a blooming culinary scene, also introduced Formica to the restaurant Fruition.
“No restaurant is created equal; all of them have their charms and unique draw to them. I have to say I was very impressed by Chef Alex Seidel [of Fruition] because he also is a farmer/cheese-maker and his items are featured on his menu. He does so much and is so humble,” he said.
But this initial stretch had rough roads too. “[After Denver], I came up dry. I must have contacted [more than 30] restaurants in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Napa—nothing! It was a little upsetting.”
But this wouldn’t prompt him to backtrack at all. “I felt great to get this adventure going. I thought about it for some time before I decided to just do it. I was happy that I had a good start.”
Learning from kitchens of the world
He has learned from the kitchens of famous chefs, one of them Italian Master Chef Biagio Longo in Sorrento, Italy, where he learned Neapolitan cooking, famous for making arguably the best pizza in the world.
Like any good chef, Formica settles for nothing short of fresh. Which is why he adores open markets—something which, he laments, the United States still hasn’t adopted.
“You let two great chefs cook the same dish, giving one the best ingredients and the other mediocre ones, and the chef with the freshest ingredients will always come up with the better food,” so he paraphrases American Chef Thomas Keller.
And this has been one of the reasons he flew to Southeast Asia with his mentor, the so-called Food Buddha of America, Pinoy Chef Rodelio Aglibot. Aglibot, the former Executive Chef of Sunda Restaurant in Chicago where Formica was Executive Sous Chef before he left to travel, hails from Cabanatuan. Formica credits Aglibot for his knowledge of Asian cuisine.
Hong Kong, Formica’s first stop, had been all about restaurant-hopping.
“All we did was eat. We were averaging six to eight restaurants everyday,” Formica said. They had visited around 50 restaurants in their four-day stay in the Chinese territory.
His enthusiasm at his culinary discoveries was infectious. “I had some of the best dim sum my whole life [in Hong Kong].. I am [also very much into] noodle bowls. I have a newfound love for Cantonese cuisine, especially the chilis they use. There was this dish where chicken was wok-tossed in nothing but chilis! I have to go back!”
His month-long sojourn to Vietnam introduced him to the Tiết Canh Vịt, the most exotic one he has ever tasted to date. It is composed of duck heart and gizzard with duck blood gelée, peanuts, herbs, and fried and grilled sesame rice paper with sweet chili sauce.
“I love offal dishes! [Tiết Canh Vịt] represents great use for offal and it tasted amazing!”
Tales of the Dinuguan
Staple Pinoy fare that some of the local crowd still find revolting, balut and dinuguan quickly made its way to Formica’s heart—or stomach.
“I love the whole tail-to-snout understanding of food [in the Philippines]. It’s a great combination here,” he says.
In fact, he’s raving over dinuguan. “I first had it in my chef’s (Aglibot) family home. You name it, I’ve tried it, and I’ve loved it all. There hasn’t been anything I didn’t really like, but dinuguan is my favorite..[it is] a great representation of the tail-to-snout [way], that is why I love Filipino food—lots of layers of flavor and texture.”
“I can eat it anytime! Sooo much flavor there!” he adds.
It was when he finally went to Baguio for the first time that new things came about—promising opportunities, yes; a break from the long road ahead to the rest of Asia, yes as well.
He had met local restaurateurs as he dined in their restaurants, but it was also the dinuguan that made a big difference.
Formica had dined at Forest House Bistro & Cafe, a staple in the local food scene, for the first time some months ago. It was when he was eating dinuguan that Forest House owner Ari Verzosa, who was surprised to find a foreigner consuming the dish, engaged him in a friendly chitchat. One thing led to another, and, after a month-long sojourn to Vietnam following his Philippine trip, Formica now found himself the newest man in the kitchens of the restaurant in a consulting role.
Balanced, healthy fare
A lover of citrus and herbs, Formica infuses 10 years’ worth of culinary explorations with menu staples, providing what can aptly be called a ‘fresh twist’—literally:
Inspired by Aglibot, Formica reinvented the fritter, using fresh yellow corn for that nutty, sweet taste that contrasts with the thick, crispy fritter holding it together.
Dip it with the specially made salted chili and calamansi—a Vietnamese touch—and you get that sharp dash of sourness punctuated by the chili spice.
“It’s always about achieving balance in the food you create,” he says.
Or recreate, for that matter.
He uses toasted corn in his Creamed Corn Soup. He pays homage to the Philippines’ national fruit in his Pinoy Mango Mousse, with a surprise of the local longgan and tapioca beneath a thick layer of mango puree.
“Filipinos love their food a bit sweet, so I’ve decided to incorporate that with other influences in my dishes.”
The Forest House Red Gnocchi, for instance, retains that distinct Italian quality with fresh herbs, but Formica gave a sliver of sweetness to the House Red Sauce well-loved by the Filipino palate.
“Salmon chicharon” is how he puts the crispy fried salmon skin that tops the healthy Seared Salmon Special, in reference to the popular Pinoy finger food, deep-fried pork rind. This salad dish is light all over with the market-fresh greens and seared salmon, punctuated with the sour kick of the balsamic tomato vinaigrette (and, of course, the sinful crunch of the fried salmon skin).
Ever tried grilling your vegetables? Formica’s Herb-Pan Seared Crispy Salmon has that—smoky and with a sliver of butter at the same time. “I’ve been making this pan-seared salmon dish for years but only at home. This is the first time I’m going to cook it in a restaurant,” he added.
The Woked Tamarind Prawns and Forest Pilaf offers a smorgasbord of tastes—the sweetness and sourness of his specially made tamarind glaze balanced with the woked prawns, and finished with just the right spice from the chili. Consume this with the Forest Pilaf, cooked in chicken broth with veggies and seasoned with herbs.
One can still enjoy Forest House favorites like the three-dip salad—fresh Baguio greens dipped in blue cheese, strawberry (blended strawberries and mayo), and honey vinaigrette. The Black Sesame Crusted Dory also deserves special mention, the pan-seared fish, light and creamy, marrying with the heavenly Asian Mango Salsa (mangoes, green and red peppers, tomatoes, and onions) and buttered vegetables.
“It’s all about homey, comfort food you can share with your family and friends,” Verzosa says.
Asked of his long-term plans, Formica says he still plans to continue ticking off his bucket travel list one by one, but because of the opportunity that Baguio has opened up for him—including teaching at a local university this semester—let’s just stay he’s in for a longer-than-expected pit stop.
~Sidebar photo of Pinoy Mango Mousse from Chef Formica
~The Traveling Cowboy Chef website is available here.