Alexandra Cuerdo quit her day job as an assistant director to direct her own Filipino food documentary in 2017.
Her first feature film takes 80 minutes to explore Filipino cuisine’s rising popularity across the United States and Cuerdo’s own connection to her Filipino roots. So far, the alumna has screened the film “ULAM: Main Dish” in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“In Tagalog, ‘ulam’ means ‘main dish,’ and growing up in a Filipino household, there were always memories of food being the centerpiece of my family and culture. It was always an experience of eating together that we could share and the film is about that experience,” she said. “To me, ‘ULAM’ encapsulates a little bit of home.”
Cuerdo remembers eating her grandmother’s kare-kare – a peanut butter-based stew with tripe, oxtail and vegetables – and reaching for fried pork egg rolls as a teenager growing up in Orange County. Creating a film based around the cuisine felt natural to her, she said.
The concept originated during a 2014 Thanksgiving dinner conversation with her father, in which he recalled how he and a college friend thought about creating a film tracing the cuisine’s rising popularity but never got around to it, Cuerdo said. After receiving her father’s approval to move forward with the documentary, Cuerdo started pitching it to around 11 Filipino chefs in Los Angeles and New York, brainstorming approaches to the film that would eventually bring the concept to fruition.
Over the course of three years, Cuerdo spoke to the restauranteurs about their personal experiences and objectives in opening up their own Filipino eateries. Though the chefs work in a variety of locations, each shared a similar story, Cuerdo said.
“They all grew up eating or learning how to cook these dishes and wanted to share their culture,” she said.
Charles Olalia, the chef of Los Angeles restaurant Rice Bar, used to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant cooking primarily French foods. His co-workers would talk about childhood memories associated with the foods, but he couldn’t relate, she said.
“He said food is all about memory, and all of his memories were of the Philippines,” Cuerdo said. “He really wanted his restaurant to be part of his roots and feel authentic to him.”
Cuerdo spoke with and shadowed 10 other Filipino chefs in their restaurants. When filming, the crew had to navigate through tables and chairs to film the patrons enjoying the Filipino cuisine, said “ULAM” cinematographer and producer John Floresca. To film a scene with a kamayan, in which customers eat fried fish and crispy pork with their hands, Floresca and Cuerdo crouched and maneuvered around dinner tables, he said.
Floresca said he witnessed Cuerdo’s determination and artistry as a filmmaker during the three years they spent working on “ULAM.” He remembers Cuerdo requesting wide, all-encompassing shots to capture the entirety of the kamayan feast and editing scenes within mere hours.
“(Cuerdo) is pure fire in so many ways,” he said. “She was great at connecting with the chefs and her spirit is amazing.”
Alexandra Cuerdo’s father, Rey Cuerdo, said he felt proud of the dedication his daughter showed in creating “ULAM.” As one of the film’s producers, Rey Cuerdo helped fund the film, but he let his daughter take the reins. He said his daughter’s film not only validates his own Filipino heritage, but also helped her learn more about her own roots, especially since she was born and raised in Southern California.
“Filipino food was a staple in our household and it was something she could go back to at the end of the day,” he said. “Really diving into this movement with the film – (it’s) really a way for her to discover what she has not discovered about her roots and heritage.”
Alexandra Cuerdo did not anticipate the widespread positive attention “ULAM” has received at sold-out showings since its world premiere on April 7. Although she said the film’s unexpected global popularity is a plus, she sees it primarily as a project closely linked to her personal identity.
“I spent so much time working for other people and helping to tell other people’s stories … but for me as a Filipina-American, it means the world to make a film that inspires people, humanizes people that look like me and adds to representation,” she said. “(ULAM) is about my family, culture and community, and it’s a validation of all of that.”