Chef Rafael Vencio Creates Pittsburgh Filipino Pop-Up, Amboy

Cooking is often an outlet of self expression. It allows us to dive into our background, pull out memories from the past, and embrace our culture to the fullest. That’s why Chef Rafael Vencio is bringing his Filipino cuisine to Pittsburgh through his latest pop-up (and hopefully soon to be permanent) venture starting on July 14, Amboy

Vencio grew up in the Philippines, in a closely knit family where gatherings were a weekly occurrence. He later came to the United States to start his culinary career path but it was his early immersion in Filipino culture that nourished his dream into reality. His personal love affair started at a young age after being surrounded by delicious food and a deep connection through that gift of dinner. 

“In the Philippines, food is very integral to a lot of social gatherings,” says Vencio. “It’s just imbued in our culture and amongst Filipinos we just have a love affair with food.”

“My grandmother from my dad’s side was a phenomenal cook,” says Vencio. “I remember, when I was growing up, whenever we visited them, she would always make a spread for us. It was such a thing to look forward to whenever I visited my grandparents. I think that’s where the passion really started for me. I feel like every backstory always has a grandmother in it. Right?”

A Fusion of Global and Filipino Cuisine

Even though it seems like Filipino food would be an obvious choice for Vencio’s career, that decision didn’t come to him simply. He would go on to work the whole culinary landscape of the United States, putting in the effort and time to learn more about each global cuisine. 

“Funny enough, my training is in classic French style,” explains Vencio. “But, for most of my career I’ve been self taught and continue to explore different styles. The idea for Amboy kind of sat there at the back of my head throughout it all. I’ve always known I wanted to do Filipino food.”

The inspiration behind Pittsburgh’s Amboy stems from so much more than just the Filipino culture he grew up around too. It was actually his career path and experience with these different cultures that really inspired him to take that dive into his own restaurant creation.

“I realized in my career journey that there are a lot of commonalities in global cuisine,” says Vencio. “The more that I kept studying, growing, and just really learning more about cooking and being a professional chef is when I realized my calling is so obvious, it’s been right in front of me.” 

Bringing the Immigrant Experience to Food

When it comes to building the backbone of Amboy, Vencio takes from various points in his life to inspire his dishes and overall experience. The pop-up is a true representation of his life story, portraying that transition from the Philippines to America. 

“The backstory of Amboy really builds on my immigrant experience,” tells Vencio. “Amboy is me as an immigrant. It’s how my cuisine and my professional work has grown and evolved to what it is now. Even though it is Filipino upfront, at the back end of it, it has global influences, which really play on merging both worlds of Filipino and American.”

Even with the blending of Filipino and American, Amboy is still something new for many in the Pittsburgh community who have not had a chance to try true Filipino cuisine. So, Vencio plans to focus on experience and accessibility to bridge that gap between cultures. 

“I’ve been thinking deeply about how to introduce the cuisine and make it stand out at the same time,” says Vencio. “What would make it really stick is the experience itself, like the quirks of how Filipinos eat. I think it’s very unique amongst other Asian countries because we really do have a certain habit of how we eat. So, not only am I showing foods that I grew up eating and I’m very familiar with, I’m also trying to give customers the mechanics of what a Filipino spread or Filipino cuisine is”

“For instance, we love to customize our bites,” grins Vencio. “So essentially, if you went to someone’s house, and they were throwing a party, you would be served the food. Then, there’s a dipping sauce. The dipping sauce is really where each person’s creative palette comes into play.”

Implementing a Complex Menu

In order to present his dishes in a cohesive and approachable way he plans to break the menu into different weeks so you always have something new to try without being overwhelmed. 

“The pop-up dinners are meant to break broad categories of food into more narrow approaches,” explains Vencio. “So, each pop up actually focuses on a certain protein. The first pop-up will be beef, the following one will be pork, then chicken, vegetarian, and lastly fish and seafood.”

With this style it allows Vencio to really focus on each individual dish and craft the recipe to perfection. Another aspect of this menu style is the ability to present foods that you may not normally get the chance to try at other Filipino restaurants. 

“As far as each protein goes, there are certain iconic dishes that really stand out for each,” says Vencio. “We definitely like sour, sweet, and salty flavors. For instance, pork and sour really go hand in hand for us. I want to focus more on the everyday foods that Filipinos eat rather than celebratory dishes that we only have on special occasions. I’m not only showing one format, I don’t want to stay strictly traditional. I want to show the growth of how I adapted. When I left the Philippines and I started living here, a lot of essential ingredients were inaccessible to me so I would always supplement or substitute and have created new recipes from that.”

Pittsburgh’s Filipino Induction

For lovers of global cuisine, American fusion, or Filipino culture Amboy is a new resource to meet all your culinary desires. But, if you’ve never ventured into these territories before, Amboy is a warm welcome into the world beyond the usual. 

“I think this is the time, especially within Pittsburgh, that we need to be hungry for something new,” expresses Vencio. “We are definitely prime right now to receive this kind of concept. I grew up in the Philippines, I was born and raised there, I’m proud of my heritage and my culture. I want to kind of punctuate with this experience that despite the fact that I am Americanized this is my everyday lifestyle, that I still go back to my Filipino roots.”

Visit Amboy’s website or Instagram for more information on the establishment and to purchase tickets for Pittsburgh pop-ups dates from July 14 to September 15.

Story by Kylie Thomas / Photography by Laura Petrilla

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