For many, taking away meat from the diet of the meat-centric Filipino culture is like taking away their affection for karaoke and San Miguel beer. But vegetarian chef Jay-Ar Pugao has put these presumptions to rest with No Worries Catering, a business that caters (pun intended) to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
Pugao, an immigrant from the Philippines, did not begin his vegetarian lifestyle until 1995, at age 16.
“My initial reason for [becoming vegetarian] was because my mother had a heart attack, and the doctor said it was stress and her diet,” says Pugao, who set up shop in Oakland. “That’s when I wanted to stop eating meat, so it would be easier for my mom to make healthier food.”
His company came from a business proposal in high school. Pugao won a grant and bought the basic necessities. As for the carefree name of his company, he wanted to promote a healthy lifestyle.
“The name came from the idea that Filipino food is great but is high in cholesterol, oily, and is all meat,” says Pugao. “I wanted to counter the idea by naming the business ‘No Worries.’”
In 2000, when he felt confident with his culinary skills, Pugao dubbed himself a chef. With no formal training, he says that he got hands-on training from his mother, who started the substitution of meat with soy protein. “She’s the actual innovator,” gushes Pugao. “I just took it and ran.”
With steamed pork buns, roasted duck and chicken adobo lining the buffet lines of Asian cultures, it may seem like a radical move for an Asian American to come out of the vegetarian closet — but not too drastic.
“Asians have been living with vegetarianism in their diets for centuries,” says Pugao. “The Filipino culture has a few dishes that are only vegetables and beans, so a vegetarian diet is not uncommon if you look at the bigger picture.”
Pugao says that 90 percent of his close friends are vegetarian or vegan, and that creates a solid network of people when dining. But Pugao has learned to cope with group dining dilemmas.
“Because our food is a big part of our culture, it almost seems that if you do not partake in eating with the family or friends, it becomes a sense of disrespect,” says Pugao. “In the beginning, it was difficult for me to fully be comfortable representing my beliefs. But as I got to be knowledgeable in the choices that I made, I became an agent in educating people on vegetarianism.”
Pugao never imposes himself on people when he goes out to eat or when he is surrounded by an event with a meat-only menu. He makes sure to eat beforehand or kindly decline.
But with Pugao’s menu to choose from, one might consider jumping on the veggie bandwagon.
Substituting soy for meat, his dishes stay true to Filipino cuisine, from kare-kare (soy meat in a traditional peanut sauce) to meatless lumpia (Filipino eggrolls). But it’s Pugao’s apritada (a tomato-based stew and the first veggie dish he ever made) that remains the most popular.
Bay Area residents have tried his cuisine at the annual “Eat Now, Laugh Later” event, which includes a three-course vegan Filipino meal, a live cooking demo and stand-up comedy. Celebrating its second year, the event takes place Oct. 25 at Bistro de Manila in Oakland, Calif.
“The ultimate goal is to inform people on the concept of Filipino vegetarian food,” says Pugao.
Pugao will continue to serve as an ambassador in the vegetarian Asian community, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t consider showcasing his skills on television.
“I would love to be on Top Chef,” says Pugao, “but sometimes, they handle meat, which I choose to not do. So I guess I would be on Iron Chef instead, where they just pick one ingredient and you could create dishes. It would have to be a vegetable or tofu, of course.”
To buy tickets for “Eat Now, Laugh Later” visit BrownPaperTickets.com.
For more information on No Worries Catering, visit filipinoveganfood.com.