“I did what I always do when I’m feeling down—I cooked”: How one Toronto man lost his advertising job and found his true calling

“I did what I always do when I’m feeling down—I cooked”: How one Toronto man lost his advertising job and found his true calling

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I was laid off from my job as a project manager at a Toronto advertising agency shortly after Canada went into lockdown. I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years—factory worker, welder, home renovator—but no matter what, I was always working. After losing my job with the ad agency, and with the whole industry facing an uncertain future, I felt an unfamiliar panic. How was I going to put food on the table for my son? How would I pay rent? Uncertain of the answers, I did what I always do when I’m feeling down—I cooked.

My brother and I immigrated from the Philippines in 1989, when I was eight years old. My father passed away when I was five and my mother sent us to Canada for the chance at a better life. I grew up living with my grandparents, my brother, my two aunties and my two uncles, in a two-bedroom apartment in St. James Town. Every Sunday was family day. We blasted music and everyone pitched in, cooking and doing other chores. My grandparents spent hours putting meals together, while the rest of us cleaned and helped out in the kitchen. I watched my grandpa, who I called “dadee,” move around the space; cutting, chopping and stirring while sipping a glass of scotch—Chivas was his favourite. And by lunchtime, a feast was ready. It’s a tradition I’ve kept going with my 12-year-old son, Maxwell, making his favourite dishes like sinigang, a savoury stew, or adobo each Sunday. He fetches ingredients for me and watches as I move about the kitchen, the way I did with my dadee. I crave that togetherness, that feeling of loved ones being brought together by food.

Cassava cake topped with crispy glutinous rice. Photo by Wesley Altuna

Because of the time I spent in the kitchen with my family, I grew up with a deep love of food and cooking, but I had never considered it as a career path. It didn’t feel like a practical option compared to working in a bank, which I did for many years, or in the advertising industry, where I’ve been for the last decade. In fact, the only time I ever worked in a professional kitchen was when I was 12 years old—it was my first job. My older brother, Edmar, was a sous chef at a restaurant on Bloor Street and he would bring me to work with him to help wash dishes. He always told me: “If you know how to cook, you’ll never starve.” That was a way of life in our family.

When I was laid off, I started making meals to make myself feel better. I cooked the dishes I grew up eating—my grandfather’s specialty pork belly, my grandmother’s cassava cake—as a source of comfort, and giving any extra portions to friends. My friend Joel, who had brought some of my dishes to his parents, encouraged me to think bigger. That same night, March 29, I was messing around on Instagram and I created an account called @bawang.to. Bawang is the Filipino word for garlic, my favourite ingredient. I posted a family-style menu, attached a price tag of $40 and asked anyone interested to DM me with their choice of appetizer, main and dessert. Next thing I knew, I had one, then two, then three orders. I couldn’t believe it.

I was originally making everything out of my apartment in Parkdale, but as the demand grew, I started using the commercial kitchen at a friend’s midtown café. I’m now taking orders from 30 to 50 households per week all over the GTA. It boggles my mind.

Bawang’s entire operation is just me—from creating the weekly menus to taking orders, shopping at Costco, Loblaws and Chinatown all masked and gloved up, cooking, packaging and delivering meals as many as three times per week. I wrap each lumpia, which are Filipino spring rolls, by hand, so there are times when I’m up until 4 a.m. because I have to make hundreds of them. After a couple hours of sleep, I get up at 6:30 a.m. to start prepping, cooking and driving all over the city, sometimes not getting home until 10 p.m. It’s a lot more demanding than my previous nine-to-five job, and at the end of each day, I feel tired but satisfied.

Ukoy, fritters made with shell-on shrimp, calabaza, sweet potato, onions and green papaya in a beer batter. Photo by Wesley Altuna

I never really intended for Bawang to take off as a business; it was just about doing something I loved and sharing it with others—including a lot of people who have never had Filipino cuisine before. One of the things I like most about Filipino food is that it’s meant to be shared. That’s why, even as Bawang has grown, I’ve kept the price point at $40 for a meal that serves up to three people, which essentially just covers my costs. Each order also includes jasmine rice and a vegetable dish, like pinakbet, which is a mixture of squash, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables that is specific to Ilocos Sur, the northern region of the Philippines where my family is from. Times are tough for everyone right now, so the fact that people are willing to open their wallets and purchase my food means so much more to me than making a profit.

A few weeks ago, I was prepping ingredients and I realized I was using my grandpa’s favourite knife, which he brought with him from the Philippines. He died earlier this year, right before the pandemic hit, and he is never far from my thoughts. Looking down at his kitchen knife, with its trusted blade and worn handle, it feels like he has been by my side as I built Bawang—chopping and stirring while sipping on scotch, the way he always did.

A person can spend their entire lifetime searching for their passion, what drives them and what makes them tick. I just happened to find mine during a pandemic. I don’t know what the world or restaurant scene will look like after Covid-19, or if I’ll be able to open my own brick-and-mortar business. But no matter what happens, I plan to continue cooking and sharing Filipino food to keep my family’s traditions and recipes alive.

—As told to Ishani Nath

Turon, plantain and jackfruit rolled in a spring roll wrap, deep fried and finished with caramel sauce. Photo by Wesley Altuna