A Conversation with Chef Ria Dolly Barbosa
By Farrah Su, Food Roots Project Specialist
Recently, I got to sit down with Ria Dolly Barbosa, Executive Chef of Paramount Coffee Project Los Angeles (“PCP”) and chat about her experiences. Ria was one of the first few people to source from Food Roots when we were just starting out, while she was working at Sqirl. After starting her position at Paramount Coffee Project, we were reconnected with her through a mutual friend, Royce Burke of Yarrow Cafe. She began sourcing from Food Roots again and it’s been great to work with her again.
Ria is overseeing the original PCP Fairfax location and their newest location at the ROW Downtown Los Angeles (ROWDTLA), where we met and chatted. ROWDTLA is also where the Los Angeles Smorgasburg is held every Sunday. Ria has been making her name known throughout Los Angeles. She was part of the opening team at Sqirl, launched a lunchtime pop-up called Wild at Canelé in Atwater Village, served as Executive Chef at Go Get Em Tiger, and now is Executive Chef at Paramount Coffee Project. No wonder she’s been recently named one of LA’s most promising young chefs. I had the pleasure of talking with her about her upbringing, her use of local produce, and her experiences with Bok Choy!
Disclaimer: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
FS: When you were growing up, did you have easy access to Asian produce?
RDB: My family moved here when I was six from the Philippines. So when we moved here, we were in Glendale for a year and then after that, we moved to Atwater. So you know, it's this close to Eagle Rock, where there are a bunch of Filipino and Asian markets there. And I guess the Vermont area also had some Asian markets, like predominantly Filipino. But we’d always hit Chinatown and hit the markets there too.
FS: Did you have any memories of Bok Choy while you were growing up?
RDB: Well, growing up Filipino, we ate a lot of Asian vegetables, so it's something I've pretty much grown up with since I was a baby. For the most part, I remember [bok choy] being mostly in soups and stews, was what my parents put them in. So one of my favorite dishes is an oxtail peanut stew called Kare Kare. It's this really rich thick stew. It's got charred eggplant, blanched Chinese long beans, and bok choy. I mean like it's whatever you can get really. But I know that's what my parents always seem to choose.
FS: Have you felt like your childhood has shaped the way you approach creating new dishes?
RDB: I'd say [my childhood] mostly does. When I cook, a lot of it is triggered by memory or influenced by something I used to love or like a complete copy-paste of something I've loved. Both my parents cooked and we didn't have written recipes. It was always, “oh, a little bit of this, a little bit of that”. So whatever recipes they taught me or whatever recipes I would observe them making, I would eventually try to make on my own as an adult. Then I took it to the next step. Actually moving back here to Los Angeles, ‘cause I worked in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City for a total of eight years, I was kind of introduced into this like seasonal, fresh, from-scratch cooking. Not to say that the kitchens I worked in didn't do that already, but it was just a different kind of cooking ‘cause I came up in traditional French kitchens. So to come back home and to be introduced to seasonal foods, like a lot of Mediterranean influence from the restaurants I worked at, kind of opened my eyes. We grew up using the packets, like Mama Sita's. So it’s like, “wait, if these guys can do everything from scratch, I'm pretty sure I can figure it out”. Figure out how to make this soup or stew from scratch without having to use the packets, which typically has a lot of sodium and citric acid, you know? Which is fine; it served its purpose, but I think it's nice to go back to what it used to be. My grandparents and great grandparents probably ate before the packets. And so that move and that want to rediscover food I ate and shared with my family as a kid, making it the way my grandparents probably did. You know, it was kind of what sparked this whole snowball into what I do today.
FS: Could you tell me more about your educational background?
RDB: I went to culinary school right after high school and my first job, or my first five years of my career, actually were spent in French kitchens. It had a lot of fresh seasonality and also a lot of grandma's cooking influences too, which is kind of nice. I really love that part because you could still have this really refined dish, but really it's influenced by grandma's roast chicken or something. That's one of the things I remember I really loved.
I learned traditional French techniques. It's funny ‘cause one of the things I learned and they kind of drilled into my head was egg cookery, like French egg cookery. So growing up I had the oil fried eggs, like the sunny fried up eggs with the crispy lace - the really awesome flavor. And then in school, I was taught that you didn't want color and that was bad. My parents cooked scrambled eggs and omelets that had a nice golden-brown sear on it too. You know, that was what I grew up eating and that's what I knew eggs to be. And to hear that, “oh, you don't want color, that's wrong”, “that's not the right way to cook an egg”. In the beginning I was like, “okay…”, but no, you can't really take away the fried egg for me. Because what I realized, years later, that's how a lot of people, not in France, ate it. This is the way we do egg. And that's not necessarily right or wrong, it's just how certain groups of people like their eggs. It was kind of interesting to learn traditional French techniques, but then using those techniques, like brazing in my cooking. Because for instance, my mom, I love her, but sometimes she overcooked stuff, you know, like boiling. I've learned to how braise things. Boiling will get you to where you need to be too, but it dries up the meat a little bit. Whereas if you do braising, like nice low and slow, over potentially the same amount of time - you kind of get this really juicy outcome. Just kind of learning different cooking techniques from what my parents taught me growing up and mish-mashing and putting them to use has been kind of cool.
FS: It sounds like you’ve have experiences working with seasonal produce. Why is it important for you to source locally grown produce, like Bok Choy?
RDB: It’s definitely important because it promotes, helps, and supports the local growers. It's also the carbon footprint. You know, if you have someone that's within 10 miles growing food, that can bring it to you fresh, not necessarily refrigerated, like picked fresh - it tastes better. It just supports the local economy too. Local economy, local families, local growing. It’s about less carbon footprints and fresher produce, really.
And it also just tastes better because it’s picked right at the peak. I mean like, yes, you can have, for example, English peas all year. You can get it shipped from everywhere. You could probably grow it every year. But there's something so much nicer about peas that come up during the springtime.
FS: How would you say your Filipina identity affected your experiences as a chef?
RDB: Um, I think if anything before the quote unquote Filipino food movement began. It's wrong of me to say we started it, at least here, because I don't think that's the case, but here in L.A.,I just kind of had my little bubble. I was working at Canele. I knew Chad from LASA, but I didn't even know Nico yet. So I think it was about 2015, I get this random email or texts, I don't even remember what it was, but it was an invite to meet up at Charles's apartment downtown. Kind of like a hey, let's gather, you know, young, like-minded Filipino cooks and chefs and let's kind of meet up and get to know each other because there's so many of us that are cooking but we aren’t cooking our food –– we're cooking other people's food. So, I didn't know anybody. I think that Chad might've been the only person I knew there. So I'm just like, “Chad, are you going? Do you know these guys? Are they cool? I’ve never really met them or even eaten at their places before. Like what is this?” And so I said yes and I went. Turns out the guys were pretty cool and it turned into potlucks at Charles’ to when Alvin had unit at 120th Far East plaza.
We would have potlucks, which eventually turned into a Monday Industry Night, where we would do fried chicken dinners or whatever. Everyone would bring something to contribute, whether it be food or drink. Then it turned from the back of the house only, to the front of the house, you know, friends were coming over to, and everyone was just contributing and having a good time, networking and getting to know each other. Before we knew it, there are so many of us, Filipino cooks and chefs out there. We realized that no one's cooking our food, you know, is anyone kind of moving to start doing that? I think Alvin having that unit 120 platform kind of, ‘cause it was an incubator, right? So he started hosting LASA.
There are lots of places like that, where they started popping up. Charles, I think, was in the process of opening up Rice Bar. I was the chef at Sqrl and that was my first ever chef position and basically was given carte blanche of the menu. We had our basic core menu, but the specials board was where we got to play. So I think I was influenced by these new friends that I had just made, you know. I was like, “Oh wow, you guys are doing Filipino food.” and I thought well, maybe I could start doing specials and stuff. That whole Filipino food movement kind of just started organically. We're not the first ones to do it, that's for sure. But that's just how it kind of started here in LA. It was funny ‘cause we started using hashtagging #BarkadaLA , as in like your crew, your people and I guess people started thinking it was a club or you know fraternity of brothers and sisters. They're like, can we join? I'm like, “Oh it's just a bunch of back in the house cooks. We just hang out and eat and make food and drink and catch up and unload. We would share, “Oh I do my purveyor this” or “I couldn't get this. Do you know where you can find it?” That's when we started building that community, it moved from just, “hey we're just hanging out” to “I want to try this dish. How does your family make it?” or “did your family do it differently” or “oh, that's a different version that I never knew existed. Why do you guys do that?” You know, that sort of thing. So it created a community.
FS: With that sense of community, do you find yourself bringing Filipino influenced dishes into your menus?
RDB: I don't even remember what the first one I did was, but I remember on three occasions occasions where I've put up, I don't want to say modern, but re-envisioned versions of the food I grew up eating. There was adobo, it was the most straightforward of the three that I remember. I think it was pork and, straight up, like stew over rice, maybe some pickles or whatever.
When I was at Sqirl, I remember Jon Hamm came in. I was starstruck, you know, and I freaked out ‘cause he ordered the Adobo. I was like, “Oh my God, is he even going to like it?” You know, there’s a lot of these non-Filipino people eating Filipino food that they probably don't know is Filipino food. So, he was already coming in very frequently, so I got to the point where we could say hi and t wasn't weird, I guess. I don't know if he lived or was shooting something nearby. But he had the adobo special and he just pokes his head in as he was leaving and he said, “thanks guys. That was really good.” And I was just like, “WHAT. YOU LIKE MY PORK ADOBO?” Yeah, that was really cool.
I was doing a terrain version, kind of making a rice cracker crisp and a fermented shrimp paste dressing for the bok choy. I decided to make an oxtail terrain that’s super gelatinous. I brazed it and got all the collagen out of the bones and I picked the meat and set it in it's a reduced braising liquid. So once it was cool, it was set to this nice brick of a nicely braised oxtail. Typically adobo is over rice,so I thought like, “oh, what if I made like a rice cracker? That'd be kind of fun.” So I did that. And then, for the shrimp paste, we usually use Bagoóng,
‘cause you don't salt the stew, at least in my region you use the fermented shrimp. I can't speak for the rest of the Philippines. Growing up, we always seasoned our stew with a fermented shrimp paste. Instead of cooking the vegetables, I wanted to keep it fresh because you had the rich heavy oxtail and then you had the crispy, light rice cracker. So I made a shredded salad of sorts. So bok choy and I think I used whatever bean was in season, maybe just like a green bean, but I sliced them really thin and dressed it in a lemon Bagoóng dressing, just olive oil. That's it. And so it still tasted like Kare Kare, once you had everything together. I just remember seeing this older Filipino man that was probably right around my dad's age. And he came in and he read the description and I saw him ordering, because we have an open kitchen. So I was listening to what he was ordering and I was like, “Oh crap”. It's always like the older generations, the moms, the aunties, and the uncles age. They're the ones that I usually get some flack from or you know, just like, “This isn't it. What are you doing? Crazy kids,” you know? Then he sat outside so I didn't get to see his reaction and I didn't see him after a while. And I’m just thinking to myself, “Maybe that didn't go over so well. I would have loved some feedback though.” And it's crazy because as I was thinking that, I just see a head poke in from the outside. He aked, “Hi, um, did you make that special?” And I said yes. And he asked, “Are you the chef?” And I said, yes. He said, “That's really good. That's Kare Kare, right?” “Yeah, I just wanted to play around with it.” And he said, “I'm very impressed. I'm older and I really appreciated that. It’s good to know that you're putting it out there. Are people liking it?” And I replied, “Yeah, cause they don't know it as the original.” He responded, “Yeah, no, it's really good. Thank you.” And to just kind of get that. Not to say that I need that validation but it's nice ‘cause, I mean, just the upbringing, you know, you want to do your family proud and you know, it's always nice to have their support and so to hear that from an older dad or uncle vibe was like, “Alright, I'm not messing up. So I’m doing all right.” That was awesome.
FS: I saw that PCP also has an adobo dish, can you tell me more about that?
RDB: I also pretty much have carte blanche of the menu [at PCP], but I mean we have to have our things like avocado toast, you know, cause it's just what people want. But the trade off is that there's also more space on the menu to do some fun things that maybe people wouldn't normally see in a cafe menu like this. Right next to the grill cheese and the avo’ toasts and the overnight oats, is adobo. I think for the area and a lot of LA – people are now into [these bowls]. I realized this working at Sqirl cause we were doing a lot of things in bowls, like rice bowls and whatever. It's funny cause being Asian growing up, that was every day. So to see rice bowls come up and I thought, “Okay, I mean I guess that's cool,” and have it be like this new trending dish concept? I don't know how I feel about this initially, but I guess this is good. This is more awareness, you know? People are really into rice bowls and grain bowls and so it's kind of nice to switch that up and offer what we're doing as a rice bowl. Instead of what you can find at a Tender Greens or something like that. It's like, no, I could make adobo and it's good. If I make it out of beef, I won't get any flack like, “oh, can you not make it pork.” Just awareness of spreading out whatever proteins we have on the menu so it's not too much chicken or too much pork – so to provide that variety, we make it out to beef. So my General Manager (GM) Cory, he's actually vegetarian and every time he takes out an adobo dish to a customer, he just so entranced by the smell. At first he asked, “can I just try the soup with rice and some pickles?” and then he asked, “can I try a little bit of the meat?” and I was like, “are you sure? You know, cause I don't want it to mess with your stomach.” He told me, “But it smells so good. I just feel like I need to try it if I'm going to sell it and I want to give them a full honest opinion.” And he loved it. Every time he brings a bowl out he's just like, this is the best smelling thing in the world – he absolutely loves it. And to me, it's like “you're a white dude. You love Adobo, that’s cool.”
FS: The work we do at Food Roots is connecting Asian American farmers to local restaurants. Do you think that Asian Produce is accessible right now?
RDB: I think it's definitely more accessible these days. I mean visiting the Wednesday Santa Monica market and the Sunday Hollywood market. There's another Santa Monica market on Saturdays, but I never make it out to that one. But I know there are a lot of Asian farmers that have started popping up there. Such as Thao Farms or HER, I forget what the other Asian, but it's funny cause I usually hit their tents first and see what they have. I get really excited when they bring like fresh peanuts. It's like, “Oh my God, give me all of them”. [Asian produce is] definitely accessible and with a lot of people, very market minded, market driven, not just in restaurants but you know normal people who have regular jobs going to these markets and being exposed to it and having a chance to talk to the farmers and having those conversations where they tell them, “oh well we make it this way at home”, you know, it definitely opens it up. Versus going to market and seeing something packaged up and just be like, I don't know what that is, so I'm not going to try it.
FS: Yeah, I agree. We visited one our Farmer’s, that we work with, to interview her and it was really cool to see the different kinds of people who shop at her stand. It feels really empowering that people are trying, people are curious.
RDB: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It's such a nice feeling. Whereas, I don't know, I guess maybe people weren't as adventurous or not as knowledgeable at the time, but I remember when I started, there was the Coleman farm, they're like half Filipino, half American – mom was Filipino, Dad was American – and they have been growing in Carpentaria, close to [the] Oxnard-ish area. They started selling your usual run-of-the-mill farmer's market offerings, but then as people kind of started getting into Asian produce, Asian ingredients, and I became friends with them. It became like, “Yo, I know you have a Calammansi tree, will you sell me some, you know, I will pay money for Calamansi because my parents tree doesn’t produce anymore,” or “it's even sometimes hard to find in Filipino markets and I know you grow some for yourselves, so will you sell me some?” And even alongside their traditional offerings, they've got –– I think one time I saw –– bitter melon and different guavas and –– oh, they have this grove of, I think it's called, pineapple guava. So good. We took a farm tour one time; they let us kind of run around after lunch and we all kind of went separate [ways], but we all met each other back at the pineapple guava grove and we're like, “Oh my God, are you here for...?” I'm like, “Yeah shh, I just want to eat like two more.” So to pull them straight from the tree and just dust it off and eat it still warm from the sun. And it is one of my favorite food memories. It's so good. So guava season comes around, it's like, “gimme delicious”. I just want to eat it all. Not even for the restaurant. Just for me. (laughs)
It’s nice to have that demand and that want now, like Jeremy Fox and other non-Asian chefs using Calamansi on their menu or other Asian vegetables. It's like, “sweet, now people know”. It's not a trend, but I think it's just more awareness, and ultimately people will know that they can use these vegetables alongside the vegetables they grew up eating. They didn't have to have an Asian upbringing. [These vegetables] can be interchangeable or maybe you like the water spinach much better than regular spinach. I know, I do. I think it tastes so much better (laughs).
FS: Last time you mentioned that you were working on adding Bok Choy to a sandwich, how did that go? What are some times we can look forward to seeing at PCP?
RDB: It was nice! Having the Bok Choy in there, especially like the stem portion of the bok choy, it’s like juicy, whereas cabbages are crisp. So that was really nice with the chicken sandwich that we have on the menu right now that has a bánh mì influence but also some Filipino influence. So the makeup for the sandwich is a bánh mì, you have your vege, pâté, and the roasted meat. What makes it kind of interesting is the chicken, which I marinated in and brined in lechon manok flavors, which is just a roast chicken in the Philippines. The liver pâté spread is modeled to taste like Mang Tomas, which is a Filipino roast sauce. I thought that was cool to do that there. And then the Bok Choy, I just wanted something bright to like break up the richness between the roast chicken and the pâté. That turned out really well. At this moment we're just kind of like waiting for more people to come down here, so that's impeding a lot of our ambitious moves. There's a lot of stuff that we want to do roll out, like more fun things for dinner, family style and you know? It'll have seasonal California, Filipino, and Asian influence, and whatever cooking techniques I've learned along the way. Just kind of put it together. And it's kind of nice because you think of LA and how diverse it is and how you can go to Ethiopia and China and India and the Philippines and Vietnam in one day just by visiting different restaurants. I think my cooking, unintentionally, has become similar to that, where it's just a melting pot of whatever influences decided to happen that day.