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From Pampanga to Norway: How Filipino chef Dominic Vergara champions local cuisine overseas

Steph Arnaldo

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From Pampanga to Norway: How Filipino chef Dominic Vergara champions local cuisine overseas
The Michelin-experienced chef helms Kain Neo-Filipino Bistro, Oslo's first Filipino 'fine cooking' restaurant

MANILA, Philippines – Surrounded by a flurry of hungry Royal Norwegian Embassy officials and the Norwegian ambassador to the Philippines himself, Michelin-experienced Filipino chef Dominic Dane Vergara prepared and plated the day’s dishes with a sense of ease, confidence, and calm. After all, who would expect less from the head of Kain Neo-Filipino Bistro, Oslo’s first (and perhaps best) Filipino restaurant?

CHEF DOMINIC VERGARA. In a celebration of Philippine-Norwegian ties, the Filipino chef showcased his recipes from his Oslo restaurant to Filipino guests. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

At the “North of the Ordinary” media luncheon at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Makati City on October 13, the visiting Norway-based chef served three of his specialty recipes to Filipino and Norwegian guests – salmon kinilaw (made with the freshest Norwegian salmon), ginataang trout, and palabok negra.

PALABOK NEGRA. Squid ink pasta is mixed with a special palabok sauce, topped with smoked mackerel, salmon roe, and chicharon. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

Each dish respectfully paid tribute to its heritage – all three were packed with Filipino flavors, complemented by the best seafood and produce from Norway, and refined by modern French techniques and finishing touches.

TROUT GINATAAN. Norwegian trout is set atop kalabasa puree, green beans, pumpkin seeds, and coconut foam. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

This trifecta is what gives Chef Dominic his culinary “edge,” and what catapulted him to restaurateur success in Oslo. Sadly, Chef Dominic was only in his home country for a few weeks, with his main calling waiting for him overseas – introducing the best of Filipino cuisine to the Nordic dining community.

SALMON KINILAW. Fresh Norwegian salmon fillet is mixed with lime zest, jalapeño vinegar dressing, and topped with fresh dill and radish. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila
From Pampanga’s best to Michelin success

Pampanga-born Chef Dominic is now spearheading the Filipino food movement in Oslo, after years of working for several Michelin-starred restaurants across Europe. The seeds of his culinary journey were planted at 12 years old, when he and his family moved to Milan, Italy. As a child, Dominic helped his parents run their restaurant Cabalen Ini, which became a staple for the Filipino community in Milan.

He initially wanted to be a pilot, but “there was too much studying involved,” he jokingly told Rappler in an interview. When his chef friend casually suggested for him to try out cooking, Dominic did, and after graduating from culinary school, he landed his first gig in Armani Resturant in Milan, and then at Japanese restaurant Nobu soon after.

MICHELIN EXPERIENCE. Chef Dominic worked for several Michelin-starred restaurants and was trained under many reputable chefs. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

His first Michelin stint was for Vecchia Malcesine in Italy, and then for Lefton. Afterwards, he worked for two Michelin starred-chef Moreno Cedroni, and then at Michelin-starred Innocenti Evasioni. Here he started out as a pastry chef and worked his way up to sous chef, with his mentor and head chef Tommaso Arrigoni entrusting full control of his kitchen.

“In Italy, brigade – the hierarchy of the kitchen – is very important. Sous chef is chef de cuisine, and I helped the restaurant retain its Michelin-star status,” Dominic told Rappler.

Eventually, he found himself yearning to learn more, and when Nordic cuisine began to boom, he took advantage. Armed with French-Italian culinary training, Chef Dominic applied to Maaemo, the only three-Michelin-star restaurant in Norway. He packed up, made the move, and applied for a three-month internship, which extended months later. In 2018, he decided to stay in Oslo for good.

Yes, chef!

It was a mere street food stall that started Chef Dominic’s successful foray into Filipino cuisine in Oslo. In 2019, he and his brother decided to join “Oslo Street Food,” a popular food court-restaurant-nightclub food fair concept of different cultures, cuisines, and beverages – a decision Chef Dominic was initially hesitant about.

“At the back of my head, sabi ko, ‘food stall?’ Ayoko. Ang dami kong pinagtrabaho na Michelin star!” he joked. “But I set aside my ego. Sabi ko, ‘yeah, why not? If we’re doing something good, bakit naman hindi? What I always tell the chefs I know or have taught is that cooking is what you are. It’s not a job. It’s what you do,” he said.

The stall became a major hit with the raving Norwegian crowd, serving Filipino favorites like adobo, tapsilog, and fried chicken using modern techniques and ingredients, like the melt-in-your-mouth pork adobo that’s sous vide for 10 hours.

Working the food stall was a humbling moment for Chef Dominic – a much-needed pause in his stellar career and a pivotal point of introspection. “Sabi ko, sino ba ako? I have an Italian passport. I grew up in Italy. But at the end of the day, I’m still me. Filipino pa din ako.

TRUE TO HIS ROOTS. From working as sous chef to being his own head chef, Chef Dominic’s solo career began at a street food stall in Oslo, Norway. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

“What I learned is that your heritage, hindi matatanggal sa iyo. Ikaw lang yung nagtatanggal sa sarili mo. Parang marami kasi nagsasabi, I don’t feel American enough, or Filipino enough. It’s you. It’s not the people. It’s you,” Chef Dominic said.

The stall’s success spurred Chef Dominic and his brother to finally put up their own restaurant. Miraculously, they managed to find a spot in a new building (coincidentally owned by a fan of their street food stall) and Kain Filipino Rice Bar was born. After three years of Kain Filipino, the brothers reinvented the concept into Kain Neo-Filipino Bistro in April 2022, merging New Nordic cuisine with traditional Filipino family recipes.

“Oslo locals finally had a chance to sample and get accustomed to delicious Filipino food. And they loved it – we were the first welcome Filipino addition to the vibrant food scene in Oslo,” he said, calling Kain a “fine cooking” restaurant instead of “fine dining.”

“For me, it’s more produce and technique-driven, and of course, authentic Filipino flavors. We removed the fine dining aspect – we want people to ‘get the food.’ It’s casual enough that you can come in your pajamas! Service is friendly, and we’re making our cuisine accessible, yet informative.” Chef Dominic makes it a point to explain each original Filipino dish to his customers.

Chef Dominic recommends Kain Neo-Filipino Bistro’s best-selling adobo and bistek tagalog. His take uses hanger steak (butcher’s steak) or a cheaper filet mignon-type of meat, using lime juice instead of calamansi and cooked ala bistek. There are different textures of onions – caramelized onions, crispy onions, raw onions, and charred onions. The sauce is made of the meat bones.

Kain is currently run by just a four-man team: Chef Dominic, his brother, and two Filipino chefs. The space has 15 tables, entertaining around 40-45 guests on weekdays and 70 to 90 on weekends.

Struggles, learnings, and everything in between

Working with limited produce in Norway and a lack of Filipino ingredients can get challenging, but thankfully, Norway makes up for it with the excellent array of seafood. But bringing Filipino cuisine to a country with no Filipino food representation was Chef Dominic’s biggest struggle. All he had to do though, was take that first step.

“Just present it. If you don’t, wala talaga. The thing about Filipinos is nahihiya tayo. Hindi tayo confident. But if you just do it slowly, it’s possible. For example, start bringing Filipino food to your office. Let your colleagues try it, and kakalat na yan about how good Filipino food is,” he said.

“Word of mouth is so important.”

It’s also no joke operating your own restaurant, Chef Dominic said, as compared to working the line. It’s not bad, he says, but you have to be there 24/7. When someone gets sick, you take over. You play different roles – social media, marketing, photographer, plumber, and even electrician at times (since these services are way more expensive in Norway). Chef Dominic and his brother work mostly double shifts. “You need to be practical and cost-efficient as an owner,” he said. The few times he gets a day off, he spends it asleep, Chef Dominic said.

ALL-AROUND. Chef Dominic is hands-on at Kain Neo-Filipino Bistro. Royal Norwegian Embassy in Manila

“But it’s very fulfilling. Our kitchen is very good. And when clients pass the open kitchen and give their compliments to the chef, that is true satisfaction,” Chef Dominic added.

As for future plans, Chef Dominic intends to “stabilize” Kain first, and make the Filipino food scene in Norway “mainstream.” He also wants to learn more about regional Filipino cuisine, hopefully during a trip to Pampanga, Bacolod, and other gastronomic cities next year.

Are Michelin stars off the table? Not really, Chef Dominic said – but that’s not his priority for Kain as of now.

“For me, Michelin star is a recognition. If we’re doing good, we will get it. But it’s not the goal, not the focus. I want the restaurant to be full and to have happiness. That’s it,” he said.

“For me, good food is good food. No matter kung anong cuisine. And for me, working good is personal. You can be a janitor, you can be a journalist, you can be a chef. If you work bad, you work bad. If you work good, great. Your work speaks for itself,” Chef Dominic added.

And his advice to aspiring Filipino chefs dreaming of a similar path? “To bring the Philippines abroad, be proud. Be proud of your heritage. Don’t forget it.” – Rappler.com

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.