‘Cook’s Illustrated’ editor Doc Willoughby, Filipino food’s secret champion
NEW YORK—John “Doc” Willoughby was managing editor of Gourmet magazine from 2000 to 2009 when he fell in love with Philippine food and decided he would be one of its secret champions. He became a good friend of ours and brought many of the magazine’s editors and food writers to sample Philippine dishes in our first restaurant, Cendrillon (1995-2009), in SoHo.
But no matter how much Doc tried, the unwritten rule for mainstream magazines then was to focus on Europe, and no one wanted to take the risk of promoting an unknown Southeast Asian cuisine to its readers. Philippine food was still outside of their comfort zone.
A decade later, in 2011, Doc was back as executive editor at Cook’s Illustrated (CI) after the print version of Gourmet folded. Cook’s Illustrated is a monthly US-based recipe-driven food magazine he co-founded with Christopher Kimball in the early 1990s. CI does not devote any of its pages to ads and relies purely on its subscription base of 900,000 for sustenance.
Doc had an inspired idea. His instincts told him that in the previous three or four years, Americans had significantly broadened their range of culinary interests. People were now more adventurous and were hankering to discover lesser-known cuisines. So he thought, why not feature Philippine adobo and get one of their in-house chefs, who had spent a few years in the Philippines, to come up with his own recipe for that classic dish?
He would try one more time to put adobo in play, sending out a readership survey among its subscribers to see what kind of interest the dish would generate. He was shocked when he got an 87 percent positive response to adobo. Suddenly, adobo was now ready for primetime.
Flash back several years: My first encounter with Doc was not totally felicitous. In 1994, the New York Times asked him to do a food and travel piece on Southeast Asia’s emerging trendy food condiment called “fish sauce.” I excitedly skimmed through the article, curious to see what he would say about “patis,” our fish sauce. Seeing no mention of it, I fired off an e-mail asking why there was no mention of patis, a major flavor agent of a country that was unmistakably a significant part of Southeast Asia. I don’t exactly remember his response, but I gave him some slack because he was someone important in the media who sincerely loved Southeast Asia, its cuisines and flavors. At the time, there were only a handful of his kind, and I carefully nurtured their friendships through the years.
That friendship finally paid off. With Doc back at CI’s helm, Philippine chicken adobo was its headline recipe for the April 2012 issue, and “America’s Test Kitchen” (the magazine’s TV program), filmed Chef Romy Dorotan’s chicken adobo recipe at Purple Yam, our present restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. The episode was aired on different Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations nationwide this spring.
In tough economic times, how a particular cuisine gets media coverage is driven by economics. Publications, including food magazines, need to bring home ad dollars, and this pressure broke down the Chinese wall between the editorial and sales departments. So, advertisers get product placement in editorial photo shoots; if a company selling watches advertises in a particular issue, their watches make it on the wrists of people who are in the photos for stories. Tourism boards try to drive traffic to their countries by paying huge sums to publications in return for lavish spreads extolling food, vacation getaways, etc.
But adobo’s path to recognition did not need expensive and lavish photo spreads backed up by ad dollars. Doc says there are now so many bloggers, food writers, cookbook authors who can provide more in-depth and up-to-date information about food. With dozens of people in place reporting on what dishes are getting eaten and how they are cooked in real time, dishes don’t need the attention of expensive, globetrotting food journalists to get exposure. Adobo’s “coming out” in the mainstream is the cumulative effect of millions of Filipinos everywhere cooking, eating, serving adobo to their families and friends and uploading their photos and recipes on social media. And then there are those valuable friendships within the media that will come through for you now and then.
I have always instinctively known that adobo was the “handle” by which we could showcase our cuisine. Many people make the mistake of putting out as many dishes as they can without benefit of a vision or a strategy. Lumpia, pancit, kare kare, dinuguan are indeed part of our culinary landscape, but to try to make a public with a short attention span appreciate them all at once is a fool’s mission.
One needs a specific dish that people can relish over and over again until they understand how its seemingly contradictory flavors add up to make one balanced and nuanced dish that becomes unforgettable. The Thais have pad Thai, the Vietnamese have pho and banh mi, the Malaysians have laksa, the Burmese their mohinga and the Filipinos have adobo. And why do so many of our customers keep coming back to Purple Yam? To get their adobo fix. That’s how it starts and that’s why we are on track to bringing our food to the mainstream.