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Adobo Roots

EVERYBODY knows Filipinos love to eat, and will eat anything. Isn’t that the perfect combination for them to make an appearance on a cooking show?

No longer the province of homely aunts, cooking shows have achieved an entirely new level of ubiquity and popularity that like singing and boxing, make them a most attractive podium for Filipino aspirations. Filipino-Americans have taken their own bite out of the cooking show phenomenon, and here’s a taste:

Unmistakable due to her bright accessories, standout hair and infectious energy, Josie Smith-Malave was one of the cheftestants – yep, that’s what they’re called – on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” second season in 2006, the first “Top Chef” cheftestant with Filipino blood. The holder of a culinary education degree from the Art Institute of New York City, she did well on the Los Angeles-based show, lasting until the fifth episode. Aside from Filipino blood, Smith-Malave also has Puerto Rican and Italian heritage. A die-hard fan of American football, she played for a NY women’s team. Born in Miami, Florida, she relocated to Brooklyn, New York, where she was sous chef at Marlow and Sons Restaurant.

Another memorable “Top Chef” cheftestant made her appearance in the show’s fifth season. Born in Scarsdale, New York to a Filipino mother, Leah Cohen struck quite the figure during the show’s New York season. Pretty and sassy, Cohen also had the goods; she holds a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, and worked in a Michelin-marked restaurant in Italy as well as in New York’s Centro Vinoteca. Proud and very open about her Filipino roots, she has come back to the Philippines many times, recently showing up to share the kitchen with Sam Oh on Oh’s cooking show “Delicioso,” then on the QTV channel.

“I’ve been visiting since I was five years old,” she told the Asian Journal. “I usually go once every two years so I’ve been (in the Philippines) a lot. We have a house on an island and an apartment in Manila.” She attracted some notoriety after some onscreen flirting with eventual season five winner Hosea Rosenberg, but also just barely missed the finals. The woman can cook.

Of all the Pinoy cheftestants to appear on “Top Chef,” no one triggers more debate and strong reaction than Dale Talde. Even among the show’s extensive range of diverse characters, Talde brandished serious creativity in the kitchen that was, unfortunately, matched by an explosive temperament. He managed to impress the judges with his daring flavors but antagonized some of his fellow contestants with his profanity-laden tirades. While he himself would name batchoy as his favorite Filipino food, Talde hit all the right notes by introducing “Top Chef” to halo-halo during one challenge. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the Chicago native first appeared in “Top Chef” season four in Chicago and was eliminated during the show’s patented “Restaurant Wars” challenge. But Talde proved popular enough that when Bravo decided to host “Top Chef: All-Stars” for the show’s eighth season, Talde was brought back. A visibly more relaxed Talde impressed by winning one challenge after another until a shocking elimination in the eighth episode. He savors all the flavors from traveling, especially in the Philippines. Like Cohen, Dale, whose parents moved to the States over 20 years ago, waves his Filipino flag proudly.

“Visiting the Philippines last year gave me a sense of home. As a first-generation Filipino-American, when you used to hear Filipinos say that I was going home, back then it didn’t mean anything. That is, until I arrived there. Before that, there was no emotional attachment yet. Now there is. This is my heritage, this is my culture, and I am totally embracing it,” he told the Asian Journal in January.

After working in Masaharu Morimoto’s Morimoto restaurant, he is now chef de cuisine at Buddakan in New York. He remains among the most popular “Top Chef” participants.

Viewers who first discovered ferocious British chef Gordon Ramsey in the initial seasons of the US “Hell’s Kitchen,” also noticed one of his sous chefs on the show. That would be MaryAnn Salcedo, a graduate of the prestigious Institute for Culinary Education. Salcedo was executive chef at Harvest Valley Restaurant, Caminito Argentinean Restaurant and Citizen Smith in Hollywood, California. She appeared on “Hell’s Kitchen” from 2005 to 2007.

But if you want the wackiest Pinoy presence on a cooking show, you have to give the prize for scene-stealing to actor Mark Dacascos who plays the Chairman on the Food Network’s seminal “Iron Chef America.” For each of the show’s current nine seasons, Dacascos played the somersaulting, karate-chopping Chairman, supposedly the nephew of venerable Japanese actor Takeshi Kaga, the original Chairman from the Japanese “Iron Chef,” as well as the titular Takeshi from TV guilty pleasure “Takeshi’s Castle.” A veteran actor who appeared in movies such as “The Brotherhood of the Wolf” and TV shows like the new “Hawaii Five O,” Dacascos was born in Honolulu to a father of Filipino-Spanish-Chinese ancestry. He brings a decidedly passionate over-the-top performance to “Iron Chef America.” RSDV with a report from Inquirer Research’s Lawrence de Guzman