Exclusive Interview: This Filipino chef cooks for Oprah

PINOY Newsmagazine/Philippine News
April 2005

Text and photo by Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — “I am not financially well-off, but I am rich in experience. So I want to give something back to our less fortunate countrymen,” Chicago-based Filipino American chef Ron Bilaro says, speaking of his trip to the Philippines this November to help raise funds for the Gawad Kalinga (GK) project for the poor.

For the event, Ron will travel to Manila with his mentor Art Smith, private chef to Oprah Winfrey. Ron also cooks for the entertainment mogul as sous-chef to Smith. Smith, who has his own children’s foundation, Common Threads, was inspired to team up with Ron, and visit the Philippines after learning of the latter’s charity work.

After the White House has named Filipino American Cristeta Pasia Comerford as its executive chef, a sense of kinship among Pinoy chefs in the U.S.has been established.

One of those who emerged from anonymity is Ron Bilaro. He invited this reporter to his hip residence located near the heart of Wicker Park’s yuppie village. Ron’s digs, which offers a stunning view of the Chicago skyline, is surrounded by upscale restaurants, which he visits often to try out new tastes.

Chicago’s FilAm community learned of Ron’s high-flying culinary stint after Sharon Cuneta introduced him to the audience during her hit concert last May.

At his own stage — the kitchen that is — Ron has been earning raves from his well-heeled clients, which includes an old rich family and an international hotelier. As a personal chef to Chicago’s corporate families, he whips up culinary concoctions that are delicious to the taste as they are delightful to the sight. At the recently concluded Chicago Air Show, Ron was busy cooking for a corporate family whose guests include television producers and reporters.

In one of those private parties, he caught the fancy of author and celebrity chef Art Smith, who happens to be the private chef of Oprah. From there, the two forged a working relationship, such that whenever Art Smith needs some assistance, he calls on Ron.

Ron’s Oprah gigs started in earnest. During Oprah’s grand 50th birthday celebration, he flew from Chicago to Montecito, Californiato join a few more chefs in creating a menu worthy of the grand dame of American entertainment.

Since his fortuitous meeting with Art Smith, Ron has his share of “Oprah moments.” However, he is prudent enough to protect his client’s privacy. He only goes as far as describing her as “a wonderful person and very down-to-earth.” She likes crispy quesadillas, and has not tried bagoong or kare-kare just yet.

The kid from Pasig

Despite his feat, Ron has remained grounded. During our first encounter after Sharon’s concert, I asked if he still speaks Filipino and he quipped: “Gusto mo, tutula pa ako.” (If you like I can even re- cite to you a Filipino poem.)

“What’s nice with chef Ron, wherever he goes he’s always proud to say he’s a Filipino. And he knows, as a chef, he can contribute something worthwhile to his fellow humans,” Panjee Gonzalez, the former Mrs. Gabby Lopez, was once quoted as saying.

Bilaro was born in Pasig to Rafael and Josefina Bilaro. His parents are now based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has one brother.

Ron finished high school at the Pasig Catholic College and went on to study at Letran and Maryknoll College (now Miriam). At the age of 19, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He later joined United Airlines as a flight attendant, and ended up in the Windy City where the company is based. Ron loves to travel so working in the airline
business was a logical move. Still, his heart was yearning for something else.

“While working as a flight attendant, I always found myself in the galley plating food for first class and business class passengers. I told myself, ‘I can do better than this,'” Ron recalled. “Becoming a chef was something that I always wanted to do.”

“The 9/11 tragedy changed the dynamics of my career. Immediately, I decided to stop flying and went back to school to be a chef,” he said. He enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago under Le Cordon Bleu. He graduated at the top of his class, after enduring many
penny-pinching months.

“Right before graduation, I got a break when a corporate family hired me to cook for them,” he said.

To further boost his stock, he apprenticed as pastry chef at Rhapsody and trained under Chef Gene Kato. Being a pastry chef is something Ron really relishes because he enjoys the intricacy of preparing baked goods and creating chocolate desserts.

Eat healthy
Ron is putting together a cookbook and is only waiting for “the right time” to publish it. The book contains a line-up of cuisine that Ron has done for his top clients and a section on Philippine dishes.

I asked him why Pinoy cuisine has not quite captured the mainstream American market. He conceded that food presentation is still inadequate; even as he hastened to point out that the taste is as good as other ethnic fare. Ron was proud to say that he is experimenting on Filipino dishes like deep roast and desserts like jackfruit, introducing them to his mostly Western clients. He, however, admitted that many Filipino dishes are rich in fats and high in cholesterol, thus limiting his picks as his patrons “prefer or demand healthy food.”

For Filipino families, how then can they enjoy the typical Filipino cuisine without sacrificing their diet? He said, they should learn how to “eat in portions” if they cannot give up altogether cholesterol-packed Pinoy meals.

“We also have this habit of eating too fast. That’s not advisable. One should take time to enjoy the food. Eat lean meat instead, more fish, vegetables, fruits and other food with high fiber. The more colorful it is, the healthier,” he said. “And get a lot of exercise.” Now take that from this gym-buffed chef.

Beyond his evident love for food, however, is Ron’s passion “to help the less privileged back home.” Last May, he learned about GK and its humanitarian activities. At once, Ron pledged his support to GK executive director Tony Meloto, and GK Chicago regional director Esok Adraneda.

While the Couples For Christ’s GK project is focused on building houses for poor families through GK 777, other supplemental projects are carried out such as livelihood creation. That’s where Ron wants to share his resources and ideas, by teaching food vendors to improve their trade and prepare dishes to draw more customers and generate bigger income.

Aside from GK, Ron has been involved with the Karangalan (Honor) Foundation, another Manila-based initiative, which promotes social change through positive values, such as initiative and social entrepreneurship.

That volunteer work earned him praises in Manila, and landed him television interviews including the ABS-CBN show, Private Conversations with Boy Abunda.

“I really wanted to help and inspire families to earn a decent living and be self-sufficient,” he said.

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