The Filipino Channel’s Balitang America
Text and photo by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — On a cold December in 1983, a young lady from Sampaloc, Manila landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport to join her family and start a new life here.
Last Friday, April 23, she flew in from Washington D.C. and was warmly greeted as a homecoming hero; an American success story.
White House Executive Chef Cristeta Pasia Comerford returned to her adopted city, to speak at an Earth Day event at Northwestern University.
Combining inspiration and motivation, Comerford talked about running the White House kitchen, while stressing the importance of local food sourcing and healthy eating.
Comerford said reaching the top of her profession required a lot of work, starting with her first cooking job at an airport hotel.
“For me looking back, I think it’s really breaking the glass ceiling. It took a while, it took hard work. It took perseverance. I think if you have the talent, if you have the passion for it, and I think it’s gonna pay off,” Comerford told the audience.
She also dished out information about the eating habits of the Clintons, Bushes and now the Obamas, while adding that “there’s always a transition, whenever there’s a new family.”
Comerford said, her versions of lumpia, toron and adobo have made it to the first family’s dinner table.
“I think technically what makes a food Filipino, is really who is making it,” she said. “There are some recipes that you kinda have learned to make, but then at the same time, you tweak it a little bit, so like between the lumpia, spring roll and pancit, you make it not exactly how your parents made it. But it still has the Filipino influence in it.”
Inspired by First Lady Michelle Obama, who started a garden at the south lawn, Comerford is going organic at home.
“I started my own garden believe it or not,” she said. For her, it’s preaching by example. “You could talk as much as you want. But if you don’t walk the talk, I mean you’re not gonna be effective,” she added.
She said gardening brought back memories of her grandparents in Batangas and Bulacan. “Whenever we go to our summer break, basically when you eat meal for the evening, you ate what’s growing in the garden. It’s as fresh as you can be. It’s very nostalgic.”
Comerford said the White House garden is “so lush” it produced more than 100 pounds of vegetables last season.
As the top chef, she has also become an ambassador of Mrs. Obama’s health initiative. Recently, she was paired with celebrity chef Bobby Flay against superstars Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse in a special White House edition of Iron Chef on Food Network.
“It was so intense that every time I watch the show, I get nervous. It was pure hell,” she said to laughter. Flay and Comerford won the competition.
Her trip to Chicago is a continuation of the effort to spread the value of nutrition.
“Being a kaibigan (friend) and being a real friend, to the people around you, is to make sure to give them healthy and nutritious food,” she said. “Because it’s not just for enjoyment. It’s really for sustenance at the same time, but at the same time you want to live a healthy life. Because you want to enjoy your friends as long as you can.”
The event, organized by Kaibigan, a Filipino American student organization, became a mini reunion for Comerford’s extended family who still lives in the Windy City.
“She’s a great role model,” Samantha Pestano, 19, one of her nieces quipped, while another said, “she’s an awesome cook.”
Comerford credited her family and Filipino upbringing for instilling discipline and the value of hard work, while “paving the way” for her in America.
Growing up near the “University Belt” in Manila, she learned about “cooking production” through her mother. “But not that just mom was producing masses of food. She cooked delicious food.”
When she was in high school, Comerford would get up “at five o’clock in the morning” to cook meals for the family, and college student renters staying with them.
Kaibigan co-presidents and new graduates Allie Morales and AJ Aguado said Comerford’s story is an inspiration worth emulating.
“We thought she was a great example of someone, who came from the Philippines, immigrated to the US, and made it all the way to the top of her field,” Morales said. “You can’t get any better than the White House executive chef.”
Aguado added that Comerford’s visit was a “great contribution” to the Earth Week celebration of the university. He also noted Comerford’s message of healthy eating, “especially to college students, on a budget.”