When I first met Pepe about a year ago, he was in the middle of a demonstration on cooking with leftovers for an upcoming workshop series. Moving vigorously as he transformed yesterday’s unwanted rice into a crunchy breaded dumpling, while enthusiastically telling a story about how he used rhubarb to replace unripened tamarind in a family recipe of sweet and sour soup, he said something that would forever change how I view food.
‘Food is just matter or liquid containing flavor,’ he said, ‘and if we learn to taste our food free of our preconceived notions of what goes with what, a whole world of new combinations become possible.’ My mind was officially blown. How could it be that something so seemingly obvious had never entered my mind? Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but as someone who loves food and consider myself a fairly creative home cook, a part of my reality was shattered. ‘This guy is a genius,’ I thought, ‘I must talk to him about this’. And here we are.
[…] when I started cooking with leftovers, or this idea of “leftovers,” I realized that leftovers don’t really exist—or it’s all there is.
Pepe, can you tell us more about this idea of food as matter and how we can escape our prejudice?
Well, everything is matter that is either liquified or consolidated through time. The heat, time or other natural processes that are applied to this matter are what puts the food it the state that it’s currently in. This is beautiful because, if everything is made from the same stuff, but with nature’s conditions applied to them, giving them their distinct characteristics, it means that everything is diverse. This is interesting and important to me in relation to cooking, because when I started cooking with leftovers, or this idea of “leftovers,” I realized that leftovers don’t really exist—or it’s all there is.
If we abandon the superficial labels given to food—our learned ideas of food categorized into sweet, sour and salty and into proteins, carbs and fats—and go back to the actual experience of tasting and eating it, we can become aware of how it was formed, and allow ourselves to discover that so many other combinations are possible. We are all full of prejudice because we’ve learned so much about food growing up, it’s just hard for us to put certain things together. How can you put yourself in a place where you allow yourself to combine two things that you would never normally mix? That was where the idea of ‘cooking with what is there,’ took me.
When you grow up in a country like the Philippines, everyone is always eating, and when they’re not, they’re talking about food, and everywhere you look, cooking is happening.
You’re a performer and a dancer. What brought you to cooking?
After leaving the Philippines, I started feeling a strong nostalgia for food. When you grow up in a country like the Philippines, everyone is always eating, and when they’re not, they’re talking about food, and everywhere you look, cooking is happening. The disadvantage is that it’s so omnipresent that it becomes invisible, like water to a fish. It took me leaving these surroundings to realize how important food was to me. I was always surrounded by a lot of smells, but I never became aware if it until I was separate from it. I remember arriving in Europe and noticing that it smelled very different, mainly in that it smelled ‘less’. I started missing all of this, not just mentally, but physically—my body yearned for it. I realized that I needed to cook. I was living here by myself, while in the Philippines you’re always surrounded by family, even when you’re single, you have relationships with everyone. There’s this interconnectedness that you become really aware of when you all of a sudden don’t have it anymore.
As I was putting things together, like onions and garlic and ginger, I remembered, even though I had never done it before. I realized that I always had it there in the back of my mind, like an embodied memory. And as I started sautéing, another layer of memories were unveiled, because the smell is so strong, it makes you remember things in a different way.
In Berlin, I may not have access to the same ingredients as back home, and that’s where the aspect of improvisation comes in. When you touch and smell something, and you realize that something else can be used instead, such as rhubarb instead of unripened tamarind, it really excites me!
When I first started cooking, I only used the things I was brought up with—things that were imported to Germany from Asia. That’s what led me to doing cooking as a performance project. They both have to do with subjectivity and telling stories. This is again connected to memory, and how you construct images and stories in your head based on what you remember from the past. I immediately saw the performative aspect of cooking. I’m trained as a performer, meaning I use my body a lot, and cooking is physical on so many levels.
I realized that I always had it there in the back of my mind, like an embodied memory. And as I started sautéing, another layer of memories were unveiled, because the smell is so strong, it makes you remember things in a different way.
I’m glad you brought that up. I wanted to ask you about the similarities between dancing and cooking?
They’re both choreography. Choreo, which meaning time, and Graphy, a map of time. In dancing you use your body to map time. In cooking you use different tools, and instead of moving yourself within a space, you see and feel the transformation of the ingredients. It’s a beautiful way to map time. Performance for me is something I started doing because it is transformative, meaning it makes me keep revisiting who I am. The more I perform, the more I discover things about myself, so it’s also about repetition.
Cooking is very repetitive, but here, it’s important to not turn cooking into a routine, but instead let it become a ritual. We can do that with everything that we repeatedly do. If we are aware of our movements, they become a ritual. If we lose sight, they become routine.
Yes! And as soon as you make it a ritual it almost becomes a spiritual thing.
As soon as you become aware of it, yes. A lot in our society is trying to make [cooking] invisible. People start to think of time as something outside of them, something that they have to fit into. Something that they have to pursue. A frame that they have to not miss; Not miss the train, not miss the work, not to be late. Time becomes something external. With dancing or with cooking, you become aware of it again.
Cooking is very repetitive, but here, it’s important to not turn cooking into a routine, but instead let it become a ritual. If we are aware of our movements, they become a ritual. If we lose sight, they become routine.
You arrived at cooking from a theoretical standpoint, as an artist rather than a traditional chef, and I can tell that you’re really into etymology. The word leftovers, already puts the concept at a disadvantage, because it makes it sound superfluous—like something that can be easily wasted.
The development of language goes hand in hand with the way our society is conditioned, meaning our cultural conventions and language are intertwined.
For example, in the Philippines we use a lot of words relating to taste or smell, not just to describe food, but to speak of transcendental things like feelings, our feelings towards each other, the weather and even sexuality. For example, sourness connotes sexual ripeness, meaning a person is… how do you say it… good to go.
This is part of the things I started to observe after leaving the Philippines, and it has become an integral part of how I do research for my food related performances.
My interviewee just got done with lunch service at the Agora café and has cooked for hours, following a double shift in the kitchen for a big event the previous day, Pepe is surely ‘cooked out’ by now. Yet he still accepts my ‘fun challenge’ to whip up a small dish from a haphazard spread of leftovers and ingredients collected from my fridge at home, as well as whatever we could scavenge from the Agora café kitchen.
The development of language goes hand in hand with the way our society is conditioned, meaning our cultural conventions and language are intertwined.
We start by tasting a sliver of Norwegian ‘brown cheese’ (a traditional, and sweet tasting cheese made from whey and goats milk) and talk about how food and certain flavors bring back memories.
I’m interested in your creative process? When you look at something like this spread of random foods, what goes through your mind? How do you decide what to make?
One of the first thing that I learned to develop is to say, ‘I don’t know’. With a lot of practice I learned that this point of departure is the window to creativity. For me, the enemy of creativity is over-thinking. This morning, for example, I was quite uninspired because I was tired after a long week of work and a late event last night. So, I told myself, “I don’t know what to do.”
The second most important thing that I recognized is the need to start doing something, even if you don’t know what to do. You have to keep going, even if you’re in despair. It was like that today, where some of what you do just ends up being reflex actions. But times like these are often when I’m the most creative.
And, out came the colorful and beautiful plate we just had for lunch!
It also has to do with leniency. I only had wine as a spice, all though I would have liked to have lemon and other stuff. But limitation is an important component. It’s nice to have a sense of limitation because when you limit yourself, what you’re actually limiting is your ego. Some of the most beautiful things I’ve created have come from surrendering to what is there.
It’s nice to have a sense of limitation because when you limit yourself, what you’re actually limiting is your ego.
When you cook with leftovers, you tend to make something completely different from what it was originally. It can be a challenge for most of us to see past the cold pizza or pasta in our fridges and make something other than re-heated pizza or pasta with it. Can you talk about the difference between ‘heating up’ leftovers and ‘cooking’ with leftovers?
Well, I think people are challenged by a linear framework of thinking. Things have a beginning and an end, and during its lifespan, it remains constant. To use the example of the pizza, it remains a pizza throughout its existence, and when you’re done eating what you want of it, there’s no new life after the death of your pizza. Once the rest is put into ‘the holy fridge’ you start to forget about it. This is what’s so problematic about leftovers—it becomes a valid excuse for wasting food. Because we are so closed off in our minds, there’s nothing new left to do with it anymore. Many live their lives like this as well. They’ll screw up and think, ‘my life is fucked now, there’s nothing I can do about it’. Many people are prisoners of this mindset. Pizza is just a metaphor.
People don’t give themselves second chances. But I heard this thing in meditation class, that when you think you have made a mistake or failed, it is just a matter of our own framework of thinking. What is failure and success anyway? It’s all a matter of perception—again it’s embedded in our language.
We always want to brand something as either good or bad—we want to give everything a label. The problem with leftovers also has to do with branding. Leftovers are misbranded. The work we need to do has to do with rebranding.
So would you want to change the name of leftovers to something else? What would you change it to?
That’s the thing. I don’t think that it needs a special name at all.
You’re saying we should just call it food?
Exactly! Calling it leftovers gives us the idea that it’s second rate food.
It’s interesting that a lot of very traditional dishes from around the world originate from leftovers. Different casseroles, paella, fried rice, shepherds pie and pizza are all dishes that were allegedly invented as a way to use up leftovers.
Yes, and another one of the national dishes of Spain, the Tortilla, is just made from potatoes, onions and eggs. Why? There are so many foods in Spain that are way more elaborate. Why is it potatoes and eggs? It’s often the simple, everyday stuff that becomes tradition.
Whenever I cook, people ask questions like, ‘What kind of cuisine is this?’ or, ‘What type of food is this?’, and I’ll say, ‘It’s Nowhere Kitchen’. When I started the residency at Agora too, they’d ask, ‘What’s the name of this dish?’ thinking that the specifics would help enhance their eating experience. We started doing a lot of stuff to change how people were asking about the food and it was really rewarding to not get asked those same questions anymore. Instead new questions arose like, ‘What’s in it?’ or ‘How was it made?’, which are much more interesting questions, because it keeps people curious.
My work is about changing people’s perception and how they view food. One thing I always get a lot as donations are cookie leftovers. You know, it’s a cookie, and for a lot of people, it’s hard to accept that it’s basically flour. Reconstituted flour. If it’s been constructed, you can deconstruct it, and when you deconstruct a cookie, you get flour that you can use for whatever you would use flour for. People will eat something rolled in ‘cookie flour’ and ask ‘Are you sure this has no meat?’ — ‘Yeah, it’s vegetarian.’ ‘Really? What’s in it?’. ‘Cookie’. But people will think it is chicken because the sweet cookie flour will remind them of some version of a chicken nugget or something.
We want to give everything a label. The problem with leftovers also has to do with branding. Leftovers are misbranded.
I wanted to ask you about food waste, which is obviously a huge problem in our society. You don’t talk about that much, but is there a political agenda behind what you do, or is that just a byproduct?
Each person’s individual choice of how they want to live their lives is the most political thing there is. If I can affect and inspire people to do something different with, and use up their leftovers by showing them what they already know how to do, then that is very political to me.
We tend to view politics as something that happens in parliament or in public spaces, but never in private homes and in people’s kitchens. But that’s often where the real politics is happening. Perhaps our unawareness of this is why we’re still struggling.
Each person’s individual choice of how they want to live their lives is the most political thing there is.
I’m watching Pepe, chopping up fennel and adding licorice powder.
I’m very curious what’s happening now—I love licorice!
I’m very curious too!
I’m worried about the brown cheese though… it’s one of those things that I grew up with and I have very set ideas of how it should be used. You’re shattering my reality once again.
I’m starting to get afraid…
A fanciful plate of seemingly mismatched ingredients is presented before me and I can’t help but ask, ‘So, what kind of cuisine is this, Pepe?’.
It’s Nowhere Kitchen. Now, do you dare to try it?