Not so long ago, Marvin Gapultos was a marketing writer for a software company, and the Filipino food he grew up with was incidental music in an otherwise busy life. Then, as so many people did in 2008, he lost his job and began recalibrating what he wanted that life to look like.
He went back to the kitchen, or rather to his Filipino grandmother's kitchen in the house in Bakersfield where she lived with her sisters. He cataloged what he learned on his food blog, Burnt Lumpia — “I had to make sure I got there before they started cooking,” he says in an interview — and gradually the adobo and turon and sisig and halo halo became more than just what he cooked for dinner; it became part of his new full-time job. “I started my blog because I missed my mom's cooking,” he says.
Gapultos, a first-generation Filipino-American who was born in Panorama City and grew up in Valencia, is one of three brothers, and the only one who spends any time in the kitchen. When his first child was born, he realized the only way to pass on his native food to the next generation was to cook it himself (his wife is not Filipino).
The blog experiment turned out so well that Gapultos and fellow Filipino-American food blogger Nastassia Johnson launched a food truck last year, becoming the first food bloggers to make the jump from Internet to interstate. Manila Machine was the first of several L.A. Filipino food trucks bringing this lesser-known cuisine to the public.
Focusing on traditional Filipino food, a mash-up (often literally) of Spanish, Malaysian, Mexican, Indonesian and Chinese influences, has required a certain clarity of purpose. “I didn't want to throw Filipino food into a tortilla,” says Gapultos, who instead put pork belly and pineapple adobo, Spam sliders and ube cupcakes on his menu.
That focus has helped Gapultos make yet another transition: His Filipino cookbook is due out in 2012. The prospect of developing 100 recipes in the coming year to meet his manuscript deadline has left him a little dazed, although that might also be a side effect of all the hours he's been logging in traffic, with his commute from home to food truck to food truck circuit. That's perhaps why Gapultos and Johnson recently parked their orange Manila Machine truck for an indefinite hiatus so they could focus on their catering business.
Gapultos has proved that the road to success can sometimes be paved with adobo. So what does his mother think of all this? “She still wants me to go to nursing school,” he says.
This story is from this week's People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.