Exactly one decade after Paolo Dungca’s culinary career started in a sweaty dish pit at Disneyland, the chef is readying to open his first restaurant. He’s partnering with longtime local cocktail legend and distiller Todd Thrasher to bring D.C. more Filipino food in 2021. As his star rises, Dungca is also headlining Capital Food Fight tonight.
The 29-year-old was born and raised in San Fernando, a city in the Pampanga province of the Philippines. Many consider it the nation’s culinary capital. “Anytime people hear you’re from that area, they say, ‘Home of the good cook!’” Dungca says.
His mother moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and Dungca followed soon after. At 13, he had to overcome culture shock and learn a new language. The city’s robust Filipino immigrant community helped the family adjust. “We got us,” Dungca says, describing how Filipinos support and celebrate each other.
After finishing high school in 2010, Dungca took a job as a dishwasher at a sprawling Italian restaurant at Disneyland while taking prerequisite classes for a nursing degree. “It was just to please my mom,” he says. “Typical Filipino job, you know, to be a nurse. I wasn’t really interested in it, so I would skip classes and just go to work.”
As Dungca advanced from dishwasher to prep cook to line cook, the adrenaline of the profession ignited something in him. He went on to work with Chef Kevin Meehan, who was holding pop-ups leading up to the opening of Kali Restaurant in Hollywood. That’s where Dungca first experienced cooking in a fine dining kitchen. He was hooked.
In 2014, Dungca flew across the country to visit cousins in D.C. He canceled his return flight and entered the local restaurant industry, getting his first gig at the now-shuttered Vidalia. When he joined the team at the highly lauded Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in 2015, Dungca found a friend and mentor in then-Executive Chef Tom Cunanan.
“I think Tom is the pioneer of Filipino food in the city,” Dungca says. “The dishes he’s been doing have been very forward-thinking. That’s what we need. He takes us to new places. Having him here, you want to be like him, you want to bring Filipino culture to where he brought it.”
Cunanan recently left Bad Saint and he, too, is preparing to open his own Filipino restaurant. “We want to build a community, Dungca says. “We want to be able to use each other as resources and inspiration.” Cunanan also hails from Pampanga. “We joke around all the time that we might have some relatives in common because I have some Cunanan in my family,” Dungca says.
After leaving Bad Saint, Dungca went to work for chef and restaurateur Cathal Armstrong. He heard Armstrong was inching toward opening an Asian restaurant. Armstrong’s wife and business partner, Meshelle, is Filipino too. Dungca started as a sous chef and advanced to chef de cuisine at Restaurant Eve, the Alexandria fine dining mainstay that closed in 2018.
“[Armstrong] was like a father figure to me,” Dungca says. “My dad passed away when I was five. I really looked up to him.” The up-and-coming chef was most drawn to the way Armstrong carefully sources his ingredients. “I owe him a lot of the skills I’ve learned. It was tough, I’m not going to lie. It was the toughest four and half years of my life.”
When Armstrong opened Kaliwa at The Wharf, it got even tougher. Dungca was his right hand man and worked six days a week. The restaurant is much larger than Restaurant Eve and the menu spans Filipino, Korean, and Thai cuisines.
Dungca moved on to team up with chef and restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang at Navy Yard newcomer ABC Pony. The restaurant focuses on pasta, something Dungca has loved making ever since working at the Italian restaurant at Disneyland. But just as the restaurant was opening at the end of 2019, Dungca contracted a virus that attacked his heart.
“We were cooking the menu one night and I was feeling chest pains,” he says. “My left arm felt numb.” In a true chef move, Dungca drove himself to the emergency room and was hospitalized. He had to wear a defibrillator when he returned to work in case of emergency. “They were calling me Iron Man at work,” says the chef, who has been healthy since February.
But before Dungca joined ABC Pony in 2019, he traveled to the Philippines for the first time in 15 years to reconnect with his family and visit with his favorite chefs. He was feeling burnt out by the long, arduous hours the industry requires. The trip was revitalizing and just what he needed before opening his first restaurant. “Before I felt like I was just cooking it to cook it,” he says of Filipino food. “Now it’s about a deeper connection with my family and my roots.”
Dungca’s been experimenting with new dishes inspired by the chefs he visited like bagnet (boiled and deep fried pork belly) with a liver-based sauce and tart papaya acharra. Then there’s bobotu. “The dish was inspired by the Filipino women who gathered themselves during elections and cooked tamales while men went out to vote, thus the word ‘bobotu,’ which means, ‘to vote,’” Dungca says. It’s similar to a tamale, only cooks use coconut milk, rice flour, and a banana leaf as the wrapper for steaming.
Bobotu is one of the dishes Dungca served while he was popping up at Tiki TNT on Wednesday nights in October. Thrasher, who’s behind the bar and distillery, invited Dungca in to cook because it was Filipino American History Month. They also worked together at Armstrong’s restaurants. The pop-up dinners sold out.
“The last night, Todd was like, ‘Let’s get you something. Let’s partner up. I’ll do the drinks, you do the food,’” Dungca says. Thrasher adds, “It’s exciting to see that someone you have worked with in the past wants to work together again.”
In developing the menu for his forthcoming Filipino restaurant with Thrasher, Dungca says he’s been on the phone with his mom almost every day. “There’s something about mom cooking that’s very comforting. I feel like that’s what I need to learn. That mom comfort. Lately I’ve been in touch with my grandma, my mom, and my aunt.”
He got to see his mother recently because she traveled to D.C. to attend his wedding. Dungca got married in October. Even though they typically don’t offer catering services, Maryland Filipino restaurant Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly handled the cooking for the small celebration.
What does Dungca’s mom think of her son abandoning his nursing degree now? “When my mom ate at Restaurant Eve she kind of got teary eyed and said, ‘I understand why you did it,’” the chef recalls. “That was the most memorable thing in my restaurant career.”