Oak Park chef serves up 'Filipino Friendsgiving'

Pig & Fire hosted Kamayan Fest at Lantern Haus

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Relative newcomer to the Oak Park culinary scene, Chef Roel Estanilla of Pig & Fire threw a Kamayan Feast at Lantern Haus, 7414 Madison St. in Forest Park) on Nov. 21, with approximately 40 guests enjoying an immersive "Filipino Friendsgiving" dining experience. 

Presented on a bed of rice, the meal featured fried flounder, pancit noodles, lumpia, crispy pork belly, chicken skewers, assorted vegetables and exotic fruits. Kamayan translates to "by hand" and refers to the Filipino style of eating without silverware or plates.

Pig & Fire, a boutique catering company, aims to fuse the traditional Filipino dishes of Roel's youth with the years of experience he accumulated working in hectic Las Vegas kitchens.

As a child, Estanilla's mother held down a full-time job and worked additional hours as a caterer to support her family in San Francisco. She turned out crispy lumpia, cozy panit noodles and festive lechón. 

When Estanilla first attempted to make chicken adobo, a dish of marinated and braised chicken thighs, he burned the chicken, rendering it inedible. Though he felt he was being wasteful, his mother encouraged him to try again. In time, practice paid off and Estanilla was churning out delectable adobo and other Filipino fare.

"My mother's work ethic was an inspiration to me," says Estanilla. "Watching her compelled me to learn how to cook Filipino food and dream of working in a professional kitchen." 

Ten years later, the self-taught cook made his way to Las Vegas with his family. Despite the fact Estanilla had no formal culinary training, he wanted to work his way up in a professional kitchen. 

He was hired as a buffet food runner at the Mandalay Bay resort in 2005. Executive Chef Alex Irlandes, who owns and operates Full House Filipino BBQ in Las Vegas, helmed the kitchens in the off-strip casino. 

Estanilla entered a world where most everyone had been to culinary school and had copious restaurant experience. He was intimidated and nervous but decided to be up front about his limited skill set.

"I told Chef Alex I wanted to be like him," says Estanilla, "but I could not afford to go to culinary school."

Irlandes simply looked at Estanilla and said, "Don't worry, I've got you." Irlandes broke traditional stereotypes, proving to be patient and dedicated to helping Estanilla learn through doing. 

Even after Irlandes departed Mandalay Bay, Estanilla followed him to Sunset Station to work as a cook-helper and continue his experiential education. In addition to benefitting from Irlandes' tutelage, Estanilla was also exposed to the wisdom of other cooks in the kitchens of Sunset Station.

Irlandes created a pathway for Estanilla to learn and grow as a cook. He insisted Estanilla study food science and gave him textbooks to study from. Estanilla worked seven days a week, tallying overtime hours and exploring all the varied cuisines offered by the hotel and casino. He also worked in banquets and private events where he learned volume cooking.

"Chef Alex saw my passion and he changed my life" says Estanilla.

In 2009, Estanilla made a bold move to ARIA on the strip. The five-diamond resort owned by MGM was looking for experienced kitchen help, and despite the fact Estanilla still felt intimidated and underqualified next to the "culinary kids," his wife, Jen, saw his potential and encouraged him to apply. 

Estanilla was hired on as a cook-helper at the world class resort that was home to more than half a dozen restaurants.

Once again, he found himself in a kitchen that prized effort, hard work and a love of learning. Estanilla's new boss was impressed with his new hire's knife skills, speed, and focus.

"He asked me where I had studied," Estanilla says, "and I just told him I had learned from the best and knew how to handle pressure and stress because of Chef Alex."

After averting a garnish crisis by chopping green onions at a remarkable speed and crafting a perfect hollandaise sauce from memory, Estanilla was invited to become a line cook. He found his confidence while he was cooking omelets on the line at ARIA, and he thrived in the fast-paced environment, spending eight years building his skills in the hectic kitchens.

In time, Jen Estanilla's medical school dreams brought the family to Oak Park. With an elementary school-age son and his wife completing her residency at Loyola, Estanilla knew a traditional restaurant job was out of the question. He needed to be available for his son, but Jen encouraged him to keep cooking and get his Filipino fusion dishes out in the world.

"Filipino food was readily available in Las Vegas and on the west coast," says Jen, "but there really wasn't a Filipino food scene here in the Midwest."

On the July 4, 2018, Estanilla put his culinary skills on display at a neighborhood block party. He created an Asian-inspired slider featuring teriyaki sauce and pineapple. 

"People were going bananas for them, and then word spread, and people wanted my food at parties," Estanilla said.

As part of Beye School PTO fundraisers, Estanilla offered a five-course tasting menu for 40 guests. It sold out and people went crazy for his crispy pork belly and pillowy bao buns. The Oak Park community had finally convinced Estanilla it was time to make a move into catering, and Pig & Fire was officially born.

Following in his mother's footsteps and making use of his years of experience in professional kitchens, Estanilla hopes Pig & Fire will honor both his heritage and passion. 

"Filipino food really is the original fusion fare," says Jen Estanilla. "And, Roel likes to showcase the Chinese and Spanish influences in his fresh and honest food."

Email: melissa@oakparkeats.com

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