Dorothy Hernandez, SEEN’s copy editor and SEEN in the Kitchen writer, received a six-month fellowship to report on immigrant food stories for WDET. She tells us about her passion for writing about food and cooking Filipino dishes.
By Stephanie Steinberg
1. How did you get started covering food in Metro Detroit? As the daughter of first-generation Filipino-Americans (food is at the center of everything for Filipinos), I’ve always been interested in food. My mom worked as a nurse full time but would cater on the side, such as making lumpia (spring rolls) and empanadas for friends and friends of friends, so my sister and I would help when we were kids. As I got older, wherever I worked I always tried to incorporate that interest into my routine. For example, when I was a copy editor at the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye edition, I started a fun social media cooking contest where bloggers competed in a secret ingredient challenge and our followers would vote for their favorite. After I worked as a nutrition education coordinator in Detroit, I started to write more about food and the intersection of social justice, community and culture because food is more than just what’s on your plate but also about the story behind that food — whether it’s where it comes from or the context in which the dish is created. Food is such a rich topic to write about, and there are always more stories to tell, especially here in Metro Detroit.
2. What are some of the publications you’ve written for? SEEN (of course!), Eater, NPR’s The Salt, Civil Eats, Roads and Kingdoms, Explore Parts Unknown, Midwest Living magazine, and a variety of local publications such as Hour Detroit and edible WOW.
3. Tell us about your current fellowship with WDET. What does it entail? The fellowship is a partnership with Feet in 2 Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, which is dedicated to telling immigrant stories. This fellowship is focused on food journalism and telling immigrant food stories. I will be producing two features for WDET as well as a piece for the Feet in 2 Worlds magazine. It’s a great opportunity for me because I’ve worked mainly as a print journalist for most of my career so it’s been humbling and exciting to add audio storytelling to my repertoire.
4. How many chefs have you interviewed in your career? I’ve lost count! I would say at least 30?
5. What’s one of your favorite food stories you’ve written and why? At Hour Detroit, I wrote a story about a culinary arts program at a prison in Coldwater, Michigan. I went out there a couple of times to observe the class and taste the food, which was some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. At the center of my story was an inmate named Ernest Davis, who was convicted of murder when he was about 17. After decades of being locked up, he found a passion for cooking and will soon be released. Since my story came out, he tells me he’s gotten a lot of new opportunities for when he gets out, including marriage proposals (!!!) but more importantly he tells me he’s going to be the subject of a documentary. When he gets out he hopes to be an advocate for prison reform, poverty and hunger. It was gratifying as a storyteller to share his story of redemption and second chances.
6. When writing about a restaurant or dish, what are some of the things you look for? One of the things I look for is balance: Do all of the ingredients work together to make a cohesive dish? Is there enough salt, acid and texture? Is there a reason for each ingredient to be there? But for me personally, it’s how it evokes a memory or feeling and how the chef has taken a dish and made it his or her own. For example, there’s this Filipino dish called kare kare, which is usually a peanut butter-based stew with oxtails. Garrett Doherty, one of our friends we’ve met through our Sarap pop-up, used to own a restaurant in Seattle called Kraken Congee, and he had a kare kare dish that had peanut butter powder and noodles — two things you typically wouldn’t find in a homemade kare kare. But the taste reminded me of kare kare I would have at home growing up even though it looked completely different. That was about three years ago, and I still remember it.
7. Detroit has gotten a lot of buzz for its new restaurants. What do you think the food scene will be like in the next few years? It’s changed so much over the years so it will be exciting to see the direction it goes. I’m not sure what it will look like for sure, but I hope it’s diverse and inclusive and reflective of the chefs and restaurants in Detroit, not just the hot new high-end restaurant (don’t get me wrong, I go to those too). Recently I went to Godwin Itenhuge’s pop-up at revolver where he served African and Caribbean dishes; he described his concept as Chipotle but better and with African and Caribbean food. I also recently went to my friend MyThy Huynh’s pop-up at Mabel Gray where she made Chongqing noodles and beef dumplings. I love how every week there’s a delicious pop-up to check out. There is so much good food here so I hope the food scene continues to grow and evolve to be a sustainable and equitable culinary community.
8. You’re also a cook yourself. What age did you start cooking and what inspired you to experiment in the kitchen? As I mentioned before, my mom tried teaching me when I was about 6 years old when she made me and my sister roll lumpia and fill empanadas for her side catering business, but I hated it because it was such a chore. It wasn’t until I came back home from college not knowing how to cook that I started cooking after I asked my mom to teach me (as a nurse, she worked 16-hour shifts so I wanted to help her out). Then it became something fun to do with my friends: We’d get together and make something out of a cookbook while drinking wine, and from there, I developed a passion for cooking and entertaining.
9. You have a Filipino food pop-up restaurant called Sarap with your husband Jake. How did that get started? It was really for selfish reasons. In Chicago where I grew up, I always had access to Filipino food and community because that was the environment I grew up in, so I took it for granted. When I moved to Detroit, I didn’t really know anyone in the Filipino community and I was really missing Filipino food. Pop-ups were a thing a few years ago, so I told Jake that we should start a pop-up featuring Filipino food. There was already a Filipino community here, but I don’t know if I would’ve been able to meet many members of the community if it weren’t for the pop-up, and for that I am grateful. It sounds cheesy, but that’s better than making money or having a restaurant (no I’m not gonna open a restaurant anytime soon). We’ve had so much support over the years that we keep doing them because we love seeing customers who now feel like our friends and family.
10. Any pop-ups coming up? We had a really busy October, which is Filipino American History Month, when we did a kamayan (eat with your hands) dinner fundraiser to support AAJA Michigan, of which I am a board member; a storytelling brunch event at PizzaPlex (co-owned by Alessandra Carreon, who is Filipina) with Shane Bernardo (a Filipinx community organizer); and the Shady Ladies Literary Society featuring author Elaine Castillo. So we are taking a break for a while!
11. What’s your favorite Filipino dish to cook? Anything that reminds me of my older sister or mom. My older sister would watch me and my younger sister when we were kids, so she would fry steak in butter (so not healthy but so delicious), so I like to cook that sometimes when I’m craving something meaty. Some of the first things my mom taught me to cook were adobo and sinigang, so those one-pot meals are always satisfying to make and eat!
12. It’s 6 o’clock and you just got home after a long day. What’s your go-to easy meal to make for dinner? If I can’t make Jake (who is a professional chef) cook, it will probably be whatever I can find in the fridge to make fried rice. I always have leftover rice for this specific reason because if there is no food in the house, we will 99 percent of the time order pizza! For fried rice, basically all you need is garlic, eggs and rice, and then from there everything else is extra. For example, in my fridge right now I have scallions, leftover chicken and kimchi so that would be an excellent fried rice.
13. What’s the best meal you’ve ever had in Metro Detroit? I want to share two, because I’m extra and can’t pick just one. For my birthday, my husband Jake and I went to SheWolf. Everything we got was perfect from start to finish. We got an amberjack crudo, fresh pea panzanella, scallops, carbonara, and steak and the service was impeccable. The second memorable meal I want to share is when my fellow members of the Detroit Filipino Supper Club got together for a seafood boil. It ended up turning into an epic seafood kamayan feast. We had so much food that other people brought stuff that we didn’t even get to eat because we were at capacity and busting out of the seams of our stretchy pants.
14. Favorite new restaurant in Detroit everyone should check out? I am obsessed with New Seoul Plaza! I also ate at Marrow in West Village recently and can’t wait to go back. I also enjoy every meal I have at SheWolf.
15. Your go-tos for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Brooklyn Street Local and Folk for breakfast and lunch, Taqueria Nuesta Familia (tacos from pretty much anywhere in Southwest Detroit to be honest) or Trizest for dinner. Jake and I also like to go to Urbanrest Brewing, which always has a great mix of delicious pop-ups and food trucks.
16. Your favorite coffee shop and what are you ordering? Great Lakes Coffee. If it’s the morning or afternoon, a pour-over and if it’s after 5 p.m., a glass of red wine. I love their selection!
17. Favorite food publications/websites to read? Bon Appetit, Saveur, Eater, Civil Eats, NPR’s The Salt, The Kitchn, NYT Cooking, Tostada Magazine, Food 52, The New Yorker’s food issue and so much more I can’t remember right now. I also want to add podcasts “Racist Sandwich” and “The Splendid Table” to my essential list of favorite food media.
18. Favorite food Instagram account to follow? @filpinofoodmovement, because I love to see what other Filipinx chefs around the country are doing to raise up our cuisine and also because it gives me inspiration and ideas for dishes to make.
19. If you could sit down and interview any chef, dead or alive, who would it be and why? Definitely Anthony Bourdain. Like many food writers, his book “Kitchen Confidential” opened my eyes to how compelling and exciting food writing could be. I don’t know what I would ask him because I would be fangirling, but once I got past that, I would ask about his time in the Philippines. He did an amazing episode on Manila that makes me cry every time I watch it.
20. When you’re not writing, reporting or copy editing for SEEN, where can we find you? Eating somewhere in Metro Detroit, whether it’s a restaurant, pop-up or food truck!