ACME — Michelle Montemayor was so eager to hone her culinary skills at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa that she left her young children in the care of her husband back home in the Philippines.
She’s one of three Filipino culinary artists who are spending the year in the resort’s kitchens under a visa or “J-1” internship. The program allows foreigners to work abroad in their field of study, said resort human resources director Matt McClellan.
“Usually in the culinary area they’re more seasoned, they’re at the end of their education and they’re trying to establish their careers and get that extra work experience,” McClellan said, adding that this is the resort’s second year participating in the program. “They get rotational experience through our properties, from casual dining to fine dining and banquet service to enhance their experience and education.”
He said the program is more of a cultural experience in which interns get to interact with locals as well as the resort’s diverse workforce. Besides Filipinos, the resort recruits Jamaicans and students from Poland, Malaysia, Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru, he said.
But the cultural exchange goes both ways. This year's aspiring chefs — Montemayor, Alyssa Raymundo and Vanity Regua, all from Manila — will share their national cuisine in a special Filipino Dinner at the resort April 14.
The three-course meal at the Aerie Restaurant & Lounge will feature the flavors of the Philippines in a custom menu created and prepared by the women with the assistance of the Aerie culinary team.
“I like to refer to them as cultural heritage dinners,” said Max Bauer, Aerie manager. “We’ve done this with our Jamaican dinners for a couple of years. With our Filipino interns this year it just felt like a natural thing to do.
“They come here to learn more about our cuisine and culture but it gets lost in translation that we get to learn about them, too.”
Main course dishes will feature braised ox tail, stewed goat meat and slow-cooked pork shoulder. All are popular in the Philippines, said the women, who didn’t take long to come up with the menu.
“We have already an idea because the dishes we have on the menu are the same dishes we eat at home,” said Raymundo, 23, who has a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. “We want to make sure the dishes we serve on the menu are tested.”
A favorite is Adobong Baboy, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, sesame oil, basil and chili-marinated pork shoulder slow cooked and served with stewed potatoes and sweet root vegetables.
“It’s five simple ingredients everyone has in their kitchen,” said Montemayor, 32, who studied nursing before switching to culinary arts. She said beef or chicken can be substituted for the pork.
All entrees will be served with rice flavored with pandan, a tropical plant whose leaves have been variously described as tasting like vanilla, coconut, licorice or bubblegum.
Other unusual ingredients — sourced from places like Filipino stores on Amazon and restaurant suppliers in other states — include bagoong, a condiment made from salt-fermented fish; saba, a banana variety cultivated in the Philippines; shrimp paste made from dried baby shrimps; and jackfruit, a huge tropical fruit whose flavors and aromas vary depending on its development and presentation.
“I’ve been in this business for 16 years and I’m going to be introduced to some ingredients I’ve never met before,” Bauer said.
First course selections include Ensaladang Mangga, or green mango salad with fresh field greens, diced onions, chilies and ripe tomatoes tossed in a dressing made from bagoong; and Pinoy Corn Soup, a broth soup made with ground pork dumplings, hominy corn, fresh garlic, onions and tomato.
Ensaladang Talong, or grilled eggplant, fresh tomato and onions tossed in a dressing of apple cider vinegar and fresh garlic, will provide a vegetarian option.
Topping off the meal: sweet Mango Torte/Crema De Fruta Mango, layers of graham crackers, fresh mango, Nestlé cream, condensed milk, fruit cocktail, and fresh mint leaves; and Turon/Lumpiyang Saging, banana and fresh jackfruit with brown sugar wrapped up in a thin crepe, drizzled with chocolate sauce and dusted in powdered sugar.
“Americans are really into challenges," Raymundo said. "They like to try new dishes.”
Bauer hopes the dinner will draw as well as the resort’s Jamaican-theme dinners, which attracted between 250 and 300 each.
“Besides an opportunity to go out to eat, it really is kind of a culinary and cultural exploration for people and they’re really well received by Traverse City,” he said.
Whatever they select, patrons will get a meal prepared with both heart and mind, the Filipinos say.
“For us we want to cook because we really want to cook for the people,” Raymundo said.
The dinner begins at 5 p.m. and costs $35 per guest, plus tax and gratuity. Philippine cocktails like Smoked Banana Daiquiri — Papa’s Pilar Dark Rum, banana liqueur, fresh lime juice, ginger syrup and smoke from applewood — and Manila Sling — Tanqueray 10 premium gin, tart cherry liqueur, B&B, triple sec, fresh lime and pineapple juices, and house made grenadine — also are available.
Call Aerie Restaurant & Lounge at 231-534-6800 for reservations or visit www.aerierestaurant.com.