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Tanám’s Chef Ellie Tiglao on Storytelling, Narrative Cuisine, & Community

Cover Image for Tanám’s Chef Ellie Tiglao on Storytelling, Narrative Cuisine, & Community
By Sophie Brochu

“People and planet first,” are the words to live by at chef Ellie Tiglao’s Tanám, a pop-up-turned-brick-and-mortar just outside of Boston. This is no ordinary restaurant. Tiglao describes it as a cooperative built on narrative cuisine. It’s a place where guests can learn about Filipino culture and engage in dialogue. Ultimately, Tiglao hopes to host seasonal residencies for POC chefs to share their food and tell their own story.

Tock: You describe Tanám as a cooperative. How does this work?

Tiglao: A lot of spaces, especially in pandemic times, have started to think about what they can do to make a more sustainable business, labor-wise. Tanam started as a cooperative, where there’s employee ownership. Our employees make meaningful decisions for the business. There’s a sense of agency and profit sharing. And then with that, there’s an understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture.

“This space was built for people to connect—and that happens through storytelling.”

Tock: What do you mean by narrative cuisine?

Tiglao: This space was built for people to connect—and that happens through storytelling. Someone who was close to me told me that people want to share their story. But if you share your story first, they’ll be more open to do that. That’s what’s at the heart of narrative cuisine. It’s meant to open a dialogue between strangers in a small space. It’s not really a performance per se, but through courses of food and beverage, we share our own experiences. For a long time, it’s been my Filipino American story because I’ve been the main person driving the menus, but the restaurant is meant to be a creative outlet for anybody who is looking to tell their story.

Tock: With different chef residencies, is the underlying idea? Is it a rotating experience?

Tiglao: That is the thought, it’s something that we have been building on since last year. And I think for us, it will start through this particular team presenting a narrative. We have a menu in development that’s centered around indigenous food and practices.

The kamayan feast is served on traditional banana leaves.

Tock: You’re currently offering a kamayan menu. What can guests expect when they attend this communal experience?

Tiglao: With the kamayan dinners, we encourage people to connect over a table. You’re basically sharing a plate with somebody because you’re eating off of the same surface that your food is plated on. It’s important because when it comes to Filipino cuisine, especially around here, there are not a lot of examples. It’s a great introduction to Filipino food because there are so many components. It’s educational too; it tells people about our way of eating.

“The restaurant is meant to be a creative outlet for anybody who is looking to tell their story.”

Tock: Tanám is a community driven space that has supported different causes. Why is this important to you?

Tiglao: We have always been a majority POC space. We’ve had Black women in leadership, we’ve supported the Black Lives Matter movement. I personally have a lot of fight in me for immigration—and abortion is a big one for me. Our latest dinner, Oysterfest, was in support of the National Network of Abortion Funds. 

Tock: What’s something that you feel optimistic or hopeful about?

Tiglao: I feel hopeful that some of the lessons we’ve learned, and the friction we’re experiencing now, is going to lead to something better. I’m not sure where things are headed in my industry, but I’m heartened to see people really start to think about everybody. And how important it is for people to care for themselves, and for each other. 

Tanám offers a range of creative cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.

Tock: Is there a particular member of the team you’d like to highlight today?

Tiglao: Melody Hadap is our beverage director and what I really want to highlight is what I’d call a reverence for the craft, with a lot of intention in what they produce. What I really appreciate about them is how much they’re willing to step up to something. When the opportunity presents itself, if I’m wondering about a pairing, they’re not afraid to rise to that challenge, whether it’s a creative or logistical problem, they just show up for all of it. And what they produce is I think a really honest reflection of them, and that’s exactly what we need at Tanám.

Tock: What’s next for Tanám?

Tiglao: We host a celebration twice a year called Piyesta Pinoy, which is a celebration of Filipino culture. We do the food and bring in vendors. It’s a way to create some space for a community that doesn’t really have space around here. We’re aiming for early September.

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