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In Sunscreen doc, Billy Dec looks for food … and family

Bill DeYoung



Billy Dec in the Philippines with his Lola Pilar - his great-aunt - in "Food Roots." Screerngrab.

Chicago-based entrepreneur, actor, TV chef and hospitality maven Billy Dec explores the Philippine Islands in Food Roots, a documentary screening Thursday at the 19th Sunscreen Film Festival in St. Petersburg.

Dec is best known to bay area residents as the owner and public face of Sunda, the “New Asian” restaurant in West Tampa.

He opened the restaurant there, he told the Catalyst, because he has fond memories of visiting his father’s family in Tampa, Lutz and St. Pete. “I did feel like it was home, and that I wanted to be there in the long term,” he said. “I also felt there was this generational relationship between folks throughout Chicago and the Midwest in general, and that Clearwater, Tampa, St. Pete part of the world.

“I’ve traveled the world and I feel really comfortable there, and I love it. I love the water – if I can’t be in the Philippines I like to be around a lot of water.” He has a home in Indian Shoes (“I like to get lost on the sand there”) and visits the area often.

Food Roots is a love letter to Dec’s family, including his American father and Filipino mother. Although the Dec family visited the Philippines often, he remembers with particular fondness his maternal grandmother – his Lola – and the native dishes she prepared for the family at their Illinois home.

“You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re from,” she had told him.

Accompanied by a film crew, Dec traveled to the South Pacific to seek out the extended family, to re-connect, to honor the memories of his late mother, father, brother and Lola – and to bring back authentic Filipino recipes for his restaurants in Tampa, Chicago and Nashville.

“It unveiled and opened all these other stories and feelings, pieces of family lineage and heritage and history, and it became something much more,” he said.

In the documentary, he travels between medium-sized cities, small towns and remote villages to learn, from his aunts, uncles and other elders, different ways to cook fish, beef, chicken, pork and goat using native spices, vegetables and sauces. There’s even a lengthy session on cooking the black snails collected by children from the neighborhood rice paddies.

Everyone warmly welcomes him “home” with family feasts.

Initially, the film was intended solely to document Dec’s recipe search. Once director Michele Jusoe and executive producer Douglas Blush learned about some of the family backstories, they convinced him to navigate deeper emotional waters. “They said ‘If you open up, if you’re ready, there’s a beautiful human story to explore here, that will resonate with a lot of people … and maybe even help somebody.’ I just felt that it was bigger than me. And also the least I could do. And it was true.”

Along the way, he never wrote down any recipes. “It was just too hard,” Dec chuckles, “to kind of encapsulate that moment.”

But he’s got a good memory for ingredients. “And we play around with (the recipes) at Sunda all the time. We offer them, and sometimes we riff on them and modernize them. Which is really what New Asian is, it’s kind of elevating the quality of the ingredients, the cooking styles, the presentation … we’re always doing that.”

Dec, whose next project is a new nightclub in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley, will be in attendance at Friday’s screening. “A lot of people at these showings are always asking ‘what’s next – where’s the next episode, what’s happening?’

“There’s a lot of talk about maybe making Food Roots a series, or continuing the journey.”

The screening is at 4 p.m. Thursday (April 25). Sunscreen website.


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