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Cheeky Sits Down with the ‘Food Buddha’

Our Cheeky Friend's Television Show Premieres Tonight on TLC

by Erica Bethe Levin – June 14, 2010

Chef Rodelio Aglibot, aka the ‘Food Buddha’, is hot hot hot right now.  I sat down to lunch with the jovial chef and was able to ask him a few questions about his new gig with BLT, his upcoming TLC television show (appropriately titled Food Buddha), how he got his lovable nickname and what inspires his (damn good) cooking.

You recently took on a new gig!  How did you get involved with the BLT Restaurant Group?

I was introduced to Jimmy Haber, one of the partners of BLT Restaurant Group. We discussed the possibility of creating an Asian concept as part of their portfolio.

So, you’re working on an Asian gastro-pub concept?

Yes, the style of dining, shared, and my food will be the foundation of the concept. My style of cooking is Asian comfort food.  The new concept will incorporate a raw bar that highlights my signature dishes, a robata bar to have yakitori and robata offerings, a noodle station and a hot kitchen creating beer-friendly items.

You’re currently the Executive Chef at Sunda in Chicago.  What does being a corporate chef entail?

My title is actually Partner/Executive Chef. My involvement is from concept to execution and maintenance. Essentially, I will head my own “division” being responsible for the concept in its entirety.

What is the name of the chain – can you reveal that yet?

We are currently discussing names.  This is an exciting and creative process.  Right now we are working on one location for the concept.  The core identity of the restaurant will incorporate local influences and still maintain BLT’s brand integrity.  If we decide to open more than one location, it will be tailored to each location and will not be what one would think of as a “chain.”

Which city will it open in first?

We are currently looking at a few potential markets.  Promise we’ll keep you posted on this as well.

Do you have future expansion plans?

Expansion is in the plans, hopefully internationally one day, but it is one restaurant at a time. The bigger you grow, the less time you have to give each property the attention it needs. So it’s important to have great people surrounding you that see the same future and goals.

Exactly why did your friends name you the ‘Food Buddha’?  Do you find the term endearing? Cute? At all offensive?

For my jovial and buddha-ish looks, obviously…. Two longtime friends – Joanne Cianculli, a celebrated cookbook author and culinary producer, and Mara Papatheodoureau, former Travel and Lifestyle Editor for ‘Bon Appetit’ – both came up with the name after years of conversations with me, referencing my philosophy to cooking and life.  I’m not a Buddhist, nor do I officially practice Buddhism, but my thoughts and processes are influenced by Buddhism.  It may be offensive to some, but I embrace the name and hold it with respect.

The premise for your new TLC show Food Buddha is eating ‘one of each’ (OOE) of everything on the menu.  How can you possibly eat OOE?  Do you feel sick afterwards?  Do you have to work out extra hard to keep your girlish figure?

I wouldn’t call it “eating” OOE, it’s not about gluttony, rather you are tasting OOE.  There is no better way to get a true sense of a restaurant and its chef than to try everything on the menu, OOE, one of each.  Some dishes you like more than others, but this way you really get a feel for the entire experience. As the Food Buddha, balance is essential, so you need to be hydrated while you eat and moderate the pace of eating.  Don’t get me wrong, you are full after each restaurant, but as a food professional, it’s about maintenance.

And yes, for health reasons I need to be conscious of my intake and balance it with being physically active.  I periodically cleanse, during which I remove proteins and carbohydrates from my diet for a period of time.

Since the show will give you quite a bit of press, how do you hope to use it?

The show will introduce me to several other cities and to new communities of diners.  I can look back at my career and see that my “ride” has been more than I can ever imagine.  It gives me the stability and confidence to pursue a new venture. With the show, I imagine “OOE” Clubs emerging all over the country where foodies can enjoy the full scope of a chef’s talents. I’d love to hear their stories one day. I treasure and am humbled by my future opportunities.  I do what I love and love what I do…I will never lose sight on why and who I cook for.  My parents, family and friends always keep me grounded. Opportunities like this are rare, but when it happens you have to go for it!

I know you’ve lived all over the United States – what city inspires you the most?

It would have to be San Francisco, I consider San Francisco my “first love” – I’m a romantic at heart. I went to culinary school there and my Chef mentors taught me so much. There is an abundant source of ingredients and the wine and produce-rich Napa Valley isn’t far away. Food is part of the culture and identity of San Francisco…a lot of my sensibilities were nurtured there.  Chicago, of course, has become a new home…a “new love.”

Which city’s cuisine do you enjoy cooking the most? Which city’s cuisine do you enjoy eating the most?

I enjoy cooking and eating all cuisines.  I’ve been a Chef of Italian, Californian and steakhouse restaurants and have consulted on Peruvian, Mexican and Spanish concepts. Each city has its own regional cuisine and there are different types of restaurants and chefs in each city.  It’s hard to pinpoint, but being from the West, my philosophies come from a fairly simple, rustic approach.

My favorite food cities are San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles…big cities with diverse communities and lots of creative chefs.

You’ve also traveled all over the world: where are you most inspired outside of the United States?

I just returned from Italy a few weeks ago. I also have traveled to Asia extensively. It’s hard to say, but I feel most inspired by the tradition and culture, I study food history, so the more history a city has the more inspired I become.

Despite your travels, you have your own style of cooking: how would you explain that style and how do you adapt dishes to your own taste?

My style is new Asian. My parents are my first mentors and they taught me balance and flavors, but also discipline.  As a chef, you need to know when to stop, otherwise flavors and ingredients lose focus and become muddled and overcomplicated. I love my own cooking, but I cook for my guests. My cooking philosophy is embedded in my approach that I want my food to be timeless; I want my style to be relevant for decades, not just years. You want guests to have comfort and familiarity when they eat your food. My creativity doesn’t lose sight of who I am cooking for – when my customers are my focus, I can always source the best ingredients.

How do you know you’re on the right track with a recipe?  Are you a taste-tester?

I cook by feel. I measure after I get the original concept of a dish down. Tasting is always important, but so are the palates of my staff, who also taste along with me.

I know you’re super busy, but do you ever have time to cook just for fun?  For your friends?  For your roommate?

This is one of my favorite things to do. I’m the friend that would cook for you on your birthday rather than take you out to dinner. My parents taught me that cooking is a gift, so when I do get a chance, it’s a gift for me too. I wish I had more time to cook for my friends.

About the Author: Erica Bethe Levin

Erica Bethe Levin is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of CheekyChicago.com. She loves to write, but she also really loves her dog Pippin, spaghetti, wine and Billy Joel.