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Filipino Chef Gets Oprah's Notice

PINOY Newsmagazine, News Feature, Ted Regencia Posted: Aug 10, 2009

CHICAGO, Ill. - I am not financially well-off, but I am rich in experience. So I want to give something back to our less fortunate countrymen, Chicago-based Filipino American chef Ron Bilaro says of his trip to the Philippines this November to help raise funds for the Gawad Kalinga (GK) project for the poor.

Bilaro will travel to Manila with his mentor Art Smith, private chef to Oprah Winfrey. Ron also cooks for the entertainment mogul as sous-chef to Smith, who has his own childrens foundation, Common Threads. Smith was inspired to team up with Ron, and visit the Philippines after learning of the latters charity work.

After the White House named Filipino American Cristeta Pasia Comerford as its executive chef, a sense of kinship among Pinoy chefs in the U.S. was established. One of those who emerged from anonymity is Bilaro. He invited this reporter to his hip residence near the heart of Wicker Parks yuppie village. Rons digs, which offers a stunning view of the Chicago skyline, is surrounded by upscale restaurants, which he visits often to try out new tastes.

Chicagos Fil-Am community learned of Bilaros high-flying culinary stint after visiting actress Sharon Cuneta introduced him to the audience during her hit concert last May. At his own stage -- the kitchen that is Bilaro has been earning raves from his well-heeled clients, including an old rich family and an international hotelier. As a personal chef to Chicago's corporate families, he whips up culinary concoctions that are delicious to the taste as they are delightful to the sight.

At the recently concluded Chicago Air Show, Ron was busy cooking for a corporate family whose guests included television producers and reporters.

In one of those private parties, he caught the fancy of author and celebrity chef Art Smith, who happens to be the private chef of Oprah. From there, the two forged a working relationship, such that whenever Art Smith needs assistance, he calls on Bilaro.

During Oprahs grand 50th birthday celebration, Bilaro flew from Chicago to Montecito, California to join a few more chefs in creating a menu worthy of the grand dame of American entertainment.

Since his fortuitous meeting with Art Smith, Bilaro has had his share of Oprah moments. However, he is prudent enough to protect his clients privacy. He only goes as far as describing her as a wonderful person and very down-to-earth. She likes crispy quesadillas, and has not tried bagoong or kare-kare just yet.

The kid from Pasig

"What's nice with chef Ron, wherever he goes he's always proud to say he's a Filipino. And he knows, as a chef, he can contribute something worthwhile to his fellow humans," Panjee Gonzalez, the former Mrs. Gabby Lopez, was once quoted as saying.

Bilaro was born in Pasig to Rafael and Josefina Bilaro. His parents are now based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has one brother. Ron finished high school at the Pasig Catholic College and went on to study at Letran and Maryknoll College (now Miriam). At the age of 19, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he lived for many years.

He later joined United Airlines as a flight attendant, and ended up in the Windy City where the company is based. Bilaro loves to travel so working in the airline business was a logical move. Still, his heart was yearning for something else.

While working as a flight attendant, I always found myself in the galley plating food for first class and business class passengers. I told myself, I can do better than this, Bilaro recalls. Becoming a chef was something that I always wanted to do.

The 9/11 tragedy changed the dynamics of my career. Immediately, I decided to stop flying and went back to school to be a chef, he says.

He enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago under Le Cordon Bleu. He graduated at the top of his class, after enduring many penny-pinching months.

Right before graduation, I got a break when a corporate family hired me to cook for them, he says.

To further boost his stock, he apprenticed as pastry chef at Rhapsody and trained under Chef Gene Kato. Being a pastry chef is something Ron really relishes because he enjoys the intricacy of preparing baked goods and creating chocolate desserts.

Eat healthy

Bilaro is putting together a cookbook and is only waiting for "the right time" to publish it. The book contains a line-up of cuisine that Ron has done for his top clients and a section on Philippine dishes.

I asked him why Filipino cuisine has not quite captured the mainstream American market. He conceded that food presentation is still inadequate; even as he hastened to point out that the taste is as good as other ethnic fare.

Bilaro proudly says that he is experimenting on Filipino dishes like deep roast and desserts like jackfruit, introducing them to his mostly Western clients. He admitted that many Filipino dishes are rich in fats and high in cholesterol, thus limiting his picks as his patrons prefer or demand healthy food.

How can Filipino families enjoy the typical Filipino cuisine without sacrificing their diet? He said, they should learn how to eat in portions if they cannot give up altogether cholesterol-packed Pinoy meals.

We also have this habit of eating too fast. Thats not advisable. One should take time to enjoy the food. Eat lean meat instead, more fish, vegetables, fruits and other food with high fiber. The more colorful it is, the healthier, he says And get a lot of exercise. Now take that from this gym-buffed chef.

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