Charles Olalia is a talented chef with fine-dining background who downsized after leading teams at top L.A. kitchens like Patina and Mar’sel. Now he’s combining his Filipino heritage with finely honed technique at his tiny DTLA restaurant called Ricebar that features heirloom Filipino rice bowls. This year, Olalia also partnered with Wade McElroy and Russell Malixi on a more raucous Silver Lake restaurant called Ma’am Sir that houses a full bar and serves more ambitious Filipino comfort food. I recently traded e-mails with Olalia, who shared several insights into his outlook and approach.
Joshua Lurie: What was the very first dish that you remember cooking, and how did it turn out?
Charles Olalia: I remember making the mojo potatoes from Shakey’s. I was in high school, at my friend’s house. He showed me how to do it. I had no idea whatsoever, but it was fantastic. I went home the next day and tried it… I burnt it.
JL: What are the elements that a dish needs to make Ma’am Sir’s menu? Also, how are those criteria different from dishes you’d serve at Ricebar?
CO: The flavors of home, overall appeal, and how it stands next to the other dishes on the menu. If you order all the dishes, I try to avoid flavor redundancy. Balance is very important as well. How you feel after eating a couple of dishes is always in our mind.
The criteria between ma’am sir and Ricebar are all the same except that Ricebar, the efficiency of how is executed is the biggest difference because of the space we have.
JL: How do you balance innovation with authenticity in your cooking?
CO: I try to be humble by asking my family and my team to critique what I’m making. They always keep me grounded. For example, I wanted to do a salt-baked dish using a very non traditional way, conceptually it worked in my mind… but when I told me family… and tested in out, it didn’t quite translate. So it never made it on the menu.
JL: Tell me the story about the most recent dish you created. What was your inspiration and approach?
CO: Happy Birthday Fried Chicken
On my birthday, since I’ve lived in L.A., my sisters and my wife would always get Jollibee fried chicken. Every time there is a birthday with the staff, We celebrate with Jollibee fried chicken. We all love fried chicken. Funny thing was when we were developing dishes before opening, one of my business partners suggested a fried chicken, I said no (only because the opening menu didn’t have room for a fried chicken)… but we secretly were testing it out… and finally, this menu change we found a way to put it in. The staff, the operation was a bit more streamlined; that’s why we were able to put it in.
JL: What are some misconceptions about Filipino cuisine that you’ve experienced and would like to address?
CO: Ha! That it’s all egg, greasy, and calamansi. Everything to me should have balance. For example, if you eat our sisig, it’s sizzling with butter, in plain sight, it can look very greasy… but to counter that.. you need a bowl of rice, spoon all the butter and pork and mix to achieve balance with the tender soft rice. Also, some greens to add freshness.
You have to eat multiple dishes the same time. It can never be eat a salad and onto the next. The meal has to have all the dishes the same time as much as possible. Each dish is a seasoning for the next dish. Kinda like Inception the movie.
JL: What factors caused you to depart from fine dining prior to opening RiceBar? Is there still a place for fine dining in your future? If so, what might that look like?
CO: Factors were just the habits I was seeing with my peers; broken families, divorces, abuse…
I just got married and wanted a happy marriage. I wanted to spend more time with my wife and start a family.
As for fine dining, I don’t think so. Filipino food can’t be constricted in the “fine dining” sense. Although, a more elaborate service style of restaurant can be possible.
JL: What dishes would be on the table for a dream meal from your repertoire? Also, which people would join you at the table?
CO: Lots of Foie gras. Black truffles. Lechon. Rib eye steaks.
[With] my family, in one long table, on a Sunday after church… just like how we used to do it growing up.
JL: Who else do you look to in the restaurant industry for inspiration, guidance, and advice?
CO: I look up to Joachim Splichal, Andre Guerrero, Alvin Cailan, Badmaash boys, and Xavier Salomon (my very first chef).