FoodFindsAsia | A Filipino in Sicily: Chef Morris Danzen on Filipino-rooted cooking | The scene is set in a seaside town in Sicily, south of Italy. Laughter, music, and conversation punctuated with hand gestures fill the air. It pairs well with the warmth of families and friends—diners sharing a meal at a busy restaurant. The aroma of sofrito wafts from the kitchen, accompanied by another delicious aroma one can’t quite place.
Chef Morris Danzen beams as he shares that many people—Italians and Filipinos alike—recognize the touch of a Filipino chef in the specialties that come out of his kitchen. “I use Filipino ingredients like kamote, soy sauce. I use Filipino techniques, and the flavor profiles are Filipino, which [the diners] really appreciate.”
Following one’s heart
Chef Morris found his calling in fusion cuisine after moving to Italy and working at a trattoria. Having fallen in love with an Italian woman, he followed his heart and married her in Italy. They settled down in her hometown, where her family owned the said trattoria. But the business was not doing well. “I was asked to help manage the restaurant and do whatever [I could] to help it. I was hesitant at first, because I didn’t want to do traditional Sicilian food. So, I suggested we make a fusion of Sicilian and Filipino cuisine, but only if they were willing to make the change.”
After two very popular “Filipino Nights”—in which Chef Morris created 6-course menus of Filipino food—the young chef eventually won the approval of his wife’s family to make changes on the menu. They were able to change the place from a traditional Sicilian trattoria to a restaurant serving “Filipino food with a twist, adjusting to the European palate.”
He recounts, “Business was good until the pandemic hit. Right now, we’re renovating. We plan to open in April. We got an offer to collaborate with a pub that wanted to do a fusion of Oriental and Mediterranean cuisine, but what we do here is a lot of finger food—with a Filipino twist. We are opening on the first week of April. [We named it] La Bottega Fusion Cuisine.”
Inspirations for cooking fusion food
Having won a televised cooking contest in Italy (Gino Cerca Chef), Chef Morris has proven his creativity in combining different flavors to reach delicious results. What inspires him? “I just cook the food I really, really love,” he says. He looks to his childhood memories and the many things he learned from his mother to find inspiration.
He describes a dish he created based on ensaladang talong: “I use a white eggplant, grill it, and top it with anchovies, tomatoes, and tomato puree. I use rice paper on top to represent how we eat it with rice traditionally. It’s like an eggplant steak.”
But his favorite among his creations is a barbecued monkfish. “Its marinade is inspired by Philippine barbecue. I serve it with tomato salad.”
For Chef Morris, the fusion ideas come easily because there are similarities in Sicilian and Filipino cooking. “With taste, Sicilians like agrodolce (sweet and sour), they like fried food, and punchy, fishy food. In techniques, the way of preparing fish is almost the same. With escabeche and pesce in agrodolce. Theirs is simple, but the same as ours.”
He also applies Filipino cooking techniques to add more flavor to the simple, straightforward Sicilian dishes. “When we make our sauces, we try to find unusual ingredients like liver, patis…. We get umami flavors from those ingredients, which you can’t find here in Sicily. [We have what we call] sahog. Our way of marinating food, as well as the taste profile (punchy!). These are the techniques I was able to apply here.”
From Sicilian cooking, the chef learned the beauty of simplicity. “I’ve learned that the simpler, the better, in a way that you could still understand what you’re eating,” he says. Top-quality fresh seafood ingredients are abundant in Sicily. Chef Morris appreciates how Sicilian cooking techniques help make the freshness of the frutti di mare shine.
Making our flavors known
Being the only Filipino residing in the immediate area, Chef Morris feels the weight of responsibility to make Filipino cuisine known and appreciated. Very proud of his heritage, he says, “It’s not easy to showcase Filipino food. There are a lot of cuisines that we compete with.”
He adds that he feels proud of other Filipino chefs in different parts of the world who work to share the delights of Filipino cuisine. It takes creativity and hard work to help make others discover and appreciate it. That is what Chef Morris has been doing in Sicily for the past three years—promoting Filipino flavors and fleshing out the stories behind them.
The cooking of Chef Morris fits right in with the goals of Mama Sita Foundation’s Mga Kuwentong Pagkain, which is to make known the many delights of Filipino cuisine, and at the same time, help others to discover and appreciate the flavors, what went into them, and how Filipinos as a people recognize a cultural identity through them.
For this kababayan chef, what is simply “the food I really, really love” becomes an inspiration to keep on cooking homegrown flavors and creating a delightful fusion. It is that inspiration that makes it easy to bring out what punctuates every dish and give the diner a taste of the richness of Philippine cuisine.
Echoing the dream of Teresita “Mama Sita” Reyes, Chef Morris Danzen knows that by drawing from his experiences as a cook and from his memories as a Filipino, he can spread a genuine appreciation for Filipino-rooted dishes, even in a seaside town halfway across the world.