The Local Palate’s 2023 summer issue dives into the thriving culture of Filipino chefs in Jacksonville, Florida. Here, we highlight sous chef, Melanie Cuartelon, based at the Sawgrass Marriot where she serves robust flavors in her Filipino adobo and lechon baboy.
Looking for authentic Filipino food made by hands who know it best? Jacksonville, Florida, is host to a vast population of Filipino residents and home to budding cultural-fusion cuisine. With a community numbering more than 25,000, Filipinos make up 35 percent of the city’s Asian community and about 12 percent of all Duval County immigrants.
But, until recently, the region has been sorely lacking in restaurants featuring cuisine native to the Philippines and representative of its people. For first-generation Filipinos, making traditional dishes at home has historically been the existence of authentic Filipino food in the city. Now, the Jacksonville culinary scene is setting the stage for the emerging influence of second-generation Filipino chefs eager to represent both their cultural heritage and Floridian residence.
With an iron grip on their roots and the essence of their childhood favorites, Filipino chefs in Jacksonville are crafting modern techniques that blend global ingredients and integrate new cultural interpretations of the dishes that raised them. As the cuisine’s popularity has grown, Jacksonville diners can now find anything from Filipino adobo (beef, pork, or chicken and vegetables marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns) to tortang talong (eggplant dipped in a beaten egg mixture and cooked like an omelet), with plenty of options for ube (purple yam) in the mix.
Melanie Cuartelon, Filipino Sous Chef at Sawgrass Marriott
I am very fortunate to work with other Filipinos on my team at the The Sawgrass Marriott. They are supportive of incorporating our culture into the food we create. We’ve also hosted Filipino Brunches for the past five years and included Filipino food as part of themed dinners we’ve held here.”Melanie Cuartelon
Food has always been a part of Melanie Cuartelon’s life. She was born and raised in northeast Florida, and although her mother worked a full-time job, she always made sure there was a home-cooked meal. “Both of my grandmothers were always cooking, especially my paternal grandma, Lola Pilang. She was the baker in the family,” Cuartelon says.
“In a Filipino home, food is such a large part of what shapes our culture,” she adds. “From the time I could eat solid food, I was eating nilaga [a Filipino beef bone soup made with cabbage, potatoes, plantains, and corn]. I loved to gnaw on the buto [bone] and I have photos of myself as a child holding it up with pride—I am proud of that kid.” That pride fueled her career drive, from culinary school in Rhode Island to 10 years working in pastry to a move toward savory cooking with a focus on catering and banquets.
“Growing up, most of the food cooked at home was traditional Filipino dishes. What I realize now, at 38—my parents were already developing my palate for unique flavors and appreciating them,” she says. “It’s like they were setting me up for my career as a chef! I always knew down the road, no matter what career I chose, I would never be more than 10 feet away from a kitchen.”
On the Menu at Sawgrass Marriott
A savory-sweet and tangy chicken dish
Whole roasted pig
Key Lime Pie
Pie with Cuartelon’s spin using calamansi in the filling
- by Erin Byers Murray