Chef Nico de Leon Wants To Get Your Hands Dirty
Meet the field chef at February's Wattles Farm event.
Written by: Ariel Knoebel
“Understanding the geography of LA kind of helps you understand who I am.”
Chef Nico de Leon’s family dinner table in LA’s San Fernando Valley was equally likely to be topped with steak and mashed potatoes as traditional Filipino favorites, but his parent’s roots as Filipino immigrants always bled through. “The food I grew up with was my mom’s interpretation of what American food is,” de Leon explains, remembering her experiments from cooking magazines or the Food Network, which was perennially on in the background of their home. Once a little older, Nico would cook and eat at his friends’ houses, experiencing cuisine from across Latin America while sitting across the table from fellow immigrant families. He also remembers fondly that he grew up enjoying his fair share of fast food. This chef pulls from the culinary grab bag of his childhood to build his own playful, surprising style of Filipino cuisine. “I really pull from any direction, he says. “As long as it’s tasty and as long as I feel like it can add something to my dish or my plate or my concept.”
A childhood interest in cooking led him to try cooking classes in Community College and eventually to culinary school in Pasadena. After a few years working in kitchens around LA, de Leon found a spot on the opening team of Hotel Bel-Air, working under Wolfgang Puck. “Wolfgang, to me, was not just a celebrity chef, he explains. “Not just someone I watched on TV a lot, but his story was really captivating because he’s an immigrant to LA and, lo-and-behold, created what Los Angeles Cuisine ended up being.” This experience introduced Nico to a different kind of cooking – one that prioritizes seasonality, sourcing and story. “I started learning more about what food can be: it wasn’t just a way to provide sustenance to people, or a way to make someone have a nice meal. You can have real intention there, beyond intention of what’s on the plate, but intention in your sourcing and seasonality.” This introduction to fine dining led him to spend a few years in San Francisco, working in kitchens closely connected to the Bay Area farming community.
However, Chef Nico’s point of view was always tied to the unique cultural makeup of Los Angeles. He connected with fellow Filipino-Americans Chad and Chase Valencia, who had dreams of bringing Filipino cuisine into a progressive, modern fine dining space. “I had never heard of a concept that focuses on a young Filipino American cook. I was enamored,” says Nico, talking about their first project together, Lassa. “The idea really propelled me and gave me a sense of identity. Before that, I was just cooking Eurocentric food that didn’t really speak to me and I didn’t really have references to. It was just food that I saw on every menu. Being able to identify with what was on the plate was really important, and gave me a sense of purpose and direction.”
(R)evolution And Rotisserie
Post-pandemic, Lasa closed but the concept evolved – with the help of a rotisserie purchased on eBay – to a small menu “focused on rotisserie chicken and pork belly lechon, both of which were essentially influenced and mirrored by these actual dishes in the Philippines. In the Philippines, there’s no rotisserie culture, so it was more or less me adapting these dishes to rotisserie.” Why rotisserie? That goes back to de Leon’s LA upbringing, and the city’s beloved chain restaurant, Zankou Chicken. Chef Nico explains, “it’s arguably one of my top five restaurants in my life, something I’m constantly gravitating towards. It’s a comfort food for me.” There’s no accounting for inspiration in the creative process.
Since opening in 2021 as Lasita, this new concept has evolved from a small takeout service window to an acclaimed full-scale restaurant. “The menu still focuses on the rotisserie, but everything around it is seasonal and intentional and plays off dishes I grew up with or was influenced by.”
It is especially fitting that Filipino food serves as the canvas for Chef Nico’s playful style of cuisine. Filipino food, by nature, is a cuisine of invention and competing influence. It’s easy to taste the results of almost four hundred years of Spanish occupation, but there’s also flavors from neighboring China and even hints of American influence from more recent occupation in the 20th century, all blended by indigenous flavors and ingredients unique to the islands. “It allows me a lot more fun,” he admits. “I get a lot more creative freedom.”
“The first few years we were doing what we’re doing, I was constantly asking, ‘how do we please our elders, how do we make sure our traditions aren’t being bastardized?’” Not that I want to say I’m DGAF about it now, but I see a different point of view in our culture already. I mean, in the Philippines it’s household to household – there isn’t a standardized recipe for Adobo. Every grandma or Lola makes it however they want to make it. Oftentimes it comes down to what’s available in your surrounding area. I take that into consideration as well; if that’s how they’re able to do it in the Philippines, I can see what’s available in the farmers markets within a 15 mile radius of me, and that’s what I put into my Adobo… What I’m putting on a plate here, this is authentic to me and my expression of being a Filipino-American kid who grew up in the Valley, influences from fast food, from my best friends and their cuisines and the food that surrounds me here in Los Angeles.”
Sourcing locally, for chef Nico, goes beyond his weekly trip to the farmers market. As he says, it’s about “what’s around us in LA and exploring these little diasporas. Picking up spices at an Indian shop that we don’t really have access to, or picking up tropical fruits from a Latin store…I think it also speaks to why so many immigrants decide to stay in or to move to LA. They can find little bits of themselves here, little bits of their culture and their homes. it’s a sense of comfort. but they just have to adapt, which is everyone’s story.” Certainly, as a Filipino chef and a child of immigrants, Nico knows a bit about adaptation.
For his upcoming event at Wattles Farm, Chef Nico is planning to highlight his culture with a Kamayan feast. Literally translating to “by hand,” this traditional style of Filipino dining is defined by colorful platters, banana leaves and communal eating with your hands. Sitting down to this meal, “you’re elbows deep in my culture, and I love the idea of doing that;” says Nico, a smile spreading across his face as he brainstorms the menu. “This is a celebration of culture, and of LA. Having this beautiful farm, this oasis in the middle of West Hollywood. Are you kidding me?”
Join us at Wattles Farm in February to be transported somewhere totally different, but still completely, uniquely LA.