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Stateside Podcast: Detroit baker delivers “Filipino flavors in a familiar format”

Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio

Foodies from around Michigan (and even a few from Canada) converged in downtown Detroit last month to devour bright purple ice cream at Huddle Soft Serve. The special treat was the result of the creamery’s collaboration with Detroit-based Jonathan Peregrino.

The ice-cream flavor that folks were flocking to? Ube – a purple yam commonly used in Filipino desserts that’s characterized by a subtle, nutty flavor.

Peregrino incorporates ube into many of the goods he sells in his pop-up bakery business, JP Makes and Bakes. Regulars know him for his bright purple ube cookies, ube brownies, and ube rolls, among other delicious confections.

“I guess I like to say that I’m doing Filipino flavors in a familiar format for people,” Peregrino said.

Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio

The traditional Filipino flavor has become “trendy” in recent years. A Forbes article from last November deemed it the “Uber Ingredient of 2023.” Peregrino pointed out that the trend likely started on the coasts and slowly made its way to the Midwest, which is why ube still feels “new” here in the Mitten.

“And I think it's great just because in a way, I mean, that's bringing some of the culture, the heritage, of the things that you grew up with, front and center, you know?,” He said. “It's representation and. . . sharing of a culture that people wouldn't necessarily know.”

Even so, there will always be those that try to capitalize on a trend without understanding what makes the ingredient so special.

“There's definitely some products that are out there in some of the stores that I've tried that I tried it and literally just spit it out because. . . any of that flavor that I'm expecting? Not there at all,” Peregrino said.

For Peregrino, though, the ube craze isn’t a wave to ride. The purple yam is part of his culture–and his baking reflects that. For many of his Filipino customers, the flavor recalls nostalgic childhood memories.

“It’s one of those things where people are just like, ‘Here are the flavors I grew up with. Here are the things I miss and I like,’” Peregrino said of the turnout at his Huddle collab.

Ronia Cabansag
Michigan Radio

In addition to his appearances in Detroit, JP Makes and Bakes sets up shop about once a month in a neighborhood near downtown Ann Arbor. At his July popup, regulars and new patrons alike came through to place their orders, despite a passing thunderstorm.

For both cities, Peregrino is filling a gap in Filipino cuisine. That’s not to say there’s a total lack of Filipino food in Southeast Michigan, but Filipino restaurants that are well-known within the community – Rice n’ Roll in St. Claire Shores, Isla in Sterling Heights, Filipinas in Warren - are all concentrated in the suburbs north of Detroit. Folks outside of that geographic and ethnic community struggle to find Filipino flavors without making a day trip to reach them.

Peregrino said he didn’t necessarily set out to be a “Filipino baker,” but he found himself drawn to recreating the flavors he enjoyed as a child. A first-generation Filipino American, he spent part of his childhood among a large extended family in the Bay Area.

“There was almost always a party because myself and my cousins, there are 23 of us,” he said. “And so, there was also always all the party food that you had – the pancit, the lumpia. . . When it came to sweets and treats, you know, you always had leche flan, you had ube.”

Peregrino worked in marketing and sales for over a decade, but he knew he didn’t want to spend his entire career in the corporate world.

“I always knew I wanted to do something in the food industry,” he said. “And the goal was, by the time I turned 40, I would have the ball rolling to do something on my own, or to have my own shop.”

Peregrino has spent the last several years developing his culinary career. He attended a short program in baking and pastry arts in Manila before moving to Ann Arbor, and then Detroit. He spent a little over a month working with Warda Bouguettaya of Warda Pâtisserie until the pandemic hit. He went on to appear on the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, and was a semifinalist in this year’s Hatch Detroit contest–a competition that grants funding and other startup resources to the winning entrepreneur.

These days, Peregrino is focused on his goal of opening his shop. He recently left his full-time position as a pastry chef at Detroit restaurant Oak & Reel to devote more energy to the project. His goal is to open a brick-and-mortar space in Detroit where folks can buy his food fresh, rather than having to buy in bulk at his month-to-month popups.

“If I can help do that to help meet. . . sort of the nostalgia and craving for people, but then also bring people into the city to then see that it’s not what it used to be,” he said. “And then hopefully, it would be to the point where people are not gonna just come, just to pick up stuff and leave. They’re gonna just make a day out of it.”

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.