“She cooked with the heart”: local Filipino chef Janice Dig Cabaysa dies at 39


Whether it was a chewy sweet donut or a steaming siopao or a slice of its sweet banana bread, you had a bite to eat, whether you like it or not. But you would like it; everyone always has.

“She just cooked with passion, she cooked with the heart,” said Carissa Dintemann, a fellow chef, friend and roommate of Cabaysa. “Everything she did was thoughtful. She always had in mind the people she fed. She just wanted to make sure everyone was fed, that everyone was happy.

Cabaysa was doing what she always did on Wednesday night when she suddenly collapsed while working at downtown Los Angeles Filipino restaurant Little Peso, according to friends. She died before going to the hospital. She was 39 years old.

Close friends of Cabaysa said she was living with cardiomyopathy, a heart condition she developed in her youth. Friends and family are awaiting an autopsy report to confirm the cause of death.

“We’re all in shock right now,” said Lawerence Fama, chef and friend of Cabaysa. “It was tough.”

Hundreds of messages, posts and comments from Long Beach’s culinary community began flooding the internet after news of his death spread. Some have spoken of his creative ingenuity as a Filipino fusion chef. Others remembered his encouraging words of support to start their own food businesses. Most expressed sorrow at losing a dear friend.

“The level of outpouring of love for this woman is incredible,” said Dintemann. “I don’t think she ever realized what her impact and reach was on people.”

Cabaysa was a Long Beach-er through and through. Born at Memorial Hospital, she grew up in West Long Beach in the family home where her mother still lives near Willow Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

She developed a fascination with cooking at a young age. It could have been an innate interest, or perhaps a side effect of growing up in his parents’ donut shop, surrounded by the intoxicating smell of sweet flour. Probably both.

As an aspiring chef, Cabaysa wanted to challenge himself and enjoyed the rewards of hard work. In her early twenties, she enrolled at Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, where she devoted all her energy to studying all facets of the discipline. She fell in love with classic French cuisine, said her boyfriend and fellow chef Sarunthy “Bo” Lach, and was captivated by the European country’s traditions of meticulous preparation, careful presentation and loyalty to the ingredients of quality.

Her hard work paid off and soon after graduation she started working for the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, first in restaurants in Los Angeles and then in Las Vegas where she shone. as a cook for most of her six years with the company. Its reliability and versatility have allowed it to travel to meet the needs of the business at large-scale events in Florida and Colorado.

But Vegas’ peculiar grind and sometimes toxic work culture – at this point, a well-known critic of professional kitchens – took its toll, and Cabaysa took some soul-searching. She knew it was time to come home.

“When she came back to Long Beach, that’s when she realized where her heart was. And she said to me, “I want to cook Filipino food.” I want to rise up and show that my cooking can be something more than just street food or community style, ”said Lach. “She really just wanted to expose everyone to what her culture meant to her.”

Cabaysa found its culinary sanctuary in 2019 at Bebot, a new contemporary Filipino-fusion restaurant owned by celebrity chef AC Boral.

As Bebot’s chef, Cabaysa was a force in the kitchen – strong, focused, tenacious – but ruled with kindness and empathy. Her approach fostered a family feeling within the kitchen, which linked her inextricably to herself and her colleagues – Dintemann, Lach, Fama and Soshana Ybarra.

“She was the cheerleader,” Fama said. “She was always the one who believed in all of us the most. She saw a version of us that I’m not sure we’ve all seen yet.

But in August 2020, just before Bebot’s first birthday, the restaurant was destroyed in an accidental fire and closed, throwing the team into free fall in an industry hit hard by the pandemic.

“The kitchen was at home. We were there more than at home, literally we went home to sleep. So it was definitely a sense of loss, ”Dintemann said in an interview with the Long Beach Post in May.

Knowing they had something special, the group stayed together and started cooking, using Cabaysa and Dintemann’s shared apartment as their base and test kitchen. Cabaysa has returned to its family roots: donuts.

Side StrEATS: A fire destroyed their restaurant, but it did not stop these four chefs

But Cabaysa has always been quick to correct that their pop-up, Dig the Stoop / Corner Stoop – the titles were a merger of Cabaysa’s culinary businesses and Dintemann’s own restaurant business, though most refer to pop- up like The Corner Stoop – was more than just donuts. What was true, the group had expanded their breakfast and lunch menu with signature dishes that blended their respective cultures; Filipino, Cambodian, American.

But Cabaysa donuts were a must-have: glazed and decorated with an artist’s ego, with bold flavor combinations that only a confident and experienced chef would dare to execute. His strawberry donuts, lemon thyme and ube, toasted marshmallow and oat crumble stood out in shop windows and were greedily consumed.

“Things had to be a little candle, because she was candle,” Dintemann said with a laugh.

Chef Carissa Dintemann, left, and Chef Janice Dig Cabaysa work on the grill while Chef Sarunthy “Bo” Lach waits for orders while working at The Corner Stoop pop-up at Lord Windsor Cafe in Long Beach on Monday 2 April 2021. Video screenshot by Thomas R. Cordova.

Reinventing the way people taste and experience Filipino food has been a core mission of The Corner Stoop and Cabaysa has been constantly thinking about how to achieve this. Before her death, she was only two weeks away from revealing one of her most ambitious menus to date, a fine Filipino brunch service at Lacquered on Broadway.

“She was so excited, so proud,” Dintemann said.

Those who have known Cabaysa have all been touched by his generosity and dedication to uplifting and supporting his communities. Whenever the chef had a bake sale, kitchen, or extravagant home-cooked meal – of which there was a lot – Lach said Cabaysa would deliver plates to his older brother and two daughters in Laguna Beach with more frequency during the pandemic.

“She just wanted to make sure people were comforted as the world fell apart,” he said.

In April, Cabaysa hosted a multi-vendor food pop-up at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church to help raise funds for Asian organizations amid a recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in other parts. from the country.

“I decided to do a pop-up because I need to get out of this depression,” Cabaysa told the Long Beach Post at the event.

Despite the health issues that often left her exhausted, Cabaysa was always on the move.

“We didn’t have any downtime, our downtime was about what we were going to do next. No kidding, ”said Dintemann, adding that they both shared a deep passion and intensity to make their dreams come true. “We used to joke, ‘we’re building our empire, we’re going to take over the world.’ “

Dintemann and Lach said they plan to host their latest gourmet menu in his honor in the near future. However, they know they have their work cut out for them.

“It’s a super difficult menu. She was going to really challenge herself, ”said Dintemann.

Dintemann also intends to carry on Cabaysa’s legacy with a commercial venture in Arizona, which will include a take-out bakery with all of the chef’s staple recipes, the ones Dintemann said she was really proud of, like bread. with banana and corn cookie.

A virtual rosary commemorating the leader will take place on Friday, September 24 at 6 p.m. PST. Click here for more information.

Cabaysa is survived by his mother, father, brother and two nieces.


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