Chicagoans may know Billy Dec from his restaurant Sunda or his appearances on the Today Show, Criminal Minds, and Empire. But many may not know that Dec has Filipino heritage – and that’s what he decided to explore in making the documentary Food Roots.
We chatted with Billy Dec and fellow Filipino-American Michele Josue, the director of Food Roots, about the project, discovering one’s heritage, their favorite Chicago films, and more.
Q&A with Billy Dec
What was the genesis of Food Roots?
The sudden death of two of my last three elders on the same day made me snap and leave immediately for my mom’s native 7,641 islands of the Philippines to find my family, discover lost recipes of my ancestors, and learn my heritage at a deeper level than I could have ever imagined. But, so much more led to this from bullying issues as a kid, dealing with mental illness, working my way through in restaurants since 6th grade, being appointed by the President to the White House Bullying Prevention Task Force… all led to actually sharing parts of my life I used to hide and overcompensate for, in order to hopefully help others.
What are your plans for incorporating some of the dishes you discovered during the making of this film into your personal and professional life?
We created modern interpretations of some of the traditional recipes found that we are sharing at Sunda New Asian throughout the month of October, Filipino American History Month, and probably beyond. But, the real discoveries were more than what was on the plate, that has changed my life forever.
Chicagoans already know you through your business ventures and as a television personality, but Food Roots provides access to a whole new part of your life. What are you most looking forward to in the sharing of your story?
That we all have problems, challenges, issues in life, and we all have to find ways to progress positively. Hopefully the sharing of my circumstances helps others.
How did the process of creating a film compare with the process of opening a restaurant?
I have been in restaurants since I was a kid, I’m involved on every level. Being in front of the camera as myself, and behind, was the same in that I continually and thankfully have incredibly smart, talented, passionate experts around me, but completely different in that I had to be completely vulnerable without control – that was hard for me, but it was time.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Michael Mann’s Thief, Chicago is known for some signature portrayals on the big screen. What are your favorite Chicago movies? And do you have any favorite food movies?
Blues Brothers & Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Wow those couldn’t be more different – but as an Asian American who was born and raised in the city of Chicago, who loves improv, music, grit, grind, and old world tradition and commitment at the same time, I guess that makes sense?
Q&A with director Michele Josue
First and foremost, how did you initially connect with the subject of Food Roots, Billy Dec? What inspired you to take this journey with him, literally and figuratively?
Billy and I met on a Filipino Filmmaker panel in Chicago back in October 2021. During our panel discussion, we shared similar sentiments about the need for more diverse perspectives and storytelling in mainstream media that are more reflective of the actual world we live in. Specifically, I shared my passion for highlighting Filipino and Filipino American-centered stories, which seemed to resonate with Billy.
We kept in touch, and he soon shared with me a rough cut of an earlier iteration of Food Roots. So actually, I came on board to the project a bit later after his journey back to the Philippines was already filmed. After hearing my thoughts on how I would shape the film, I officially joined the project.
Billy’s journey back to the Philippines to gain a deeper understanding of his cultural and culinary history was inspiring to me as a Fil-Am who has also felt a longing to be more deeply connected to the Philippines and my Filipino roots. I know there are many other Fil-Ams living away from the motherland who share this same desire. So to capture this longing and this journey on film in a nuanced way felt personally important to me.
Was there a recipe you discovered during filming that particularly resonated with you?
As a young girl growing up in suburban Maryland, I was made fun of for the Filipino lunches my family packed for me to bring to school. My lunch consisting of rice and chicken adobo or fish looked and smelled very different compared to the lunches my classmates would bring. I became ashamed of Filipino food and I either ate my lunch in secret or threw them away. As you see in the film, this is a feeling and an experience that Billy also shares.
Now, so many years later, to be directing a film that truly highlights and celebrates Filipino food—whether it be the food at Sunda or Billy’s family recipes—is incredibly meaningful to me. I’m so proud for people to see this film and to learn more about Filipino food as a cuisine worthy of global recognition.
What was it like to make a film about a person discovering their own heritage? Did it resonate with your own family’s story at all?
Unlike probably a lot of people in Chicago, I did not know about Billy Dec before this project. I was drawn to this project not because of his celebrity but because of our shared cultural identity. Like Billy’s, my family also immigrated to the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s, and my sisters and I were born here in the U.S. and we had, for the most part, a very American-style upbringing.
But being Fil-Am can be a very complex experience. Personally speaking, in America, there are times when I don’t feel American enough and I’ve sometimes been viewed as an outsider. In the Philippines, I certainly don’t feel Filipino enough, and we’re viewed as being completely American. So making a film about Billy discovering his own heritage and coming to terms with all these different aspects of his identity was something that definitely resonated with me and I truly believe it will resonate with others as well. I think it’s admirable of Billy to share his journey and his complex personal story in such an open and honest way.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Michael Mann’s Thief, Chicago is known for some signature portrayals on the big screen. What are your favorite Chicago movies?
Growing up in the 80s, I loved all the John Hughes movies, especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. But my favorite Chicago movie of all time is Adventures in Babysitting.
Food Roots screens at the Chicago International Film Festival October 19 & 21. Learn more about Food Roots…