Nico de Leon grew up on adobo and Taco Bell — a typical diet for a Filipino-American kid raised in the chain-ridden suburbs of the San Fernando Valley.
By age 10, he was cooking parmesan-crusted grilled cheese sandwiches for his friends and helping his mom clean garlic and peel onions for Filipino dishes like the stir-fried noodles called pancit. Around his late teens, “she was letting me do all the cooking,” he says, with a laugh.
It was the first indication that de Leon was destined to make a name for himself cooking unforgettable food that’s equal parts traditional Filipino and California comfort. At acclaimed LA spot Lasa, find dishes sprouted from the sous chef’s hyper-creative mind, like Caesar salad (spelled “César” to go with the more Filipino-leaning ingredients) topped with croutons made of pandesal, a sweet, Filipino roll; or beef tartare done in the style of kilawin, a type of Filipino ceviche with salt and vinegar.
De Leon’s cooking career almost didn’t happen. After high school, he first tried out art before turning to food, and even after attending culinary school and getting a job at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in the Hotel Bel-Air in 2011, he nearly quit cooking because the kitchen environment was so toxic.
Then, later that year, his mother passed away, prompting him to move to San Francisco. He eventually landed a job at the Michelin-starred Commonwealth, which reenergized him about the profession.
Everything changed, though, when he met Chad Valencia, a fellow Filipino-American who wanted to open a restaurant with his brother, Chase, called “Lasa” (meaning taste or flavor in Tagalog) that would serve contemporary Filipino food in Los Angeles. “I was so shocked to hear that,” says de Leon. “Not once in my career had I thought the food I grew up eating could be something else.” The way he saw it, “Filipino food is humble food — offcuts of meat all slow-cooked together until the vegetables aren’t even recognizable. It’s the farthest from refinement that you can find in Asian cuisine, and I say that with love.”
Curious about the chance to meld his fine dining skills with the flavors of his childhood, de Leon became Lasa’s opening sous chef in 2013, leaving the Bay Area on Fridays after his 15-hour shift at Commonwealth, driving through the night, and spending the weekend prepping for the Lasa pop-up on Sunday evening.
De Leon moved back to Los Angeles full-time in 2015, and two years later, Lasa settled into a permanent space.
“It was a pride thing,” he says of why he took the leap. “I never cooked Filipino food for staff meal, or made it at work because I was never proud of it.” At kitchens where he had worked previously, other cooks made fun of Filipino food — they had only seen the greasy version served at big buffet spots. “Chad gave me the inspiration to claim it.”
Now, De Leon says he’s excited to be making food for the L.A. masses that so directly speaks to his upbringing: “The food is authentic to us because it is Filipino American, and we are all Filipino Americans.”
He points to the homepage of the Lasa website, which displays an image of a tangle of pasta in a blue ceramic bowl — not quite the first thing that would come to mind when you think of Filipino food. But in fact, that dish, a brainchild of de Leon, has a base of egg noodles, used very often in Filipino cooking, butter infused with kalamansi, a Philippines-grown citrus, and egg yolk cured in fish sauce grated across the top.
That it doesn’t look Filipino at first glance is exactly the point, said de Leon — to challenge people’s notion of what Filipino cuisine can and should be.
The pasta dish has been on the menu since the early pop-up days. De Leon playfully calls it “the O.G. Pancit.”
Nico de Leon is the sous chef at Lasa in Los Angeles.
Priya Krishna is a food writer who contributes to The New York Times, Bon Appétit, The New Yorker, and others; her upcoming cookbook, Indianish, will be released in Spring 2019.