Chef Spotlight: Chef Carlos Salazar (Rook)

June 19, 2018 7:00 pm by Taste.Company
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Photo Courtesy By Stacy Newgent of Visual Candy

Chef Carlos Salazar, Rook, Indianapolis

By Stefanie Ellis

Being the only Filipino chef in your city is a big responsibility. You’re singlehandedly educating the community about your heritage — and there is no one else to back you up. You might put your own spin on a traditional dish, but anyone unfamiliar with the cuisine may only ever know what you put in front of them — and just like that, their Filipino food perception is born.

chef-carlos-salazar-taste-companyPhoto Courtesy By Stacy Newgent of Visual Candy

Carlos Salazar, who owns the Filipino-inflected Rook in Indianapolis, Indiana, is cool with that. “Maybe it’s my job to show them what they’re missing,” he laughs.

If anyone should be ushering Indianapolis into the Filipino food realm, it’s Salazar. Just like how his methods are a little edgy and frequently outside the box, Rook’s décor is accented with Tupac posters and Taylor Swift beats. Perhaps that’s exactly what this race car-obsessed city needs. Although Indianapolis’ culinary scene has evolved in the last several years, with several James Beard nominations and modern interpretations of heartland cuisine, the city still lags behind its Midwestern neighbors like Chicago and St. Louis when it comes to cultural diversity. 

“I do feel like we’re behind,” Salazar admits. “Look at the ramen thing when it was ramen this and ramen that, and it was a big deal. Now Indianapolis is hitting that ramen scene… we just got our only ramen restaurant.”

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chef-carlos-salazar-taste-companyPhoto Courtesy By Stacy Newgent of Visual Candy

That lag time could be a good thing for Salazar, allowing him to go at his own pace when educating the dining community about his Filipino heritage. “There are a handful of Filipino chefs out there who are blowing up because of what they’re doing at their restaurants,” he says.  “Bad Saint is killing it. LA has a lot of Filipino people to cook and eat the cuisine, but in Indy, people just aren’t familiar with it yet. I feel like it’s going to be a couple more years for this food to get the love that it deserves here.”

If his creations are any indication of his ability to move the dial, however, he probably should cut that number in half. Take his halo halo. While not a traditional interpretation of the classic dessert, it takes all the important pieces of the dish in its purest form — sweetened milk, flan and ube ice cream — and shakes it up like a sweet snow globe. You’ll find ingredients like fruity pebbles, raspberry puree, blueberries, lemongrass milk and a macaron on top, which plays into the things American diners are more familiar with.

“One time we did a Snickers theme,” Salazar says. “I made an Ovaltine ice cream with broken up Snickers, but I like the traditional Filipino halo halo, too. I love the bananas, flan, sweet beans and coconut agar.”

Even his entrees blur the lines. “I make the Filipino dish, laing, which is traditionally made with taro leaves cooked down with coconut cream and pork belly, but Rook’s version has local kale and tasso, crab fat and coconut cream from the Philippines. We serve grilled bread on the side. It’s like a spinach dip, which is familiar to my customers, but if a Filipino ate it, they’d see the dish I was talking about. It’s not so far bastardized that it’s not the dish anymore.”

chef-carlos-salazar-taste-companyPhoto Courtesy By Stacy Newgent of Visual Candy

He also does a Japanese dish with a Filipino twist. “I take a hamachi collar from Japan and grill it with achuete oil, which we use in the Philippines when we grill chicken. I add shallots, garlic and anatto seeds, and once it’s grilled I top it with palapa, a burnt coconut relish. I take unsweetened coconut flakes and burn it until it’s black and cook it with Thai chilies, green onion, garlic, ginger, sugar and chili oil. I make a dipping sauce of coconut vinegar from the Philippines, soy sauce, garlic and Thai chiles.”

Salazar has been cooking professionally since 2007, but says he didn’t begin to embrace his culture in his cooking until five years ago. He credits the home cooking he learned from his parents, and the professional skills he learned from mentor and local restaurateur, Steven Oakley, with shaping the chef he is today. 

“Everything I know about flavor, seasoning and putting ingredients together is because of Steven,” he says. “Working for him taught me so much, and helped me become ready to be on my own and showcase what I want to cook for people.

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“I want to embrace being a Filipino and feel like I’m getting more comfortable with taking my vision and turning my food into something beautiful,” he says.“Before Rook opened, there was really no food like what I’m doing, and even now there still isn’t. Ten years ago when I first started cooking, I think I would have failed, but I embraced it at the right time.”

chef-carlos-salazar-taste-companyPhoto Courtesy By Stacy Newgent of Visual Candy

All signs point to Salazar being right. The U.S. is starting to understand and appreciate Filipino cuisine more than ever before, and Indianapolis is lucky to have one of the best as their culinary ambassador. “I want to make a difference in the food scene in Indy,” = Salazar says. “I want to showcase that there’s more to food than what we’re used to here. For me, it’s not about the money. If I had only one person come into Rook every day, I’d be okay because I’d know I changed someone that day.”

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