There’s something special about seeing your own startup biz come to life amid what’s happening in the world right now. “It’s pretty special, man,” says Wesley Altuna, who has ventured into the food business after he was laid off from his job in an advertising agency in Toronto.
The former project manager was featured in Eater for his food delivery business called Bawang, which offers a variety of popular Pinoy dishes like adobo, mechado, lechon kawali, and more.
“Being on the other side, as a project manager helping clients to work on their dreams, is different,” he tells Eater. In the video, he is showing the website viewers a day in his life—which is usually with his best friend for many years, partner-in-crime, and “sous chef” Paul Cantuba.
Being a home cook might be the last career you’d imagine Altuna taking up. He’s quite buff, sports long, black, braided hair. He has facial hair, too, a nose ring, and tattoos on his arm. As he admitted in an interview with Toronto Life, he’s tried all sorts of jobs over the years. He’s been a factory worker, a welder, a home renovator, and project manager.
He and his older brother moved to Canada in 1989 when the former was eight. “My father passed away when I was five and my mother sent us to Canada for the chance at a better life,” he says in the interview.
Now a father to a 12-year-old boy, Altuna may look like the stereotypical free-spirit but the guy seems focused, driven, and hardworking. At work, he always keeps track of the time making sure operations are on schedule. “I work 14 to 18 hours a day—that’s a grind,” he says of his current arrangements. But despite the pressure, you’d see him cracking jokes and high-fiving with his pal as they work on several orders he will personally deliver later in the day—at least that’s what we see in the video.
Altuno grew up in a typically close-knit Filipino family—with his grandparents, brother, two aunts and two uncles all sharing a two-bedroom apartment in St. James Town. “Every Sunday was family day. We blasted music and everyone pitched in, cooking and doing other chores,” he tells Toronto Life. Helping out his grandpa, Crisente, in the kitchen, the old man’s love for cooking naturally rubbed off on his apo.
Altuna admits he had no previous experience in the food business. “When I started, I didn’t know the business side of it. I just knew how to cook,” he tells Eater. His only professional kitchen experience was as a dishwasher when he was 12, back when his brother, Edmar, used to work as a sous chef at a restaurant.
“[My brother] always told me: ‘If you know how to cook, you’ll never starve,’” he recalls to Toronto Life. Meanwhile, he says his lolo taught him “how to move with intention—to lean in to what you love and never lose sight of your value,” he says in a Facebook feature by clothing brand Club Monaco.
A day in his life
After preparing the day’s orders—brining the meat for lechon kawali and leaving it slow-cooking on the stove—Altuna rides his trusty bicycle and head toward St. Lawrence Market in Toronto to buy beef shanks from his go-to guy. Initially, Altuna used to cook from his apartment in Parkdale, but as the demand for his food grew, he started using the commercial kitchen of his friend’s midtown café. “I’m now taking orders from 30 to 50 households per week all over the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). It boggles my mind,” he tells Toronto Life.
The dude clearly knows his way around the kitchen, moving from one dish to the next, while showcasing unique Filipino cooking techniques he learned from his elders, such as not stirring the adobo after pouring the vinegar, and frying the lechon kawali on really hot oil after cooking it on the stove and roasting it in the oven.
“I don’t really know,” he answers when asked what’s with the don’t-stir-the-vinegar rule. “I was just told not to touch it once you put the vinegar. I do it like that, and it comes out magic.” A quick Google search tells me that doing so lets the acids of the vinegar mellow, burning off the raw taste.
Altuna’s ingredients are not really hard to find, his techniques not too intricate. But he says the meals are painstakingly done with love. That is why it bothers him that some people look at Filipino food like his as something cheap. “It’s far from cheap,” he says. “The love that goes into it, the flavors that come out of the kitchen are nothing less than spectacular”
The way he cooks is “all by feel”, he says. Not by following someone else’s technique. “There’s a sense of honesty that comes out of it because you’re really just cooking from the heart. It kinda sounds corny, but that’s how it is,” he says.
He’s proud of his adobo, which is a staple on his menu. One of his customers gets three to four orders, enough for the whole week—until the next drop the following week. People order via the bawang.to site. He posts the weekly menu on the Bawang’s Instagram page, where photos of all the dishes he offers can also be found.
Altuna admits he has been fantasizing about jumping into the restaurant business. But with the world currently upside down, he knows it doesn’t make sense to open a restaurant. But he believes it’s worth putting something delicious out there, so food delivery will do it for now.
He has kept his price point at $40 for a meal that serves up to three people, which essentially just covers his costs. Earning with a 10 percent margin may not be that much but he’s just happy to share his love for the food of his roots. “I do this out of love and passion,” he says. Seeing people who had never tried Filipino food before and are having it for the first time—and posting about it on Instagram, or having date nights around food he lovingly prepared, gives him a genuine source of joy. “Like, who the f**k am I?” he says.