When Charles Olalia left the Philippines at twenty-one to become a chef, he never imagined he’d open a Filipino-style rice bar in the heart of Downtown LA. After working at famed locations like the Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay and Patina in Los Angeles, Olalia was ready to come home—or rather bring home to Southern California. A true labor of love, RiceBar was opened in a 275 sq. ft. space with seven seats and one counter.
At the heart of RiceBar sits Olalia’s family. When his son was born, the chef’s food focus centralized on his heritage. His wife craved authentic Filipino food. His sisters advised his menu, encouraging him to make the recipes that they grew up eating twice a week at home. Both his most reliable and best critics, Olalia’s family championed his vision. After launching in 2015, nearly every RiceBar customer had met or held his son while he was cooking. The family’s love, sweat, and tears turned this hole-in-the-wall into a neighborhood staple.
In mid-2018, Olalia expanded his vision for Filipino food to include a larger, trendier space in Silver Lake. Ma’am Sir opened to excited fanfare, earning four stars from TimeOut’s Simon Majumdar. The name pays homage to a Filipino way of greeting customers and new friends. In the Philippines, there are rarely gender-specific words or pronouns, so translating “Ma’am” or “Sir” is difficult in Tagalog. It has become common to combine both words into one and address people as “m’aamsir.”
Olalia’s success goes beyond his chef skills and includes his ability to create and celebrate different communities and bring patrons together through cultural and culinary experience. His greatest advice for opening a restaurant is, “Do your due diligence, and don’t think about it too hard.”
Olalia explains, “Filipino food is served with a smile, and each dish is made with a lot of love.” We sat down with Chef Olalia and asked him a few questions about his experience in the food industry and his success with RiceBar.
What inspired you to become a chef?
“It was a great way to travel and learn different cultures, but mainly it was for that responsibility of bringing people together and the sense of community it innately has—that’s what drew me to take up cooking as a profession.”
How was RiceBar born?
“The food in the Philippines is what resonates with me the most. That and the fact that it’s not represented well, and it’s not the way I want to be represented. So I came back here and started doing pop-up dinners. Most people would do one pop-up a month, I did 17. Within those pop-up dinners, this idea came about.”
What types of rice do you feature?
“So in our rotation, there’s 9 different varieties of Philippine rice that we use. The constant one that we use in the Philippines is the black rice. It’s a medium to long-grain. Not as starchy. It kind of has a buckwheat flavor to it. We pair that with whatever dishes we have here. Then we have 5 different types of glutinous rice. Different colors as well.”
What’s different about this rice?
“The good thing about all these heirloom grains—they’re not just empty calories. You see that all the time with diets: avoid rice at all costs, because it’s an empty calorie. But then being heirloom grains—they’re nutritious. There are carbs in it, but it’s not an empty carb.”
Where did you learn to cook Filipino food?
“I didn’t. It was just those flavors that we grew up and became familiar with. And through my formal training, I was able to deduce the recipes. So it was kind of the reverse process. I knew how it tasted, and through my training I was like let’s get there. As compared to learning a technique, but not really knowing what it tastes like.”
What do people love most about RiceBar?
“I think the fact that it’s a straightforward food. No B.S. The flavors are the way they’re supposed to be—the way they remember it. We hear it all the time, where people say they’ve forgotten how it tastes because they could never get those flavors here. Some of them—it brings back very good memories of their childhoods. So it transports them to a good place. And if it doesn’t, they always say their grandmother’s is better. Then it’s okay. At least they’re reminded of their grandmother. So it’s still a bonus for me that they think of their family.”
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