“It’s important to tell your own food story.”
That’s the driving force behind what Ellie Tiglao, one of Boston’s rising culinary talents, describes as “narrative cuisine.” Her new restaurant, Tanám—slated to open in Bow Market in late summer—blends artistic inspiration and historical awareness to create intimate and memorable dining experiences.
A career scientist with a background in art and art history, Tiglao, 33, got her start in Boston’s culinary scene fairly recently. This May, she became one of just two Boston-area nominees to qualify as a national semi-finalist for Eater’s “Young Guns” title, awarded yearly both to restaurant workers under 30 and to those who have been in the business for less than five years.
The daughter of a chef, Tiglao grew accustomed to cooking for others while growing up in her father’s kitchen. Frequent family parties meant she was often enlisted to help chop ingredients and wash dishes. Cooking, she says, is the way her family expresses affection.
When she moved from California to Boston to pursue a neuroscience career at Massachusetts General Hospital, she continued hosting dinners for 10 to 20 people every weekend.
“I just enjoyed that aspect of being with other people,” Tiglao says. “And there was nothing like what I cooked with my family—nothing like that around.”
Tiglao eventually left science, leaving herself without a plan. When her brother came to visit her in Boston during the summer of 2014, they opened Tiglao’s first pop-up restaurant, a Filipino-style eatery called Pamangan.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, necessarily,” she says. “I just knew I missed my family and I missed cooking with them, and I took that as an opportunity to do it and share it with other people.”
The successful opening of Pamangan set off a chain-reaction of events. Tiglao eventually wound up on a two-month research trip to the Philippines, where she worked in local restaurants and attended a conference on the Manila Galleon Trade Route in 2016. At the conference, she studied the Spanish ship route’s role in moving ingredients among areas under Spain’s colonial rule, and met other chefs who were touched by the trade.
“Latin American cuisine—what would it be without cilantro and lime? That came from this trade,” Tiglao says. “Those sorts of insights are what was really interesting to me.”
It’s these elements of history that Tiglao says she wants to get right while developing her own narratives through food. Her hope, she explains, is not to anchor her new restaurant to a specific ethnic cuisine, but rather to tell the stories of the people who will work there.
Tiglao’s vision for Tanám’s dining room, which houses just one 10-seat table, is a series of theater-like “runs,” each featuring a different food narrative. The meals will be designed to reflect a part of Tiglao’s story, or that of one of her associates. Some type of media—perhaps a video, audio track, or performance—will accompany each story. Instead of a menu, restaurant-goers will be given a homemade zine that incorporates information about the story, the history, and of course the food.
In her experience hosting pop-ups, small-scale dining settings have made for more memorable evenings, she says.
“It allows us to interact with each other in a way that’s not possible in other spaces,” she says. “People were making friends with each other, finding people that they didn’t realize they had a connection with, and finding how much they value that.”
While the dining room menu will be constantly changing, snacks and cocktails, served a la carte on the restaurant’s outdoor bar-patio, will stay Filipino, she says.
Tiglao’s goals for her restaurant aren’t solely tied to the food. Working for Olio Culinary Collective, a worker-owned food service co-op dedicated to workplace fairness, gave Tiglao the opportunity to reflect on her business ideals find and ways to counter common food industry problems, such as rapid employee turnover and low wages.
“People know that if they do better, they’ll be able to share more in the profits, and because they’re an owner, they take responsibility for things that they do,” Tiglao says. “How people experience [Tanám] aside, I really want to be able to say that everybody who works here can afford to eat here.”
Tiglao says the restaurant’s name, “tanám,” means “planting” or “cultivation.” For her, the restaurant’s opening symbolizes her decision to settle on the East Coast.
“What makes this so powerful for me is that cooking for others was how I express my love for my family, so it’s kind of a way that I show up for Boston,” she says.
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.