Photo depicting Aaron Verzosa (left) and Amber Manuguid (right) standing in Archipelago's kitchen.

Filipino Restaurant Archipelago Brings Identity, Culture, and Empowerment to the Center Stage of Fine Dining

“Something that always makes me feel like we did something right is when people say, ‘I feel like I’m just eating in your home.’”

by Amanda Ong

“The three pillars of our restaurant are first, our personal identities, and then that identity as it relates to our second pillar, which is culture. Our third pillar is empowerment, which is a really important aspect of what we do,” chef Aaron Verzosa, cofounder of Archipelago, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald.

Identity, culture, and empowerment. It’s not what you would expect from a fine dining establishment — most of which might, at a guess, say something about quality, innovation, and service.

But Archipelago, named for the Philippine archipelago, is not like most fine dining establishments. It is Hillman City’s own and Seattle’s only Filipino tasting menu, a dining format in which there are a prefixed number of courses made for each guest. Its co-owners, husband and wife duo chef Aaron Verzosa and Amber Manuguid, are both Pacific Northwest born and raised Filipino Americans. Sourcing their ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, explaining the inspiration behind each course, and setting out vintage photos and poems with their courses all set the restaurant apart.

One of Manuguid’s favorite courses is inspired by the story of Alex Tizon’s Lola, with ingredients inspired by her struggle, and though they are turning over their menu for fall, the course Verzosa will miss the most is inspired by Maria Orosa. The course included a Pacific Northwest-sourced interpretation of Orosa’s banana ketchup, a framed photo of Orosa for the table, and the story of Orosa as told by Verzosa.

“Maria Orosa was an inventor. She was creative, she was resourceful, she used everything very locally to empower the people in the Philippines,” Manuguid said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “[She] created so many things that are very Filipino now, [although] for her, she created them within the past, they’re relatively new or so accepted as being very Filipino. And so that in itself encompasses a lot of what we do here at Archipelago — where yes, we want to respect, we want to acknowledge, and to share. But also how do we capture the energy, the creativity of our people, the ingenuity?”

For Manuguid and Verzosa, dishes at their Hillman City restaurant tell the stories of Filipino culture in the Pacific Northwest. (Photo: Rene Asis, courtesy of KUOW)

Using food to narrativize and define a culture within a region is a hefty task, especially when sourcing locally from a climate that is incredibly different from the Philippines. But it is a task Verzosa, Manuguid, and Archipelago staff have thought through meticulously as they connected and built resonance with the greater Pacific Northwest community. And, as Verzosa and Manuguid point out, Filipinos in the Pacific Northwest have been doing it for decades.

“One of our things is to source so, so stringently from the Pacific Northwest and make sure that we make things that really taste Filipino,” Verzosa siad. “That our fish sauces and our shrimp paste are made from ingredients sourced in the Pacific Northwest is to say that to accomplish and to capture our culture with what’s around us, we’re only really limited by the mind.”

In some ways, the work at Archipelago calls to mind an ethnic studies thesis presentation or a modern dance performance over a fine dining experience. In other ways, it calls to mind eating in an auntie’s home — even including a course where servers dole out portions based on how you rate your level of hunger, a consideration that Verzosa calls the “highest form of hospitality” in Filipino culture. Manuguid herself describes the space as “a conversation,” where staff and guests get to learn from each other.

“I want people to feel nourished in the body, mind, heart, to feel like they have been fulfilled in a way that goes beyond,” Manuguid said. “Something that always makes me feel like we did something right is when people say, ‘I feel like I’m just eating in your home.’ And that’s the type of hospitality that we want to extend.”

Manuguid and Verzosa met as undergraduates at the University of Washington in a Tagalog language class. Manuguid’s background was in art, but she also academically explored ethnic studies and Filipino American history. Verzosa was hoping to become a doctor at the time, but as he worked in restaurants, he felt drawn to the culinary world.

“The hardest part coming [to cooking] directly from academia, from language and history classes, was being able to really create something very tangible that had to be crafted with your hands,” Verzosa said. “That was my first introduction to food as a very powerful tool to connect with people, as well as a key into culture.”

Language continues to play a role in their work, as does neighborhood and location. Their Hillman City location is a 10-minute walk from the Filipino Community Center, and down the block is St. Edward’s Church, which hosts a large Filipino congregation. Manuguid says there’s “a lot of beautiful, rich local content of Filipinos in the South End,” one of which is the Pinoy Hill designation around Seward Park, a neighborhood whose history is making it into a course on their fall menu.

It is no secret that the fine dining world still values European cuisine, following the lead of French cooking and Michelin stars. There are a lack of fine dining restaurants that specialize in foods from many BIPOC cultures. At the time Verzosa and Manuguid started Archipelago in 2016, they were denied spaces because a Filipino tasting menu was unheard of.

Now, their small, eight-seat restaurant is on countless lists of top Seattle and U.S. restaurants. This year, Verzosa was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northwest and Pacific. In the last seven years, Manuguid and Verzosa have not only successfully founded a Filipino tasting menu, but one rooted in the identity, history, and culture of Filipinos in the South End and the greater Pacific Northwest. More than that, Manuguid and Verzosa have shared their minds, hearts, and stories with thousands of guests in order to help nourish theirs.

“Often with guests who have called [the Pacific Northwest] their home,” Verzosa said, “we really like them to take away the understanding that … if they call this area, this region, their own, [the culture we are sharing] is actually their culture too. Whether they’re a Filipina or a part of it in the same way that [the Pacific Northwest] is a part of my culture, my culture of the Northwest says I am a part of it.”

Reservations can be made at Archipelago’s website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

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