11/22/2016 17:00 EST | Updated 11/23/2017 00:12 EST

Toronto diners more willing to 'take a chance' on Filipino food, chef says

Toronto's Dan Cancino might be head chef at two Filipino restaurants, but he wasn't always proud of his family's food heritage.

After moving to Canada from the Philippines in 2000, he would go to school nervous about his packed lunches, he told CBC's Metro Morning on Tuesday.

"There's an ingredient called bagoong, it's a fermented shrimp paste. When you open the tupperware it's really, really stinky. I think it's delicious but for non-Filipinos it's hard," he said. "It's really hard to fit in, moving to a country that's so different."

Sixteen years later, Cancino has come a long way from bagoong in tupperware. He's now at the vanguard of Filipino cuisine in Toronto, catering to increasing numbers of non-Filipino diners at the two restaurants where he works: Lasa and Lamesa Filipino Kitchen.

"I think it's because there are more outlets exposing Filipino food," he said, reflecting on why Filipino food is having its moment. "People [in Toronto] are more willing to take a chance and try something completely new."

For Cancino, the way he looked at Filipino food started to change "about five or six years ago."

"I moved out of the suburbs, found friends in the Filipino community, and found a sense of pride again. I wanted to discover my culture," he said.

'Will there be Halo Halo?' 

Now, the chef delights in sharing Filipino dishes with his customers. He describes Filipino flavours as a mix of Malaysian, American, Spanish, Mexican and Chinese influences that often use contrasts — salty-sour, sweet-spicy — to make dishes pop.

Cancino will speak on Filipino food's growing influence at a panel on Tuesday evening hosted by The Ethnic Aisle, a blog that covers ethnicity and culture in Toronto.

The event, called "Will There be Halo Halo?" references a dessert made of colourful fruit, evaporated milk and shaved ice that Cancino says is one of his favourites.

He has some advice for the children of immigrants who, like he did, might feel embarrassed by the food they bring to school for lunch. 

"Just keep eating the food you love," he said. "Keep believing in it."

More information on "Will There Be Halo Halo?" can be found here.