Last August, Vianney Rodriguez and Isabel Protomartir each got a text from Dennis Burnett, an Austin-based filmmaker and producer.
Burnett was teaming up with Mando Rayo, the creator behind TacoJournalism.com and co-author of “Tacos of Texas,” to produce two new food shows on YouTube.
Protomartir was a Houston marketer who had never created her own food content, while Sweet Life blogger Rodriguez had been writing and posting about food from her South Texas home for more than a decade.
Starring in a food show had never been on Protomartir’s radar. Rodriguez wrote a cookbook in 2018, but she wasn’t sure if she’d ever have a career on television because she didn’t see cooks like her on mainstream food television.
That changed when she found out that Rayo and Burnett were teaming up to start a network of food shows on YouTube called Identity, which showcases food stories from people whose voices have been underrepresented in food media.
“We want to feature people who are often not looked at because they aren’t celebrities or they aren’t white enough,” Rayo says, specifically mentioning the race reckoning at food outlet Bon Appetit.
Rayo says picking Rodriguez and Protomartir were easy choices. “We’ve known Vianney for years, and we knew she had a great following and a lot of expertise,” he says. “She loves showing off her culture. Isabel is from the Philippines and she’s got the Houston vibe. She’s never done a cooking show before, but I think that’s where the talent is. Like the people who are sharing cooking videos on Instagram and TikTok. Let’s shine the light on what people like that are doing.”
They offered a blank slate to both of them: What kind of food show do you want to make?
Rodriguez says she immediately thought of her mother. “How did my mom do it, working two jobs, going to school with four kids?” she says. “I love telling stories about my family, and I immediately knew I wanted to make a show that told a little bit about my culture, but with food that was still do-able for a Monday or a Wednesday night.”
Protomartir, who was born in the Philippines and raised in Texas, had always loved to cook, but as a marketing professional, she’s accustomed to helping her clients tell their stories. She had experience behind the scenes at food shoots, but she’d never done any work on camera.
“The underlying passion there is storytelling,” she says. “To be able to tell my own story has been a dream come true. Both of my parents passed a few years ago and to be able to continue their legacy is special.”
Her mother had instilled in her a love for making comfort food for people without making it too difficult on anyone, and this new YouTube show was a chance to tell that story. “I wanted to share these recipes that people might not be familiar with to be accessible,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel intimidated.”
They both put together a list of 18 dishes they wanted to make over the course of a six-day shoot. The two hosts’ production schedules never crossed, but they started texting and getting to know each other. In fact, to this day, they haven’t met, but they have bonded deeply through this process. “We already have plans to cook together,” Rodriguez says.
In November, the hosts traveled to Austin for back-to-back three-day shoots at a house with a spacious kitchen and good light. “It was a dream kitchen. That’s what I want my kitchen to look like,” Protomartir says.
Protomartir’s show is called “Ate (ah-te),” named after the Tagalog word for “big sister,” which Protomartir very much identifies with, even though she’s the youngest of five siblings.
“It goes past big sister; it’s a big sister figure who says ‘It’s OK to mess up. Let me know you and teach you.’ I’m so glad to be this person,” she says.
Like Rodriguez, Protomartir says she didn’t have any culinary role models to look up to when she was younger. “I love Martin Yan, but that’s not my story. I get to tell that story for so many people who look like me.”
When she was developing her recipe list, she wanted to keep the dishes simple while also showing the range of dishes she considered part of her culinary identity.
“I ate just as much Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai food as Filipino food as a kid,” she says. “In this age of authenticity, I was worried about telling a story that people didn’t see to be mine. It was scary at first, but then I realized that, as an Asian American and as a Texan, making pho is just as much a part of me growing up as it was making chicken adobo.”
One of the first episodes Protomartir wanted to shoot was her family’s chicken adobo, a recipe her mom taught her that she has already taught several of her nieces and nephews. “I’m that aunt,” she says. “There’s nothing that compares to being able to teach them something that I was taught, to pass a little bit of my culture. To do that on a big scale is hard to explain, it’s a fulfilling thing that I didn’t realize I was missing.”
Rodriguez says that for the first episode of her show, “Tex-Mex Queen,” she knew she wanted to make her mom’s flautas. The Aransas Pass native grew up eating the style of Tex Mex that developed as her parents immigrated from Matamoros to Aransas Pass.
“We didn’t do fast food when I was a kid,” she says. Her mom would make trays of flautas for those long days when she was going to be gone at work and then school. “How many flautas have I consumed in my life? I would eat them cold, dipped in salsa,” she says.
The episodes released so far this season include picadillo con papas, carne guisada, fajitas, nachos and her Selena-inspired pepperoni-and-pepper pizza. “When we were recording, I felt the pressure of my grandmother watching me from heaven, and knowing that my mom will watch this,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to make sure to showcase their story.”
The third show streaming on Identity’s YouTube page is the second season of “United Tacos of America,” hosted by Rayo and his co-collaborator Jarod Neece.
The first season of this show, which aired in 2019 on the El Rey network, was filmed in eight cities across Texas. They made the second season last year during the pandemic and changed the format to a conversation and call-in show that explored new topics around tacos and expanded the content to cover current events and social justice issues.
As they produced “United Tacos of America,” Rayo and Burnett were also working on “Tex-Mex Queen” and “Ate (ah-teh),” preparing for that week-long shoot with a small production crew.
Rayo says that by focusing on these voices from communities of color, Identity is offering a way for people to connect with each other and their own roots. “It’s refreshing to see someone from your culture representing like that,” he says. “They say, ‘You’re bringing back memories from my abuelita.’ It’s simple things that maybe you take for granted, but it’s rooted in the culture.”
New episodes for each of the three shows come out every week, and Rayo says he hopes they’ll do additional seasons for both shows later this year.
“We started with two amazing women, and we want to expand,” he says. “Ultimately, my role as a producer is to figure out what are the other stories that are out there that people need to hear and what is the message?”
Since “Tex-Mex Queen” debuted, Rodriguez has heard from people who saw her tutorial on how to make barbacoa in the slow cooker and said this was the first time they felt like they could make something that their late mom used to make. “To be missing your mom and missing a certain plate she made when you were little, and then you find this 10-minute video that shows you how you can make it so you can make it with your family and make new memories,” she says. “What more could you ask for?”
Protomartir has been hearing from viewers, too, including extended family members in the Philippines, who are now friending her on Facebook. She says she was worried about what her family abroad would think. “I was very nervous, but they are all so proud to have someone telling that story for them,” she says. “It’s like a virtual family reunion almost. Food really does bring people together.”
Picadillo Con Papas
Picadillo con papas is comfort food at its best. Combine some ground beef, potatoes, tomatoes and chopped cilantro, and what do you have? One of the tastiest, most comforting meals to ever come out of this side of the Rio Grande, that’s what.
— Vianney Rodriguez
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
1/3 cup white onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cup diced potato (about 8 ounces)
2 large tomatoes, diced
s beef broth
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste
Corn tortillas, for serving
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add the ground meat. Break up with back of spoon and cook well, but not completely. (It will cook while simmering.)
Add onions and garlic. Continue cooking until onion is translucent and soft. Add diced potatoes, stir and continue cooking until potatoes are for two minutes.
Add tomatoes and beef broth, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm with cilantro and warm corn tortillas.
— Vianney Rodriguez, host of “Tex-Mex Queen”
Isabel Protomartir says chicken adobo is one of the most iconic comfort food dishes in Filipino culture, no matter if you’re in the Philippines or in Houston, where the host of “Ate (ah-teh”) grew up. She says: “Any great dish starts with smelling garlic cooking and chicken adobo has that. It makes me think of my mom. It was one of the first things she taught me how to make and that I have now taught my niece, who is 19 now. I’m very proud of that. It’s absolutely a comfort dish, and so many people have their own version of it. My old college friend taught me how to make her family’s recipe, and they put a whole sleeve of Ritz cracker crumbs in it. Filipinos in Hawaii put pineapple in it. Others add coconut. Each version is a glimpse into that family. I love that glimpse.”
— Addie Broyles
1 pound chicken legs or thighs
5 to 6 cloves of minced garlic
2/3 cup light soy sauce
1 tablespoon oil
1 cup water
1/3 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar
In a large bowl, marinate chicken with diced garlic and soy for 15 minutes.
Add oil to pan over medium high heat. Brown chicken on all sides, but don’t worry about cooking the meat all the way through. Add the remaining soy sauce/garlic mixture, as well as the water, vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaf and sugar. Simmer for 25 to 30 minutes on medium low. Serve with rice. Serves 2 to 4.
— Isabel Protomartir, host of “Ate (ah-te)”