April Julian — a Filipino Canadian cast member on Netflix’s new competitive baking show “Is It Cake?” — laughed while reflecting on how she squirreled away a pile of stuffed buns, known as siopao, that her mother had packed for school lunch.
Julian, 42, a finalist on the show, recalled memories that prompted her to bring her culture to the show, whose contestants replicate common objects, ranging from handbags to bowling pins, through eerily authentic-looking cake creations and fool celebrity judges for a $50,000 grand prize.
She remembered being too ashamed to eat the Filipino dish in front of the kids at school, yet too guilty to throw them out. So in her room they sat.
“You want to blend in as much as possible in this environment, where peer pressure is at its height,” Julian, who said her mother was furious upon the discovery of the stash, recalled. “There were years where I wasn’t eating my lunch because I was too embarrassed to take it out.”
While Julian said she’s now able to look back on those moments with humor, the memories still conjure a visceral feeling for her, all these years later. That’s why, she said, that while on the Netflix show, which was released last month, she made it a point to include Asian flavors in one of her bakes and speak openly about her heritage. She said that, in part through her hyperrealistic creations, she aims to normalize the sights and flavors of Filipino cuisine.
“Diversity is the norm, and it’s not the exception,” Julian, who’s the director of education at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association by day, told NBC Asian America. “And that’s what’s important to me — to be in the position to also maybe be the norm for someone else when they see themselves in me on the show is really important.”
Toward the end of the show, based on an internet meme in which realistic items are sliced into and revealed to be cake, Julian chose to construct a mallard decoy duck. The bake incorporated coconut white chocolate ganache and mango coulis as an ode to her Asian heritage, in which the flavors are widely celebrated.
The baker, who grew up in Whitby, Ontario, said she was 3 years old when she left the Philippines. Some of her earliest brushes with racism had to do with the food her family would eat. But at the time, she said, she didn’t have the vocabulary for the kinds of bullying she endured, or the ability to process it.
“I knew that it wasn’t just about the lunch, because it’s not just me,” Julian said. “If someone brought curry, different spices or an ingredient that the other kids are not familiar with, I knew that that’s why they didn’t like it. That was tied to our identities, and that no matter what, even if we were born here, we’re ‘different.’”
Worried about the way in which the family would be perceived, Julian said her parents stopped speaking to her and her siblings in Tagalog, her native language.
“I lost that language, which is so, so sad. I think that is my parents’ greatest regret,” she said.
The contestant said not all portions of her heritage were hidden away from classmates. She recalled being proud to be a Filipino immigrant. However, she said, she was intentional in the way she packaged her culture to others, in hopes of earning acceptance among her peers.
“There is some exoticism about being from the islands, as well,” Julian said. “When we tell people, ‘I’m from this place, and it’s an island,’ they go, ‘That’s so cool!’ because it’s so different. That in and of itself is problematic.”
For her, food and baking became a critical way for her to reclaim the portions of her youth that were almost stripped from her life.
“Now as an adult, I’m trying to reverse all that trying to fit in for the sake of not being made fun of because … of what the Western expectations are for a lunch,” Julian said. “I make sure my daughter calls her grandmother ‘Lola,’ and ‘Lolo’ for grandpa, and talk about Filipino foods that we eat. We don’t call it ‘noodles.’ We call it the ‘pancit,’ the right term.”
She added of her background: “That’s probably what fueled me in the show, too. As I said, if I was going to only have one more bake, I wanted to make sure that that came out.”
Julian admitted that she was nervous about the mallard duck challenge, unsure whether the judges, who take taste into account, would be open to Asian-inspired flavors that they may not have tried before in such a Western dessert. But with the encouragement of her fellow contestants and a supportive crew that put forth the effort to deliver the specific ingredients she needed, Julian said she was able to make it happen. She said the nurturing environment underscored the power of allies, as well.
“My fellow contestants are all wonderful human beings, and they loved it. They were all so encouraging, and they’re like, ‘Just try it! These things are delicious on their own. How could they not think they’re delicious?’” Julian said. “I can’t say anything but amazing things about everybody else who was on the show.”
Julian has said she hopes to do more Filipino-inspired bakes, and she recently finished one inspired by lumpia, a Filipino spring roll. She is currently working on a cake inspired by fast-food chain Jollibee. But she said one of her biggest regrets on the show was failing to get the chance to incorporate turon, a Filipino dessert with a crispy shell, often stuffed with plantains or jackfruit, due to time constraints. For now, she said she’ll be folding Filipino flavors into her bakes — not intentionally, but because that’s just authentic to who she is.
As for other aspiring bakers of Filipino descent, Julian said she hopes they don’t feel the need to shy away from the food of their culture. After all, it’s been certifiably delicious for as long as the culture has been around.
“They won’t know it’s delicious unless they try it, and who better to bring that forward into the Western world than the folks who are part of that culture?” she said.