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In the documentary Sunscreen, Billy Dec searches for food… and family • St Pete Catalyst

Chicago-based entrepreneur, actor, TV chef and hospitality expert Billy Dec explores the Philippine Islands Food rootsa documentary that will be shown on Friday the 19the Sunscreen Film Festival in Saint Petersburg.

Dec is best known to Bay Area residents as the owner and public face of Sunda, the “new Asian” restaurant in West Tampa.

He opened the restaurant there, he said Catalyst, as he has fond memories of visiting his father’s family in Tampa, Lutz and St. Pete. “I felt like it was home and I wanted to stay there long-term,” he said. “I also felt like there was a generational relationship between people in Chicago and the Midwest in general, and that Clearwater, Tampa and St. Pete were part of the world.

“I’ve traveled the world and I feel really comfortable there, and I love it. I like the water. When I can’t be in the Philippines, I like to be near a lot of water.” He has a house in Indian Shoes (“I like to get lost in the sand there”) and visits the area often.

Food roots is a love letter to Dec’s family, including his American father and Filipino mother. Although the Dec family often visited the Philippines, he remembers his maternal grandmother – his own – with special fondness Lola – and the native dishes she prepared for the family in their Illinois home.

“You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you come from,” she had told him.

Accompanied by a film crew, Dec traveled to the South Pacific to visit extended family, reconnect and honor the memories of his late mother, father, brother and sister. Lola – and to bring back authentic Filipino recipes for his restaurants in Tampa, Chicago and Nashville.

“It revealed and opened up all these other stories and feelings, pieces of family history, heritage and history, and it became something much more,” he said.

In the documentary, he travels between medium-sized cities, small towns and remote villages to learn from his aunts, uncles and other elders different ways to prepare fish, beef, chicken, pork and goat with native spices, vegetables and sauces. There is even a long session on cooking the black snails collected by children from the rice fields nearby.

Everyone warmly welcomes him ‘home’ with family celebrations.

Initially the film was intended solely to document Dec’s search for recipes. When director Michele Jusoe and executive producer Douglas Blush heard some of the family’s backstories, they convinced him to navigate deeper emotional waters. “They said, ‘If you open your mind, if you’re ready, there’s a beautiful human story here to discover that will resonate with a lot of people… and maybe even help someone.’ I just felt it was bigger than me. And also the least I could do. And it was true.”

He never wrote down recipes along the way. “It was just too difficult,” Dec chuckles, “to summarize that moment.”

But he has a good memory for ingredients. “And we play with (the recipes) all the time at Sunda. We offer them, and sometimes we take them and modernize them. That’s really what New Asian is: it increases the quality of the ingredients, the cooking styles, the presentation… we always do that.”

Dec, whose next project is a new nightclub in Nashville (to be called Printer’s Alley), will be at the screening on Friday. “A lot of people at these screenings always ask, ‘What’s next – where’s the next episode, what’s happening?’

“There’s a lot of talk about maybe making it Food roots a series, or continue the journey.”

The screening is Friday (April 26) at 4pm. Sunscreen website.