pening in 2012, Lamesa quickly became a pioneer for second generation Filipino restaurants in Toronto. At a time when Filipino food was relatively unknown outside of Filipino culture, this presented several risks and challenges—but owner Lester Sabilano is used to facing uncertainty.
We caught up with him after his morning ritual to learn how he’s used basketball to find balance throughout the pandemic, how it’s helped him adjust to meet this moment, and what it takes to create an institution.
Lamesa was featured in a Toronto Star article that came out a couple weeks after the city locked down (the first time) for its Adobo recipe. At the start of the article you’re quoted saying, “When the NBA cancelled the season, it hit home. COVID-19 was in our backyard.” Basketball must be important to you.
Lester Sabilano: It’s always been a part of my life. It’s something I really enjoy; being in the gym, working on my game. I enjoy the camaraderie and I love the competition, and of course, the physical exercise.
"I just love the game—and it’s about making time for the things you love."
That’s why I’ve been playing despite the pandemic. I said to myself after the first lockdown, “I’ve got to make time for something that I love.” At a time when we’re dealing with so much, you have to ask yourself, where you find joy and happiness. Then you actually have to make time for those things. For me, it’s always been basketball.
Are you out there everyday?
LS: It's become an everyday thing, yeah. Today I knew it would be cold, but it’s become such a routine that before I even realize it most days, I have my stuff on and I’m ready to go. On really cold days, it’s a bit of a test for myself. I always have that inner dialogue, like Am I still gonna do this? Should I just stay home? There’s always that moment to hesitate, but in the end, I always get out the door.
How do you motivate yourself when you’re in that moment? What kind of dialogue are you having with yourself to get out the door, even on the coldest of days?
LS: Really early on in the pandemic I told myself that there was no way I’d allow COVID to take basketball away. I said it out loud to feel like I had a bit of control. I just thought COVID’s taking away this and that. It’s changing everything, but the one thing I won’t allow it to change or take is playing basketball every morning. This was a bit of an obstacle at first since the city even put bags over the rims or took them off completely, but even then, I told myself there was still a way to get the game in every day. I’ve always been more of a shooter, but I figured with no rim, I may as well take the time to work on my handles. I spent a lot of time out in the parking lot behind my apartment doing dribbling type routines. It was kind of nice because strangers would walk by and let me know that they appreciated seeing me out there—it made them feel hopeful, too.
When you’re working on your game, what do you focus on? And what drives you since you’re not competing?
LS: Eventually I want to be a coach, so I’m trying to learn new things from training videos on YouTube. With the internet, there’s an influx of information out there that will allow you to work on your game in so many different ways. There are coaches online dropping stuff on TikTok and Instagram, videos that teach you better shot form, foot work; so many things. I’ve gained a new understanding and appreciation for all aspects of the game having a different kind of exposure to it. And through a lot of the videos I’ve been watching, I’ve seen coaches teaching young people and that’s something I’d really like to do, too. Mentoring and inspiring people is also something I find happiness and fulfillment in. I’d like to make more time for that—basketball is a great medium for it.
You identified yourself as a shooter. What makes the mechanics of a sweet shot?
LS: Alignment is one; having the necessary points in your shot aligned in the right way. There’s a fluidity and smoothness to it that I’m trying to craft when I’m about to take a shot. I envision something like an artisan carving a surfboard: they sand it down and shape it. That repetitive motion, trying to achieve a certain feel, handcrafted over time.
The words fluidity and alignment—there’s a meditative quality to them and how you describe basketball in general.
LS: Basketball is all about creating a feeling, and it’s especially easy to do in the morning when there’s no one else there. When I’m out there, I try to conjure up the feeling of hitting a game winning shot or making a great play, and while I’m carrying those feelings I try to visualize the same success in other areas in my life. The time I spend just me, a basketball net, and ball in the morning has become meditation for me. You’ve got to cultivate it. You can’t turn it on and off. It’s something you have to work on and practice, just like a sweet shot.
"When I have negativity swirling in my head, I can break out of it by tuning the outside world out and disengaging my mind from any noise. Hearing the mesh, feeling the cold air on my face, noticing the breath coming through the mask and out into the air, how cold my hands feel—immediately you switch out of any negative thoughts and connect with the moment. "
Earlier you talked about things that attracted you to the game, like the camaraderie, and competitiveness. I would say some of that is translatable to restaurant work. Would you agree and can you describe some of those parallels?
LS: Hospitality is a team sport, without a doubt. Managing people’s personalities, knowing when to be a leader, how to be a leader, and learning when to step back and just listen. Holding people accountable is part of being a good teammate, which can be a tough job, but the best teammates and leaders are people that aren’t afraid to tell you how it is. Being honest with someone [as a boss] is something I’m still learning. And everyone has their own style. You’ve got to work with other people’s styles, just as much as they do yours. Always putting your team in a position to succeed by playing to their individual strengths is incredibly important, as is stepping up your game during a busy service. That sense of fulfillment and accomplishment of a job well done. The team aspect brings people together in the same way.
A lot of restaurants have survived much of the pandemic by adjusting their approach to operations, and some, their entire business model. What are some of the changes you have made at Lamesa?
LS: We were doing pop-ups at Superfly at the beginning of the pandemic. Our friends Zach and Alex were kind enough to let us use their space free of charge a couple of times a month, which I am still so grateful for. To be able to pump out food from Lamesa and make a little bit of extra dime in a new neighbourhood was really cool. It made a huge difference for us. They happened to have a vac-pack machine that they weren’t using at Superfly either, so I asked if we could take it over for a bit. Since then, we’ve been able to develop pre-made, vacuum packed, homestyle Filipino food like garlic rice, Adobo, and Kaldereta for people to enjoy at home. We’re still in the testing stage, but I think Filipino food really lends itself well to frozen/pre-made meals, so I’m excited by the possibilities of where we could go with it.
I also saw that you’re using the platform, like the packaging and marketing on social media, to include historical context for the dishes.
LS: I think because things slowed down during COVID, it forced us to re-examine our business and look at what’s working and what’s not, as well as who we are. In that process, we were able to re-establish our core values, which are sharing FIlipino food and culture. We want every interaction to be about sharing knowledge. I saw the labels as an opportunity to do exactly that.
"Filipino food remains relatively unknown, despite the “Filipino food movements” you hear so much about. There’s still a massive part of Filipino food that’s undiscovered. Part of that is learning the history behind it, where dishes come from. This is something that people, including many Filipino people, still need to delve into."
How have the events of this past year affected your approach to owning a business?
LS: Between COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement, there was an acknowledgement that running a business is also a social responsibility. Being a business owner isn’t just about profits or looking at bottom lines. Equally as important are things like equality and food insecurity in our own communities. We’re so quick to look at the States and judge, but there’s a lot happening here in Toronto too. My partner Renee put me on to the Community Fridge program happening here. It’s just one of the ways that businesses can support food banks—it’s not enough to only worry about ourselves right now. So many people need food and shelter, some people have lost everything. Spreading the support, even in the smallest ways, is crucial and in my opinion, a serious responsibility as a business owner and an active member of the community.
How have you transformed as a person through all this?
LS: This entire year has been so bizarre, but I’ve never felt better about who I am, what I’m doing, and where I’m going. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but I have never felt more confident in my ability to deal with what’s in front of me. Despite everything happening and all the bad, I’m confident we’re going to get through this. From a health perspective, the break was something I desperately needed. In the year leading up to COVID, I had three panic attacks and I had never had panic attacks before. We were going through some stressful times already; just general stress of running a restaurant. The break forced me to slow down, prioritize, and restructure my life. I feel like a different person.
A lot of restaurants shut down completely, whether by choice or otherwise. Now we’re in a second lockdown, what’s helped you decide to stick it out longer?
LS: I’ve never really thought about Lamesa not being here. Operationally we’ve had to make some changes whether that was learning to run the kitchen on my own to save labour, being more self-reliant, streamlining operations, or cutting the menu down.
I always wanted Lamesa to be an institution in the community, that’s been my vision since day one. I’ve always wanted it to be a place that people who are passionate about Filipino food and culture can come and enjoy, and especially a place that they can be proud of. Being in survival mode and doing everything you can to save money while being innovative is tough. Believe me, there have been more than a few times when I’ve asked myself “Is it worth it?” There’s always other options and avenues to consider, but at the end of the day, I made the choice to just keep going. To find ways to evolve any challenges in front of me.