It's safe to say that Billy Dec has accomplished a lot. Dec, a local celebrity, has been a restaurant (Sunda New Asian), actor, philanthropist, podcaster, nightclub owner, LGBTQ+ ally and Emmy-winning actor, among other things.
In fact, when it comes to choosing a project, Dec replied that he's always been the busy sort. "We needed money when I was younger and I was always helping my family a lot," he said. "I was always working, day into the night. Then when I was working at the clublike being a bouncer at Shelter back in the daythat was more money. Then, relationship-building and collaboration allowed me to work with a lot of great people.
"It eventually hit me that I wanted to be more intentional and thoughtful about what I wanted to accomplishand I started to look at what was important. I stayed away from things that were not important to me and didn't fulfill what I was looking for."
Two of those items that were relevant to Decwho has been an appointee on the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders as well as the White House Bullying Prevention Task Forcewere his upbringing and his Filipino-American heritage. However, he initially hid the latter. "Kids can be mean," Dec said. "[Bullying] can make you confused and you hide who you really are, and you try to fit inand I later learned that bullying comes from a lack of conditioning or education." But despite all of his subsequent successesincluding becoming a lawyerDec said what "really mattered were my heritage and culture."
And, adding to his resume, Dec also recently became a filmmaker, having filmed his first documentary, Food Roots, an hour-long work that took him to The Philippines to learn the recipes of his ancestors. "It brought me full-circle," he said. "I'm really excited about it." The film is slated to be screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, fittingly, during Filipino American Heritage Month.
As for Sunda, Dec said, "It's the living embodiment of the culture and culinary [influences] of Asia, including the Philippines, that's elevated to a wonderful level. It just makes me feel honored to elevate something that made me feel awkward as a kid." Dec added that he appreciates that he can educate others about Asian cuisine through the restaurant, which also has branches in Tampa and Nashville. "It's about celebrating that unique difference. Everyone should do so," he said, also saying that his commitment to helping others led to the creation of #SundaService, which involves providing meals for those without the means to purchase their own. (BTW, Sunda is expanding its Chicago presence with another spot in the city's Fulton Market area, at 333 N. Green St., in addition to the current River North site at 110 W. Illinois St.)
Dec said that he loves that the Filipino scene has seemingly exploded in Chicago, with restaurants such as Cebu and other spots incorporating Filipino dishes into their menus. "The mainstream never gave it a shot at all so I think the change is amazing," he said. "Chinese, Japanese and, as of late, Thai and Vietnamese food has been around but Filipino food has been off the edge. That's weird to me because, first of all, the relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. has been so rich. The second thing that blows my mind is that it's one of the most dynamic and diverse, always-evolving culinary genres," adding that said evolution "is a result of the people being so open-minded."
And with Dec being a restaurateur, it seemed the right time to get his thoughts on the Chicago City Council recently voted to eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped employees working within the city by July 1, 2028. "I don't know the details," Dec replied at the time. "It's a tough one. The bottom line is that we all need to be treated fairly. However, a large number of restaurants are already on the brink of permanent closure and the writing is on the wall with respect to increases of cost with food, labor, property, and on and on."
However, with all of the talk about Dec's professional roles, his most important one is a personal one: fatherand that played into one of the benefits of visiting his homeland for Food Roots. Dec said, "The movie is packaged with adventure, excitement and food. But one of the underlying [goals] is to inspire people to find out about their ancestors. This movie is about ancestors passing down recipes, and what that says about their DNA and heritage. If everybody found out about their heritage and presented those dishes, there would be a lot more celebration in life about our diverse offerings."
Food Roots is slated to screen Oct. 19 and 21 at the Chicago International Food Festival (at the AMC NEWCITY); see www.chicagofilmfestival.com/film/food-roots/ . For more about Sunda, visit sundanewasian.com .