Episode 66: Changing the Conversation About Filipino Food

Episode 66: Changing the Conversation About Filipino Food

Filipino cuisine rightly deserves its space and recognition on the global stage. No longer to be overlooked. Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad joined us to talk about how they helped push Filipino cuisine into the American mainstream with their NYC restaurants Maharlika and Jeepney, and their continued mission to give Filipino food a seat at the culinary table with their new cookbook "I Am A Filipino And This Is How We Cook".

Back in the late 90s when Nicole started working in New York City as an ad executive, she noticed the Filipino food that she grew up with was not being represented (Thai food was only beginning to enter the mainstream), nor was her demographic ever part of a target market in her advertising creative briefs. She never thought she would end up a restauranteur, but she wanted to do something to give Filipino culture the attention it deserved. She started thinking “maybe I could help translate my culture through food.”

Nicole worked two jobs for twelve years, advertising by day and learning the food industry from the ground up by night - from taking on dishwashing and bartending gigs to eventually becoming a GM. It was during this time that she met Miguel, a classically trained Chef with a NYC-Dominican background. Miguel had never cooked FIlipino food, but he was ready for a challenge and put in the hours to become an expert. What did the trick? A mixture of learning from Nicole, cooking side-by-side with Nicole’s Dad, experimenting from books and recipes, running pop ups, and taking a three and a half month backpacking trip through the Philippines, where Nicole and Miguel got to experience first-hand the soul of the people and the colorful range of the cuisine.

When you have a vision and a dream, and you’re so myopic, and so focused on it—it never comes into question whether it’s going to materialize. The question is when.
— Nicole Ponseca recognizes that if you really want something, you are going to keep going

In 2011, Nicole and Miguel found a permanent space for their “limited engagement” pop up dinners in Maharlika. Jeepney opened a year later. Fast forward to 2018, they published their cookbook “I Am A Filipino”. In the book, they aim to make Filipino food accessible. They note that most of the key ingredients in these recipes are readily available in our cupboards (adobo = soy sauce, vinegar, bay leaf, garlic, peppercorn). They also take a unique approach in breaking out each major cultural influence in a chapter, which honors the diverse cultural history of the Philippines, and allows underrepresented parts, like the Muslim influence, shine alongside the more familiar Chinese and Spanish-Mexican connections. Tune in to hear about Nicole and Miguel’s favorite recipes, and the beautiful regionality of the Philippines they discovered in the process of writing the book.

How do you talk about a culture and interpret it for the mainstream, and be honorable in the narrative. I’ve never written a book before. How do you translate culture and not dumb it down? And from whose viewpoint do you talk about food?
— Nicole Ponseca on one of the biggest challenges writing the cookbook

When writing about an underrepresented cuisine, Nicole and Miguel found it to be a daunting task. Nicole notes that it could’ve been very easy for her to relate a dish to a mainstream dish for readers, but she knew she had to find new ways of writing to do it justice.

At some point you have to pull out of that narrative and just call the food for what it is. Have very descriptive and creative ways on how to translate the food without having to market it as a version of ‘x’.
— Nicole Ponseca on how each sentence in the cookbook was intensely scrutinized to ensure it was thoughtful enough

The book was recently nominated for a 2019 James Beard award! How the conversation has changed for Filipino cuisine, and for Nicole and Miguel since they first set foot on this path. But, it hasn’t been easy. Miguel notes, “For the first five to six years, we sacrificed friendships and having a life, because the restaurant was everything.” Even with their accomplishments, Nicole says “It’s not like the job is done, it’s what’s the next job.” The conversation has been started, but it’s still changing.

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