As the owner of Jeepney and recently closed Maharlika, two esteemed Filipino restaurants in New York’s East Village for almost a decade, Nicole Ponseca has been one of the pioneers of Filipino food in New York. Upset by the underrepresentation of the cuisine in the city, Ponseca made it her mission to champion Filipino flavors and traditions. Both of her restaurants quickly became popular, with months-long waits for reservations.
Last year, Ponseca launched I Am A Filipino: And This Is How We Cook, a cookbook she co-authored with chef Miguel Trinidad to reshape the discourse surrounding Filipino food and introduce the cuisine to even more palates. The book earned her a 2019 James Beard nomination and sent her on a year-long book tour. As the tour ends, we sat down with the restaurateur to talk about food, home, shame, and eating with your hands.
Rachael Ray Every Day: Tell us a little bit about your foray into your first restaurant.
Nicole Ponseca: In 1998, I was 21 and working at an ad agency in New York. I had so much expense account money that we could go anywhere to eat, but I realized there weren’t any Filipino restaurants I could take clients to. Meanwhile, I had just come from San Francisco where Filipino food was everywhere. I was incensed, almost like an activist. I was like, “What can I do to change that?” I think food is the only way I can punctuate Filipino culture through the American mass. So I started traveling around the U.S. on the weekends. I would go to Philadelphia and D.C. and see how they were introducing Filipino culture through food.
What did you find out?
The reasons Filipino cuisine wasn’t working in New York were because we had hiya (or shame), we had colonialism, and we used euphemisms to talk about food. Take the stew dinuguan, translated as “cooked in blood.” Here we say “chocolate meat.” We "trick" people into eating it with this euphemism. It's not a cute nickname. It was used to mask the shame inherent in older generations towards the ingredient—no doubt a relic of colonialism. Meanwhile the Spanish would say morcilla (blood sausace), and the British say blood pudding.
It’s the same thing with kamayan, or eating with your hands. I used to feel ashamed of it. Now, for the readers out there, let’s get it straight: We don’t eat like that. My dad did not routinely put out banana leaves! But it’s a technique. And I would be mortified when my dad would do that with my American friends. Like, “What are you doing? Order pizza!”
My whole mission was figuring out the Filipino psyche to understand all the self-loathing and barriers we had that were keeping us from moving forward.
It’s interesting you bring up shame because, at the same time, when you go to the Philippines, Filipinos are so proud of their food.
It’s a dichotomy. Proud to have fiesta. Proud to ask the questions, “What did you eat? Did you eat yet?” It’s a form of love—not just the food but the act of making sure you’re fed. My hypothesis is that if you’re in my home, I’m proud of my home, my family, and my hospitality. That is not necessarily a factor of the pride in my food, but the pride I have to give, of self-sacrifice rooted in Catholicism. Whatever I have is yours, to God be the glory.
But that’s within our own environment. When you take that into an American, restaurant-competitive world, then you start seeing decisions like “soy sauce chicken” instead of “adobo.” And fried calamari. What does fried calamari have anything to do with us?
My intent was, how can I blast Filipino food through Americana while still retaining identity? Maharlika did that. It created a headquarters. Me serving balut (duck embryo), it was micro-empowerment.
It took a decade of being an ad executive and moonlighting at restaurants before you opened Maharlika in 2011. Tell me more about that hustle.
I hope one day to meet Malcolm Gladwell because when I get to meet him I’ll thank him for his lessons in The Tipping Point and Outliers.
Gladwell’s concept of 10,000 hours?
Ten thousand hours. I knew I needed to prepare. I wanted to be able to do any job—to have that dexterity. I wanted to have the respect of my staff to know I could say, “You should be pumping out drinks faster” with utmost authority and confidence. Maybe I wanted to thwart what is now known as imposter syndrome.
You did, and you’ve had a lot of success, with another successful restaurant, Jeepney, open since 2012. One of my favorite things you’ve introduced through your restaurants is the concept of kamayan.
My mission was to get rid of my shame in certain traditions and give them a public spotlight. I was ashamed of kamayan growing up so I was like, “We’re going to do kamayan. We’re going to put a banana leaf, make it look like a luau.” We do mounds of rice. I just put it on social media and then, just like Maharlika, by the third week it became a three-month wait for a reservation.
More recently, you published a cookbook, I Am A Filipino. How did that come to be?
The idea was banked years ago at a restaurant called Romulo’s. They had written out a poem on the door, “I Am A Filipino.” It’s so arresting, like a stake in the ground. I think that’s indicative of what I’ve always done.
I knew at some point a book would manifest. I wrote it for my 11-year-old self who, when she read about the Spanish-American War in fifth grade, poured over the word Philippines just because I’ve never seen “Philippines” in anything. I realized I am in print, therefore I am. Then I started unraveling, “What does it mean to be Filipino?”
You did a lot of traveling for the book. Most people don’t know that the topography of the country is a mix of coastal and mountainous terrain. Different regions have distinct flavors because flavors don’t travel easily. In the book, you effectively break those flavor profiles down to “mother sauces.”
Right. I can liken now the Philippines to Italy in that there’s regional cuisine and it’s exquisite. I look at France and cheese as I look at Philippines and vinegar—nuanced terrain.
I talk about four mother sauces in the book. Borrowing from Marie-Antoine Carême, who appointed the French mother sauces, I've identified the base of Filipino dishes. They aren't so much sauces but the mother profiles. Understanding these cornerstones of Filipino cuisine can make sense of the maze of flavors—dishes that form the regional cuisines of the Philippines. We have four mother sauces: tomato-based, coconut-based, acid-based (something maasim or sour), and funk-based (fermented).
Not only are you a published author; you’re also a 2019 James Beard nominee.
That’s been so shocking! The reception has been wonderful. You really get to see the Filipino diaspora. So many people who weren’t Filipino, they wanted to support because they’ve never seen anything like it. My editor said at the James Beard event, very earnestly, “Can you believe it? You’re here!” We were consistently underdogs.
Just recently you announced Maharlika is closed. What’s next for you?
I love the idea of having a real restaurant group now. I’ve been on my knees scrubbing the toilet. I’ve been in the basement recounting reservations. I no longer want to do it that way. I want to do more. I want to access more people with narrative, whether it be through food, publishing, film.
What narrative would you create for Filipino cuisine?
Filipino food is like music. We eat symphonically. We don’t eat one dish; we eat in pairs. Each dish represents the strings, the horns, the percussion. When we eat it in unison, the music is so rich.
That’s beautiful! I never thought about it like that. What is your ideal symphony of Filipino dishes?
Let’s do the mother sauces. Something maasim (or sour): sinigang. Tomato-based: king kaldereta. Sisig, a classic meat-forward dish. Something coconut-based: ginataang tambo. And kare-kare.
Jeepney is located at 201 First Ave., New York.