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Nicole Ponseca: 'I am a Filipino and I'm proud of it'

Nicole Ponseca: 'I am a Filipino and I'm proud of it'

Meet the chef and writer whose cookbook was named by The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review as one of their books of the year.

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'I am a Filipino – and this is how we cook’ exploded onto the culinary scene in 2018 (since it was published on October) and was named by The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times Book Review as one of their books of the year.

It's the work - and labour of love - of New York-based writer and chef Nicole Ponseca, a champion of Filipino food with few equals and someone whose writing and restaurants have made the often-overlooked nation's cuisine one of the most talked about over the last few years.

A San Diego native, Ponseca had decided to open a restaurant with chef Miguel Trinidad when she realized that New York lacked real Filipino food. As a result she embarked on a remarkable dual life of working as a Vice President in an advertising agency by day and then being immersed in the restaurant industry in the evening. In time, the lure of hospitality and celebrating her nation's food was too strong and she opened her first restaurant in Manhattan, Maharlika Filipino Moderno, in 2011.

It's named after a historically-renowned Filipino restaurant that was popular in 1970's New York, while she followed it up by opening Jeepney Filipino Gastropub, a name that pays homage to The Philippines' unique form of transport. The notoriously difficult-to-please Pete Wells from The New York Times said, after eating at Jeepney, he "felt like I was parachuting into Manila".

No more shame of Filipino food

There could be few better validations of her food, her restaurants and her mission to change perceptions of the food of The Philippines. It's a far cry from her years growing up where, as a Filipino-American, she felt a sense of 'culinary shame' when friends would visit her at home: “I remember my dad eating with his hands in the kitchen and being very embarrassed about it, especially when my American friends would come, I would beg 'if you're going to eat with your hands can you order a pizza'. I was filled with so much hiya which means shame. Growing up there was also (the TV show) Fear Factor where the idea was to bribe someone to eat what I would eat as a snack. Like dinuguang, or 'chocolate stew'. So, I grew up understanding I should get accustomed to being made fun of for the food we eat. My whole idea is how I can turn something I was very embarrassed about into something I can be very proud about.”

In her brilliant book and in person, Ponseca's positive energy and drive shine through, but she also regularly questions the status of Filipino food: “We hear it a lot, that Filipino food is the next big 'in' thing. They’ve been saying it since 2012, first Andrew Zimmern then Anthony Bourdain. What qualifies as being finally ‘it’? Could it be a number of restaurants? We’re already on the cover of the Times' food section, how much more until we're here? We're just in a renaissance now.”

Renaissance seems a very apt description as her success also helped to pave the way for restaurants like Bad Saint in Washington D.C. which was named the #2 restaurant in the US in 2016 by Bon Appetit magazine, or Ma'am Sir and Lasa in Los Angeles. A new generation of diners have discovered the uniquely Filipino flavour profiles and mouthfeel which categorise dishes across the country of 7,107 islands. From creamy and spicy laing to the sour soup sinigang, the slow-cooked kaldereta stew to famous roast suckling pig called lechon, a whole new world opened up to American palates. But there’s far more to Filipino cuisine, as Ponseca explains: “Going to a Filipino restaurant doesn’t only have to mean pancit (noodles) or lumpia (spring rolls). You could have an obscure dish like baka tula-sog, or stewed beef with pineapple, curry powder and shrimp paste. It needs to be sustainable, not just because of comfort food but because of curiosity.”

"Self-esteem regardless validation"

Ultimately, she remains somewhat torn about the success of Filipino food, "It comes with a mixed feeling. At one point you want to be recognised for food and you're so excited for it to finally pierce through and then on the other hand it's like we've been here for so long that I understand my parents shame growing up and now, being validated, I want to instil in younger generations to always have self-esteem regardless of validation. That's something I work hard on."

As a true culinary pioneer and a proud champion of her nation, it's clear that Ponseca will continue to thoughtfully reflect and inspire through her food, her actions - and her multi award-winning words.


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