“If you crash on that motorcycle, make sure you die.”
Those words of wisdom come from the grandmother of Björn DelaCruz, executive chef of Manila Social Club in Brooklyn, New York.
It’s a philosophy he applies to all areas of life, not least of which is managing the restaurant he runs with his brother Sam and his sister Toki. The sibling team opened their doors this spring and haven’t stopped since. We swung by for a visit in June.
“We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we will try it anyway,” Chef Björn said of their entry into the restaurant scene in Williamsburg. “I am not from the culinary world.”
How, then, did he end up in one of New York’s hippest food scenes?
“I moved to New York just on a whim. I ha[d] $17 and my violin,” he explained. On a second whim suggested by his sister, Chef Björn secured a position as marketing director for a sock company.
The company’s president and CEO became his mentors. Knowing that he loved to cook, they enlisted his skills and passion whenever they held parties and events. Gradually they started hosting regular dinners with Chef Björn at the kitchen’s helm.
“They were amazing because it kept my drive for cooking really alive while I was doing the corporate work,” he told us. “They were great leaders in that they were trying to foster this ‘be creative all the time.’”
Ultimately his mentors suggested that he host his own dinners, and thus Manila Social Club was born. Held in spaces from vacant warehouses to vacant penthouses, these itinerant, clandestine dining experiences provided a laboratory for exploration and growth.
“I knew that someday I would have a restaurant, so I used it… as an experimentation of what dishes are good, what can I do and how can I push myself? And then this place popped up for sale,” he said.
His brother and sister had already become involved, commuting from their respective homes in Indiana and New Hampshire. With a restaurant of their own, the spirit of Manila Social Club gained a permanent home. The purpose is to “come together and make an environment where people can just hang out and enjoy food and enjoy company,” Chef Björn said.
That food comes in the form of what he calls New Filipino. That’s like New American, only not.
“I don’t want to be labelled as New American cuisine. Same goes for I don’t want to be labelled as traditional Filipino. I just want to be labelled as Filipino-influenced cuisine,” he elaborated.
We’ve noticed that labels have a tendency to raise contentious debate. Call your food one thing and your detractors will deign to inform you that you are sorely mistaken. Attempt to pacify one individual and three more will emerge from the woodwork. It’s an infinite game of identity crisis whack-a-mole, but Chef Björn is hardly the one holding the mallet against old-school Filipino food.
“I can cook that at home,” he said. “I want to see what is new… Because as a chef I feel like you should be taking one plus one and making seven. It shouldn’t be one plus one equals two. When you’re cooking, that’s where the alchemy is.”
Alchemy is an apt choice of words. When we briefly departed this mortal coil for a taste of Manila Social Club’s divinity, Chef Björn blowtorched us some tuna tableside and readjusted our understanding of kare kare with a sesame- and hazelnut-based sauce instead of the typical peanut paradigm.
These dishes were presented with the same voracious appetite for life that Chef Björn unleashed on his motorcycle travels through the Philippines. Is that the motorcycle that his grandmother suggested he kill himself on, you wonder? The very same. As a teenager visiting family in Mindanao, Chef Björn would restore his uncle’s Honda CB650 to working condition and hit the road.
“I would just drive and every time I’d go out it would be a little bit farther. And then a little bit farther,” he recalled. “And it was absolutely amazing because I would just go and I’d go until the battery would die out.”
This Motorcycle Diaries: Philippines Edition took him to beaches and mountains, fish markets and jungle kitchens. Besides enriching his understanding of regional Filipino cuisine and broadening his range of experience, Chef Björn’s gallivanting fostered his desire to “drive really fast and die.”
“Which just means really live your life,” he assured us. “And really find that passion and really just do your thing. Because you will learn and you will really develop… [My grandmother] understood what I was trying to do. I wanted to experience and go out… Mindanao was a playground where I could really find my Filipino-ness.”
That Filipino-ness has come home to roost at Manila Social Club.
“What Filipino cuisine really is, is being able to just find balance in whatever you have, whether it’s American cuisine or French influence or Spanish technique,” Chef Björn told us. “There’s no novelty here! This is now how I do everything in life, is I really just will jump into it.”
The next project he’s jumping into is an urban market slated for October 3. Manila Social Club will host The Havemeyer Urban Fall Fest and Market, featuring music, art, apparel and beyond (full disclosure: vendor Botas66 will be represented by our own Natalia Roxas-Alvarez and yours truly). Manila Social will be the exclusive food vendor, so if for some inexcusable reason you’re in New York and haven’t made your way there yet, here’s a primo chance to sample some glory and bask in that crisp fall weather we dig so much. Take a page out of Chef Björn’s book: just go.