Nicole Ponseca is a Filipino American restaurateur and owner of the beloved and influential New York City establishments Maharlika and Jeepney. Since opening in August 2011 and October 2012, respectively, the restaurants have won 2014’s Best Restaurant and Battle of the Burger, both by Time Out Magazine New York City (voted by readers) and won critical reviews and multiple features in the New York Times. Both restaurants participated in New York City’s first Filipino Restaurant Week, alongside 10 other establishments in the five borough area plus Jersey City.
Though she is best known for her accomplishments in New York City, Nicole’s roots reach back to California. Long before she was a restaurateur or the inspiration behind the phrase "popup" by New York Magazine, Nicole was an ad executive who moonlighted in restaurants for a dozen years to learn the business. Before that, she graduated from University of San Francisco and was raised in San Diego. Last autumn, Nicole shared stories of her SoCal childhood with Filipino Kitchen. In this edition of Pinoy Food for the Soul, Nicole relates how her earliest memories of Filipino food replay today at Jeepney, and tells us the new memories they’re making at both restaurants that she loves most.
My earliest memory is of my parents playing mahjong, and my dad was frying chicken skin. I helped mix the mahjong, and then my reward is chicharron.
And it was fresh out of the fryer. And then they would feed me with their hand, you know, and then I would go and play and I come back, “Can I have more please?” And they had kare kare and then my mother said, “Hindi na doon, don’t give her any bagoong, she won’t like it.” And my dad was like, “No, she’s Pinay, she’ll like it!” And so he put a little bagoong and kare kare and they gave it to me. Mmmm!
But everyone else was white, but sometime we had some Filipino friends that would convene… So I knew there were differences, and I became more keenly aware of our differences also when it came to food in grade school because I would have not a lunch sack with Lunchables and a ham sandwich, I would have baon and the sound of the Tupperware, the smell, and everyone is switching sandwiches. I’ll trade you this, Cheetos for this, and then I’ll trade you my duck fetus egg for your…? So there were times when I wouldn’t eat lunch and times when I would ask my mom, “Mom, can you just give me a sandwich?” So we would always surround about food. I had positive memories of fiestas, of singing karaoke, but we didn’t call it karaoke, we called it Minus One. And all these big vats of pancit.
I remember my dad eating kamayan. He would always eat either with one knee down or standing up on the counter, because he was in the military so he was so used to having to eat fast... Jeepney started kamayan not because it was some fuckin’ genius marketing idea to like let’s add kamayan, it was because we were dead. We opened during Hurricane Sandy. Maharlika was still killing it, and what I realized is that during times of catastrophe people will still eat out, but they won’t try something new. And we were entering January and I was beginning to freak out. And I had remembered my dad eating kamayan, and I was being embarrassed about it. So when my white friends would come over I’d say, “Please, can you order pizza if you’re gonna eat with your hands?” And my whole thing about this journey -- yes, being an entrepreneur and owning a restaurant, but part of being a Filipino American is changing the conversation. And there is a great quote by Don Draper on Mad Men, who says, If you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation.
So I was like, well I don’t like this feeling I have about kamayans, so we’re gonna start doing kamayan. And then when we did it, no one had heard of it, no one was doing it. And from then on, we would have a two-month wait reservation. Yeah it was crazy. It became a 2-month wait for a reservation and then we had to add another day, now we’re known for kamayan.
And in the Times article, it talks about how we scream balut, so anytime anyone orders balut we all scream it like the vendors do back home. BaluuUUUUUUTTT!!! Every single time it’s ordered. And it becomes a novelty, there’s some kitsch value to it, but I think that to call it kitsch is actually... It doesn’t give the respect to us screaming it unabashedly. It’s too easy to say “kitsch.” It’s too easy to just say “a gimmick.” Because you forget why Filipino food hasn’t, it’s been stigmatized as a Fear Factor food. And all these euphemistic terms like "chocolate meat." It’s like, that’s not chocolate! Stop telling me it’s Hershey! It does not taste like chocolate. Or “soy sauce chicken.” There was a restaurant here that…
Chef Miguel Trinidad, Maharlika and Jeepney: It’s still here, it’s around the corner. Go look at the menu, it says soy sauce chicken on there.
Natalia Roxas, Filipino Kitchen: Is it adobo?
Nicole: Yeah. And sometimes there’s so many variances of adobo, that’s not even actually accurate.
Natalia & Sarahlynn of Filipino Kitchen: That’s another conversation!
Nicole: But there’s such things called micro-aggressions, so when dinuguan is referenced to as chocolate meat because you’re not proud to say blood meat, and yet Spanish have morcia and the French have boudin noire or balut, we scream it and it becomes fun for the elderly Filipinos to hear it.
So, if any negative has a positive, if we call it micro-aggressions, you can convert it and say micro-progressions. So in our small way, yelling balut, kamayan, all these things progress us...
There’s a lot of memories, but the most vivid one is the one I told you about: having bagoong, and chicken chicharron and the mahjong. I think that memory really set the tone that there’s love in Filipino food, and there’s memories there. And I understood hiya in that point about bagoong. I couldn’t put it into words but looking back, that was a very formative memory.
And now, my favorite memories are all about introducing the food to new people. Or when you have, here at this specific restaurant, when you hear a young one talking to their friends or lolos and saying there’s a debate about how proper it is to have a dish called Eggs Imelda [Marcos] but there’s a dish called Eggs Aquino. So people will say, who is Imelda? The fact that no one knows even who she is. It’s just our little way of interjecting a conversation and debate, and I like when people get incensed. Like “I hate this restaurant, I can’t believe they have a dish that says Eggs Aquino!” But we’re not playing favorites, we’re just saying, Have the conversation. Don’t let it die, don’t let history repeat itself. So that’s probably my favorite memory here [at Maharlika].
And my favorite memory there at Jeepney I think is probably kamayan, and teaching people how to push. It’s a specific push, it’s us. I really like it when my staff, when they seat people, when they look around. In the beginning, it was all about friends or friends of friends, so you more or less knew everyone that was in the restaurant. But some of my favorite points is when I look around, and sometimes there’s not one Filipino, that’s pretty cool. That means we’re crossing over. It’s a huge win for us by remaining Filipino but still having patis and bagoong there.
My other favorite memory is when the crowd is mixed, when you have old and young, and that they have a place to call home. And that a young Filipino, maybe five, can see people eating balut and having Biggie play in the background. And old and young.
And they will never know what it’s like not to have Filipino be cool or not have their identity there. They will never know. They will NEVER know what that’s like. And that’s cool.
Header Photo Courtesy: Nicole Ponseca's Instagram (@nicole_ponseca)