Nicole Ponseca: We Need To Push The Value And Worth Of Ethnic Cuisine

This Voices In Food story, as told to Amanda Balagur, is from chef and restaurateur Nicole Ponseca. She established two groundbreaking Filipino American restaurants in New York City, co-authored bestselling cookbook “I Am a Filipino,” which was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s International Cookbook of the Year, and has been a featured speaker at numerous entrepreneurial and food-related events. She is currently focusing on her New York restaurant, Jeepney, and thinking about a second book.

On feeling like the Indiana Jones of Filipino cuisine

Since 1998, I’ve been on this mission to uncover who I am and to unlock doors to culture, food, flavors, recipes, traditions, languages, religion … I mean, it’s so diverse. The Philippines is a little bit like a maze. Once you think you’ve got it figured out, there’s another hallway to walk through, another door to open, so it’s really hard to nail down. And the more you step away from it, you begin to see just how epic the cuisine is.

I almost feel like I’m an Indiana Jones for Filipino cuisine. Going back to the Philippines, I’ve hitchhiked, I’ve motorcycled, I’ve donned a hijab and gone to the autonomous region of Muslim Philippines.

“Racism has existed, the violence has existed, we just have cellphones now.”

– Nicole Ponseca

There’s so many nooks and crannies that, sometimes, there’s only one province or one small neighborhood that might know a particular dish. And then again, it unlocks a different flavor profile, because Filipino food has not benefited previously from documentation in the way other cuisines have. I’d say documentation really started in earnest in the last five years. There are cookbooks, sure, but they really focused on title card dishes; you know, the adobos, the sisigs, the sinangágs ― dishes that are considered classic Filipino cuisine.

This dates back to colonization. We certainly had our own script already by the time the Spaniards came in the 1500s. But through their colonization of the country, we adopted some of their flavor profiles, religion and scripts, and they did what they could to eradicate the remnants of who we were before they settled. So it’s really hard to determine what are indigenous flavors and what are the dishes that have been influenced and co-opted due to the many foodways of Spain, America, Japan, Mexico and China. Is that Filipino? Yes. But a lot of Filipinos, including me, are curious what and who we were before that, and it’s hard to pinpoint.

On how the pandemic has exposed the flaws of the restaurant industry

I think what is so interesting and humbling about this moment in time is that we’re all in the same boat. You have these behemoth restaurateurs ― the David Changs, the Tom Colicchios, the Danny Meyers ― and it didn’t matter whether we were venture capitalist-backed or independent mom and pop. We’re all trying to consider how to move forward, which says to me that the model is broken.

“If people might not buy a ticket to the Philippines, which might be very expensive, they might be more open to enjoying a dinner for four for $100, or $25 each. And it might inform them more about the people and the culture.”

– Nicole Ponseca

There is something inherently wrong when restaurants that either give back to the community or have been around for so long and can be crushed after two or three months. It’s so early, but they can see the writing on the wall, that this would be crippling. That’s not a good sign. So I’m trying to contemplate all the resources that we have, whether that’s tech or our community or social media or how food is made or sourced, and particularly for people of color ― how to put value on the prices of the food that we serve.

I’ve done a little bit of research on this in New York. You can have a steak frite, a beautiful piece of sirloin, some fries (frozen or not), maybe a homemade bearnaise and great watercress with roquefort salad priced at $35, and you wouldn’t blink. And yet, I could have oxtail, slowly braised, the pan deglazed with a wonderful red wine, the sauce made with peanuts and the vegetables a la minute, and it could be bought at $22. There’s something wrong there. So part of my challenge is to push value, not only for myself, but also for others and how they view the worth of ethnic cuisine.

On food, race and ethnicity

We’ve been so integrated with so many many different cultures for so long ― that being me or the restaurant or Filipinos ― that I definitely feel this isn’t a new story. It’s only that it’s getting illuminated now. Racism has existed, the violence has existed, we just have cellphones now.

Systemic racism is a term that gets put out there quite a bit, and I like to pause sometimes and look up words and find out their meaning. When I look up systemic, the idea that the decisions and the planning and the policies have been put into place to shut out Blacks, and therefore, me, too ― I’m not Black, I don’t identify as Black, but I identify as a person of color ― it’s hard to digest.

“Part of my challenge is to push value, not only for myself, but also for others and how they view the worth of ethnic cuisine.”

– Nicole Ponseca

I think when it comes to either the color of our skin or the food that we enjoy, these are the most visible and apparent ways that people can protect themselves, feel fear or indicate an uncomfortability. It’s easy to smell something and say, “I don’t like that.” But it’s not uncommon for any culture to have funky aromas, whether that is a really ripe cheese or fermented fish. I don’t see the difference between the two. And yet, the only difference might be the color of our skin.

When we’re not encouraged to see what’s different as a good thing, we can see it as a way to create hierarchy or have rejection. That’s where it’s born from, in my opinion. What the food movement has done is to lower the car window down a little bit, or open the door to our kitchens and say, “Come in and have a seat.” I always thought that if people might not buy a ticket to the Philippines, which might be very expensive, they might be more open to enjoying a dinner for four for $100, or $25 each. And it might inform them more about the people and the culture.

“I want you to feel welcome and I want you to feel comfortable, but I want you to know that these are the flavors and this is all that it’s about, and if you don’t like it, I’m OK with that, too.”

– Nicole Ponseca

I often find when you create opportunities to share, then people become that much more warm and disarmed, and those measures to create protection, those barriers of hierarchy, really become level. With my mission, sometimes it’s one person at a time, and I’m OK with that. If these restaurants are making a difference, we’ve done a good thing.

Everyone loves food, everyone loves to eat. That’s why our restaurant has been able to invite more and more diverse people to enjoy my culture. Because the restaurant isn’t just about food. When you walk in, you’re immersed into our world, and I love that. Now, in my adulthood, I don’t have to water myself down. I can say, you’re welcome to the party, but it’s my party. And I want you to feel welcome and I want you to feel comfortable, but I want you to know that these are the flavors and this is all that it’s about, and if you don’t like it, I’m OK with that, too.

A food that I used to be embarrassed about ― whether it was balut or eating with my hands or adopting euphemisms like “chocolate stew” in order to entice people to eat a blood stew ― I don’t have to do anymore. And sometimes I even get asked to showcase how to eat balut. It’s been very rewarding.

Invariably, food is so unifying that you can’t help but have a good time, you can’t help but smile, you can’t help but make a good friend. And I often find that in the restaurant, on any given day, it’s just so diverse, so awesome, and people are often talking to each other from table to table or at the bar. It’s pretty cool. That’s how I can speak from my experience.