Entrepreneur Critique: Nicole Ponseca
I’ve been heavily involved in social media for many years, and specifically have been using Instagram since 2012. I have seen the hashtags evolve, the technology change, and the community grow for much of this time. The hashtag, #FilipinoFoodMovement has grown considerably in that time period, and one of the most well known American pioneers to contribute to that is Nicole Ponseca, a New York-based restaurateur. Ponseca owns two East Village Filipino-American restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, and has gained elevated recognition among lovers of Filipino food from all over the world.
Originally from Southern California, Ponseca moved to New York with an advertising background, and over the span of 12 years worked in restaurants in addition to her day job. After doing a series of pop-up style events which they first dubbed as “limited engagements,” Ponseca opened Maharlika in August 2011, and Jeepney in October 2012. Much of her inspiration to focus on Filipino cuisine stemmed from family memories and a desire to share with non-Filipinos a part of her identity. In various interviews she has similar stories of the embarrassment of her family’s home cooking while eating with American friends. When she moved to New York, she saw an opportunity to share her identity and heritage, as there was virtually no market catering to refined Filipino cooking. When I first found out about Maharlika nearing the end of 2012, I was pleasantly surprised to find out about her efforts, though I felt much of her message was confusing and tainted with stereotypes. I believe her story speaks to many first-generation Americans, which is valuable in itself, as much of our upbringing has been a reconciliation of our nationality versus our ethnic or racial heritage. Ponseca has spoken a lot about the initial embarrassment she felt as a child, and her mission to uplift Filipino food in popularity to the level of Thai food, or even Chinese food. After all, Filipinos make up the second largest population of Asians living in America today.
Her mission to bring our food to the masses in order to bring about representation has probably been the most positive effect of the “Filipino Food Movement.” Though representation is important for many young people forever lost in the abyss of self-discovery, as a Filipino-American I’ve never felt the need to make Filipino food mainstream for fear of not only diluting flavors and traditions, but also misrepresenting Filipino culture in a shallow and dense manner. There is much depth to Filipino culture including innumerable ethnolinguistic groups, vast geographies, and violent colonizations which have whitewashed much of the rich history and culture of the Philippines. I feel that sharing Filipino culture with non-Filipino communities should be done thoughtfully and with much care, and I believe that Ponseca and other Filipino-American pioneers may have taken advantage of their growing platform.
Maharlika and Jeepney each retain their own identities as individual restaurants, though there are overarching themes to both atmospheres. Each pay homage to the Motherland with diverse visuals, Catholic-inspired relics, kitschy decor, and photos of famous Filipino celebrities and cultural ambassadors. The strengths of these restaurants was that Filipino cuisine was a largely unchartered territory outside of the Philippines, but now that Filipino food has been gaining momentum over the last 5 years in the modern food world, there is little setting apart Ponseca’s two restaurants which is a 5 minute walk from each other. It will be interesting to see what new projects she and her non-Filipino Executive Chef, Miguel Trinadad, has in the works, and how they will build upon and expand their empire in more relevant ways.
Ponseca’s message to make Filipino food accessible to non-Filipinos has brought her much success, as well as inspired thousands of Filipinos and expats to seek Filipino food other than what they normally eat at family gatherings. Aside from the traditional Filipino eateries in Queens and Jersey City, upscale and high-end Filipino food has been sprouting up across New York City in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as all over the continent in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and many more. Last year, Bon Appetit magazine named Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, the second best restaurant in the country. Many in the Filipino community have great pride to see a source of culture and heritage gain such widespread recognition, and overall, Ponseca has been an influential force bringing Filipino culture to light. I am excited to see more Filipino-American and international Filipinos in the entrepreneurial spirit, though I hope it does not come at the cost of dumbing down our very rich and unique heritage.