Nicole Ponseca Won't Stop Until Everyone Cares About Filipino Food
The Jeepney chef flies from Miami to NYC and back every week because she wants diners to know and love Filipino cuisine as much as she does.
Nicole Ponseca is hustling. Every Thursday, she boards a plane from Miami to New York. Four days later, she turns around and flies back to southern Florida. There, at Jeepney in the 1-800-Lucky food hall, she and her team have countless things to do, including marinating chicken and pork in Sprite in preparation for their bestselling skewers. To cut down on pickup times, they sous vide the meats, then grill and serve them with a traditional banana ketchup and a mix of pickled vegetables known as atsara. "It's everything I grew up with," says Ponseca. "It tastes like home."
Ponseca has been on a mission to share Filipino food with people since launching her 2011 pop-up, Maharlika, in New York exactly ten years prior to opening Jeepney in Miami this past January. She wants not only to provide her guests with delicious bites, but also to educate them about this diverse cuisine that extends far beyond some of the best-known dishes like adobo and pancit.
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As she mentions in her 2018 cookbook I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook, which was a James Beard Award finalist that year, she opened her restaurants because she wanted to change the conversation about Filipino food. In the process, she also wanted to elevate Filipino people. "I knew if we did it right, it would create a groundswell for Filipinos to become more proud, and possibly enter the field as entrepreneurs," says Ponseca. "It's not going to happen unless Filipinos believe in themselves."
That mission hasn't been easy, especially given the year that was 2020. Last spring, almost immediately after lockdown was announced in New York, she and her longtime sous chef Diomedes "Dio" Rincon jumped back into Jeepney and started feeding frontline workers all over the city. In October, she launched Tita Baby's meal kits, heat-and-serve meals accompanied by booklets that included stories, historical context, even links to Spotify playlists. Ponseca composed these herself, with the goal of bringing the experience of the restaurant to people who were forced to dine at home.
Make: Filipino Beef Shank Soup
"I definitely channel being a boxer," says Ponseca. "I think if I was Muhammad Ali or Tyson or any of these fighters who willingly—Willingly! Nobody's putting a gun to my brain!—get in the ring. For all intents and purposes, I could have taken that PPP money, paid off the debts and said 'I'm out.' But I'm responsible to my business. I'm responsible to the vision I set out for myself. And I want to see it through."
Now, even though more and more people are vaccinated and venturing out to restaurants again, things are still challenging. One of the biggest hurdles continues to be the labor shortage, with many restaurant workers seeking different jobs after the pandemic. Ponseca is quick to point out that despite this reality, there are still amazing people in the industry she gets to work with, such as Maita Espinosa and Julio Casilla, the local bakers at Cookies By M.E who have also helped run the Jeepney stall in Miami.
Other challenges with opening in the Sunshine State have included how to procure Filipino and Asian ingredients in a new market, the smaller Filipino community in Miami as compared to New York, and the enduring perception that Filipino food seems like a totally new cuisine to so many Miamians.
To some of the Latinx guests at Jeepney in Miami though, the cuisine may actually be quite familiar. Ponseca talks to her front-of-house team about how Filipinos, because of the history and influence of Spanish colonization in the Philippines, are like primos, or cousins, to Latin Americans. "People are like, 'Why guisado? Why lechon?' I'm like, 'Pero mismo chicharron!'" Ponseca has fun with these teaching moments. "We get to roll down the window a bit, and have a different exchange than the normal food hall experience. It's pretty cool."
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These types of exchanges are just one example of how restaurants not only enhance the value of real estate in a neighborhood, but also enhance community. Which is something Ponseca encourages consumers to think about, especially as restaurant owners try to find price points that will allow their businesses to survive in a post-pandemic world.
Moving forward, Ponseca wants to find ways to make the hustle more sustainable. She enjoys the back and forth between these two cities she loves, but has plans in the works to share her food even more widely. Starting in July, Jeepney became available on Goldbelly, where 'lumpia' is already one of the most popular search terms on the platform. She's also looking to venture into at-home products, and is excited about the possibility of people having Jeepney food delivered to their homes nationwide.
Until then, she'll continue to roll the window down in Miami. The weather's getting warmer. The grill is staying hot.