Meet & Eat: Nicole Ponseca, Maharlika

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

Pop-up restaurants seem to be all the rage these days, and the team behind Maharlika has taken full advantage of the pop-up phenomenon, and has been serving a Filipino brunch menu on weekends since early this year. Nicole Ponseca, Maharlika's General Manager, tells us how she and her team are not just showcasing Filipino cuisine, but serving as cultural and culinary ambassadors as well.

Name: Nicole Ponseca
Occupation: General Manager, Maharlika
Location: East Village

How did the idea for Maharlika come to be? In one word: pride. Pride in our childhood memories eating these foods; pride in our lolas and lolos that may have cooked these foods for us as kids; pride in the way the house stinks after cooking daing; pride in eating with our hands amongst family.

In addition to creating a business, we want to educate on our history and culture through food. Why are Vietnam and Thailand travel destinations and not the Phillipine Islands? I think it's due in part to food—when you are introduced to goi cuon or pad thai, you start getting viscerally curious about the country and culture, right? I would love to take Anthony Bourdain through the Philippines and show him what more there is to the country.

If you cannot afford a $1000 ticket to the Philippines, perhaps you can afford a dinner amongst 5 friends—and then you might be more curious about the country.

And what prompted you to go ahead and launch a restaurant yourself? I was an ad executive at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1998. My co-workers would ask all the time to try Filipino food. Here I was in the greatest city in the world with an expense account to boot, and I couldn't think of one place that could really showcase Filipino hospitality and cuisine. So I started working two to three restaurant or bar or nightclub jobs concurrent with my day job, just so I could learn the business.

And why did you decide to do a pop-up rather than a full-fledged restaurant? I saw the success of Egg, and its history of popping up at Sparky's years ago in Williamsburg. I wish I could say that we had some genius master plan about popping up; really, it was all about being in the right place in the right time. As Woody Allen says, "I showed up".

Why did you decide to start with brunch? I just wanted to start, and I was getting impatient at the idea of looking for more dough. The idea of a food truck was discussed but trying to get a mobile vendor license on the black market seemed risky and scarce.

What's the culinary background and experience of your chef? Miguel graduated from ICE and studied with me in the Philippines. We went for a few months. We were lucky enough to travel to the most northern part of the Philippines—Pagudpud—to the South and all in between from Batac to Bohol, from Segada to San Fernando. We backpacked through caves, burial sites, rivers and Manila traffic! We learned recipes and dishes from my culinary idols: Pia Lim, Claude Tayag and Glenda Barretto. My family's house cook showed us traditional ways of making sinigang with crushed gabi, guava and tamarind. We learned the soul of the food that cannot be translated via a book by Youtube.

What are some key elements and flavors of Filipino cuisine? When people come to Maharlika, we always like to say that our food is as vibrant and bold as our personalities. There are strong flavors of sour, sweet, and salty. As Glenda Barretto told me, "Pinoys eat in pairs" or duets, so there is always a condiment or side dish that compliments these flavors. We will eat a little sour and salty Adobo with a little sweet peanut butter kare-kare.

A key element to Filipino cuisine is vinegar: it's paired with lumpia (spring rolls); it's a key ingredient in our national dish Adobo. Wine culture does not have a big presence in the Philippines, but we judge a vinegar in the same way we judge a wine—we look at a vinegar's body, flavor profile, acidity. At Maharlika, we make our own coconut-sugarcane vinegar and infuse it with different elements and let it sit for three months. Its kinda making my mouth water just thinking about it.

Where do you like to get Filipino food in NYC? We love Ihawan BBQ, Grill 21 and Café 81.

Enzo Lim has created cocktails to pair with your menu. Tell us a little about some of the spirits and other flavors he uses. We knew we had the opportunity to introduce the ingredients to a new audience but at the same time wanted to nod to our Kababayans. For our Bloody Marys, celery salt and Worcestershire are replaced with patis and maggi. This is the basis for the brunch menu—how can we "flip" out classic brunch staples and make them 100% Filipino?

Rumor has it you'll be doing dinner soon—tell us a little about that? We have been asked to create a pop-up dinner on March 28th (place to be announced) and will start doing pop up dinners once a week at Resto Leon starting in spring or summer. We are going to have so much fun introducing our versions of classic Filipino dishes and showcasing some of the more obscure regional dishes that we learned during our travels. (A Filipino might be surprised to learn that there is a version of Adobo that is white and one that uses anise and cinnamon. It's pretty eye-opening.)