Chef Miguel Trinidad: A Professor in Filipino Cuisine

BY MARTIN MACALINO

Dates, friends, and families are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Jeepney's crowd. People who are lucky to get a table or a seat at the bar marvel at platters and bowls full of rice, meats, and stews. Friends congregate toward a menu, trying to figure out their next adventure. Groups crowd around the bar as the bar staff breaks out tiki drinks served in full pineapples, while shakers mix drinks to the rhythm of classics from Madonna's "Like a Prayer" to Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer" over customers who can’t help but sing along.

The metal-clad walls absorb the small amount of light coming from each table's candle, while the bar sports blue and red LED light strips. The iconic reds, blues, and yellows of the Filipino flag shroud the decorations from posters of Filipino pop stars, and other decorations like Reginald F. Lewis' book, Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? stooped on top of the counter.

 PHOTO: Martin Macalino (Chef Trinidad)

PHOTO: Martin Macalino (Chef Trinidad)

Servers run front to back juggling platters of food from sweet barbecue ribs to tangy bowls of boiled mussels, all while preparing a banana leaf-clad table with mounds of rice and a mix of different dishes until one server goes to an anxious group yelling, "Your table is ready!" This is followed by cheers and claps from a group of friends with empty stomachs, but hands full of drinks as they walk through the full house toward their Wednesday night feast. As they gather around the feast in front of them the servers describe each detail in creating the flavors and textures on the table.

"We want to take people, and transport them into the Philippines, and by walking in here it's about the home experience," says chef and part-owner Miguel Trinidad surveying the restaurant.

Before this buzz and organized chaos gets going, Trinidad, 45, is inside working hours before the doors open. Before starting prep on meals, a line-cook works on fixing broken flooring, Trinidad, with a scraper in hand, goes at the peeling yellow paint on the bar. Everyone greets each other as they enter and get started on their respective positions and preps. "Success doesn't come from a 9-5, it's an 18 hour day, it's a 20 hour day," Trinidad says, continuing to clean the bar. 

Restaurants like Jeepney and his other venture, Maharlika, are pushing the envelope in teaching New Yorkers about a cuisine that is a mix of different cultures from Malay to Spanish roots -- a special Filipino mix whose flavors are sour, such as vinegar or tamarind and umami, and from ingredients like soy sauce, or bagoon (baga-on, salted shrimp paste).

It's getting more popular with numerous Filipino restaurants like Pig and Khao, Grill 21, and Flip Sigi working alongside Jeepney and Maharlika on pushing Filipino cuisine in New York City. "I hope Anthony Bourdain comes in here and tells us how good it is." Trinidad jokes in response to Bourdain telling CNN that Filipino food is "the next big thing."

Next big thing or not, the reality is that according to Business Insider, restaurants have an 80% fail rate. But in reality, he wants Filipino cuisine to keep growing, and for their restaurants to keep doing their thing. The New York Times state, "If cooking is a vehicle for memory, for many Filipinos the dishes of their heritage are inseparable from days of celebration."

As a New York City native, Trinidad credits his success to his hard work and dedication following his graduation from the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). He was able to move up as executive chef in Soho's brunch spot, Lola. There, he met his business partners, Nicole Ponseca and Enzo Lim, where they launched their first restaurant, Maharlika. It was not until 2007, though, when chef Trinidad would take a three month trip to the Philippines, that he would find his culinary calling.

Trinidad started his days waking up at four in the morning, going to Maharlika, preparing the food before opening the doors at 11 a.m., and closing at 3:30 p.m. Once it opened as an official restaurant, he would work 7 a.m. to midnight shifts every day for a year and a half. He would do all of this while also having a pop-up spot in Williamsburg, sometimes not being able to sleep at all on the weekends. 

 PHOTO: Martin Macalino

PHOTO: Martin Macalino

Before Jeepney was born, it was another Filipino restaurant owned by an older couple who retired from IT, and decided to dive into the restaurant world. Unfortunately, the restaurant did not work for them. They knew they wanted the property to stay open, and to keep serving Filipino food in New York City, so the couple approached Trinidad, Ponseka, and Lim, offering the property. "It was kind of like an accidental pregnancy," says Trinidad, as he recalls the birth of their Gastropub.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012, Nicole and Miguel needed something to bring the community in. They started with kamayans, tables covered in banana leaves, with mounds of food for people to eat with their hands. Within a month of launching their kamayans, customers had to put in reservations 3 months in advance.

Jeepney works hard to make experiences like the kamayan as fun as possible. Not just for Filipinos, but for everyone. Mixed groups of friends will wait hungrily as their table gets set up for birthdays, holidays, or any celebration they can think of. Jeepney enjoys setting up kamayans, in hopes to keep the tradition alive for more visitors to get involved with. Trinidad sees Filipino food becoming as common as Chinese food is in New York City, but also becoming elevated into different formats from high-end dining, to mom and pop spots.    

Being of Dominican descent, Trinidad was able to work through constant judgment. He is quick to call out Lolas and Titas (Filipino grandmothers and mothers). He still remembers a Lola asking him, "How do you know how to cook Filipino food? You’re not Filipino!" Where he then embraces the fact, and brings up chefs like Ivan Orkin, a white man serving ramen in his Clinton Street location.

Trinidad credits the many Mexicans, Ecuadorians, and Dominicans in kitchens for being able to see a cuisine from a different perspective, allowing for a chance to make a dish their own. Lolas and Titas would tell Trinidad, "My care is better than yours, my adobo is better than yours." Where he responds, "I am never going to cook better than you Lola, but I'm telling you my food is kick-ass."

 PHOTO: Martin Macalino

PHOTO: Martin Macalino

There is no real judgment from his American audience, since Filipino food is still a cuisine that needs to be discovered to them. "No one here really knows what Filipino food is. If you ask anyone what Filipino food is, they wouldn't even say it's Asian," Trinidad said in a 2013 interview with Reuters. Their visitors are stepping into an environment that is unknown to them, and Jeepney's and Maharlika's job is to teach them about Filipino food.

Trinidad feels that people should not be scared to "dive into the unknown." The staff at Jeepney work hard in developing recipes. They go through constant research, conversations with elders, and collaboration to represent all 7,107 islands in the Philippines through their food.

We are going to stick to it, we are going to make it exactly the way it is, we are going to put bagoong on it, alright? We are going to call it dinuguan (pork blood stew), and not chocolate beef to hide the food, and if people don’t like it, that’s okay, you know? We are all in your face, we are going to show you what we do, and if you want to learn about it we are going to tell you all about it, we are not going to hide it.

Trinidad does not want people to experience a restaurant where they will not be served the real thing in fear they will not like it. They are constantly teaching their visitors about each ingredient. Not being ones to shame away their food, they constantly change the dishes on their menu. When they changed their popular soy sauce and vinegar based adobo to adobo law, a yellow adobo (made without the soy sauce and based with turmeric) one couple said they would not come after losing their favorite dish. Trinidad relied by sitting them down, and serving them the new dish. To their delight, it was just as good, if not better. "It's good to try something different. Here’s the recipe for the adobo, go make it at home."

He credits Filipino food's success to its simplicity. Most dishes being one pot meals. Their customers will feel comfortable with dishes like adobo and pancit (Filipino rice noodles) because they are presented in a vehicle they recognize. Their visitors are willing to eat stews and noodles and will venture out when the dishes introduce ingredients they may not be used to. 

The team at Jeepney and Maharlika plan on releasing a cookbook in October, 2018. The cookbook started with 40 recipes planned, but once they spent 5 months traveling the islands of the Philippines, they ended up scrapping it all and starting over. They experienced different cultures within the Philippines that were unknown to them, and hope to teach everyone else about these cultures through their new book. 

Back at the restaurant, Chef Trinidad continues to clean the bar, just the start to a busy schedule. "We are going to keep fucking shit up, and doing what we want to do, and being unapologetic about it."

Lead Image Credit: Martin Macalino

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