This Filipina Chef May Have Conquered The NYC Dining Scene—But She Still Won’t Give Up Her Lechon Kawali
If you’re familiar with cooking contests on TV or the New York City restaurant scene, you may have come across the name, Frances Tariga-Weshnak. She happens to be a veteran of several TV competitions, as well as having served as sous chef and executive chef at a number of top dining destinations in New York. She was just recently installed as Executive Chef of the iconic Manhattan restaurant, The Wayfarer. Impressive credentials indeed, especially in New York City’s cutthroat restaurant industry. But if you’re already slightly intimidated by her, don’t be. This born-and-raised Filipina chef is down-to-earth Pinay to the core.
The two-storey Wayfarer in midtown Manhattan
“My kitchen at home is completely Filipino. I still go to the Filipino supermarket and buy my comfort food. Name any Filipino condiment, I have it in my pantry for sure, from suka, toyo, patis, banana ketchup, Mang Tomas, and even the new trend, spiced vinegar, I have it!” admits Chef Frances in a recent email interview with Metro.Style. She adds, “Pork belly is a must in my fridge. I do all kinds of dishes in pork belly, but my favorite of them all is my lechon kawali!”
Chef Frances, formerly executive chef at Megu
The Pinay that she is, Chef Frances has taken over a veritable NYC institution, housed in the artsy Quin Hotel in midtown Manhattan, just steps away from Central Park and Carnegie Hall.
The Wayfarer is a constantly busy place, with power folks and celebrities aplenty. As a chef, one always has to bring one’s A-game when working at the top levels of one of the most competitive and high-end dining markets in the world. So how did a Filipina who grew up in Manila get to where she is now?
A glitzy cosmopolitan New York feel at The Wayfarer
From Sampaloc to New York
Chef Frances candidly shares her story, “I grew up in Loreto Street, Sampaloc, Manila. I wasn’t born rich. My mom worked hard in Australia for 18 years for us to go to a nice school. My dad was a cop and he was the one looking after me and my siblings. Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Loreto made me who I am today.”
It took Chef Frances quite some time to figure out she wanted to become a chef. She drifted through four colleges, even becoming a top billiards player, before deciding to focus on cooking. She says, “I told my mom that I want to go to culinary school. She agreed and told me this is the final, after this, I’m on my own!” She shares, “I love to cook because that’s how me and my dad bonded growing up. I used to be his sous chef, prepping for him.”
Baby Frances with her father
After graduating from the Center for Asian Culinary Studies in San Juan, Chef Frances started her culinary career in Dubai at its first seven-star luxury hotel, then worked for the royal family of the United Arab Emirates as a private chef, later on overseeing the family’s restaurant businesses. She then moved to New York as the private chef of the Ambassador of the UAE to the United Nations. From there, she reentered the restaurant industry with a sous chef stint at Buddakan, and eventually executive chef stints at Megu, then at farm-to-table Eden.
Chef Frances’ first cooking demo at culinary school
In 2012, she joined her first TV competition, Chopped on Food Network, followed by Cutthroat Kitchen and Cutthroat Kitchen All Stars, also on Food Network, and finally in Top Chef Season 13. “Being in a cooking competition on TV skyrocketed my career,” she admits. But it was a character building experience as well. “What I’ve learned from joining competitions is that it should not get to your head. Although a lot of publicity was written about me, it also taught me a lesson that you need to keep your head on the ground. NYC is a tough crowd, there will always be upcoming star chefs that will come, so seize the moment and make sure to be as competitive and trendy as possible.”
Chef Frances appearing on Cutthroat Kitchen on Food Network
Filipino and proud
While her culinary career has been on the ascent since then, Chef Frances has made sure to inject her own cultural roots in the dishes she has created. For a dinner she cooked for the prestigious James Beard Foundation in 2017 while she was executive chef of Megu, she added Filipino touches to her modern Japanese menu—Tapsushilog or sushi rolls stuffed with Wagyu tapsilog, and a dessert sampler of coconut sticky rice with matcha millefeuille, red bean cookie, and ube flan.
Tapsushilog served at the James Beard Foundation
Now that she’s heading the kitchen at The Wayfarer, which is well known for its classic American food, Chef Frances has added her own Filipino-inspired dish. “The Shortrib Mac and Cheese is my take on kaldereta na may (with) mac and cheese.” It’s a refreshing take on American fare, reflecting the current multicultural nature of the American foodscape.
Perhaps what has sustained Chef Frances and allowed her to thrive is not being shy about who she is and where she comes from, especially in light of recent revelations of sexual and racial discrimination that have always seemed to be a given in the industry. She asserts, “I’ve always been vocal with everything. I support the #MeToo movement.” And this support is borne out of her own personal experience. “I didn’t get to this point of my career without experiencing being harassed because I’m not good enough for the job. You got to have thick skin in this industry in order to make it.” But she adds, “Everyone’s pretty vocal here.” And as long as you’re not afraid to speak, then there’s opportunity enough for everyone. And speak out she does as a proud and active member of the LGBTQ community. For example, while at Megu, she created her now famous Vegan Rainbow Dumplings flavored with chives, beets, carrots, corn in celebration of Pride Month.
Chef Frances’ signature Vegan Rainbow Dumplings
While Chef Frances is thriving in the NYC food scene, she makes sure to stay connected to the Philippines. She recounts, “What I enjoy most in the Philippines are the people, and of course, every time I go to the province of my Mom in Quezon, that’s my most favorite, eating authentic Filipino food without additives and ready-made flavorings.” Before she accepted the position at The Wayfarer, she stayed in Manila for four months, exploring the idea of opening her own restaurant here. But while she is happily back in New York living the top chef’s life, she still has dreams of going back home. And in truly brash New York fashion, she isn’t shy to proclaim, “I want to go back to Manila and open my empire. There’s no place like home!”
Visit Chef Frances at The Wayfarer, 101 West 57th Street, New York, NY, USA, www.thewayfarernyc.com
Photos courtesy of Chef Frances Tariga-Weshnak