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She Is A Filipino: The Story Behind Nicole Ponseca’s First Cookbook

I had great visions for this feature on Nicole Ponseca. As the powerhouse behind New York’s Maharlika and Jeepney restaurants, and someone I’m thrilled to call a friend, I’ve witnessed her magic firsthand. I felt compelled to turn in pages of inspired writing in an attempt to communicate that THIS WOMAN IS THE CLOSEST THING I’VE MET TO A UNICORN.

But here’s the thing about Nicole. While journalists clamor to get an interview with her so they can write about her accomplishments as a restaurateur, they have no idea she has the ability to write the article just as well as, if not better, than they themselves can (present company included).

 

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“...Ako ay taga-pagmana ng nakagagalak na nakaraan, alipin sa hindi siguradong hinaharap. Dahil dito, kailangan ko patunayan ang obligasyong may dalawang katangian, ang obligasyon na makamit ang responsibilidad ko sa nakaraan at ang trabaho ng makamit ang obligasyon sa hinaharap “ #IAMAFILIPINO Panitikang sipi mula kay Heneral Carlos P. Romulo * Naging kagagalakan ko na ibigay sa sarili ko ang responsibilidad na ituloy ang pamana ng Pilipino bilang aking Pilipino- Amerikanong pagkakakilanlan. Ang librong ito ay koleksyon ng mga potahe mula sa maraming taong na paglalakbay na nagsimula noong 2007, noong lumakbay kami ni @chefmigsnyc sa Pagudpud sa isang motorsiklo at nakisakay sa mga taong hindi kilala. * Ang ilan sa mga potaheng ito ay madaling makilala at ang iba ay natuklasan namin habang nagsasaliksik at kumakain sa lahat ng rehiyon sa Pilipinas. * Ginigiit namin ang lahat ng bilhin ang libring ito, ipalaam sa iba, at makibahagi sa paglalakbay na ito. Kung kami ay hindi makakadaan sa inyong siyudad, ipaalam niyo po sa amin para magawan naming ng paraan. Gusto po naming kayong makita, mayakap at makasama kayong kumain. Ito ay isang celebrasyon. * Nais kong pasalaman si @clanggarcia @julep30 @michelledesignco @artisan_books @liaronnen @lnolanbook @behindthedawn @joseiswriting @victoriagranof @babethebluebox @igrams @ginoongventura @gayrockstar +++ na nakilalahok sa paggawa nitong minamahal na proyekto.

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When she’s asked to be a guest judge on his television show, they don’t know she’s got the personality to beat Bobby Flay in a different way, and have her name in the title of a network primetime program.

Created alongside Miguel Trinidad, Nicole’s first cookbook, “I Am A Filipino,” is currently causing a global tidal wave, mainly because people had no idea that buying a book for its recipes would have such a profound effect on their identity as Filipinos as a whole. It’s about representation, yes. But it’s also about the way Nicole tells a story.

 

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I wish you could hear her speak. If you one day find the chance to sit in her midst as she drops gems, swim languidly in those brilliant waters of sass and introspectiveness and kindness and wisdom.

In the meantime, let our little convo about “I Am A Filipino” be a funky appetizer of her wit, her cadence, and candor.

 

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When did the urge to do more (than Maharlika and Jeepney) begin?

Well, I can recall, when I first moved to NYC, that I began to feel depressed about not realizing my actualized self. I would listen, in dramatic fashion, to Mariah Carey and Bone Thugz and Harmony and lament that I couldn’t figure out my calling. A "Breakdown," indeed. 

Strong women inspire me and when I couldn’t find anyone that looked like me to really make the connection that I could be strong, too, I think I realized if I continued to wait, I might wait too long. What I wish I knew then is that being a strong woman is more than a determination or self-title, it literally is a request to the universe that says, “Go ahead. Test me.”

I believe I am an activist that happens to be an entrepreneur. I hope I connect to other people so we don’t feel so alone. So, I crave being creative and expressive. Two restaurants cannot contain my dreams. 

 

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How did the publishing opportunity materialize?

A friend of the restaurant wanted to publish our book but knew that protocol requires an agent. We started that conversation in 2014 and the journey began. 

We found an agent but it didn’t feel quite right and so I backed out. We landed upon our current agent, Laura Nolan. I wish I could remember how we found each other, but I don’t. 

It’s a long process. Writing a proposal and submitting to a publishing house is about the 4th step in a 1,000,000 subsequent steps. It seemed every step came with a “phew, finally." 

Our pitch day consisted of two days of stomping the Ubers and running from meeting to meeting. I wish someone could have told me the process. I would have been more critical at meetings, but somewhere between 2nd grade and turning 18, I became in tune to making people comfortable around me. So, I wasn’t as critical as I’d like to be. 

That’s changed. Somewhat. 

After the second day of meetings, you pick your publisher. That’s a pretty tough call to make. I mean your publisher is the group that helps create your vision, they market you, they materialize words to paper, paper to book, book to release. You’re with them a great deal. Requires a ton of trust. I imagine it’s similar to being an artist at a record label. Choose wisely. 

Three big New York City publishers had a bidding war for the book. And I’m proud to say that I think we are the first Filipino cookbook to have been awarded a six-figure deal. Now, don’t think that goes in my pocket. It means the publisher has afforded a budget for a team: photography, writers, editors, marketing. 

 

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So much gratitude. *******We sold out San Francisco******* California Love ????. Thank you to Celia owner of @omnivorebooks and to everyone who came thru. Our moderator Odette Alcazaren-Keeley did her homework, Kuya. And that audience was made of fire with Hardball questions—-I should’ve known I’d get it but good—keeping me on my toes. The bae is lit and dialed in. Don’t sleep! Thank you for opening my mind to what’s next. Remember my motto: Don’t exoticisize, normalize! ?? . S/O @girlontheright @jamesiseating @knucklesamwick @mssarahbanks @sarah_meier @jonsenjvitug @nonokids03 @omnivorebooks @jobostonkh @delendot @filipinofoodmovement @588121178 @momarski @filipinofoodlab @leroid.david @ChefCharleen @sharaqui . Ps I want your glasses, @romedigs Next up:Amazon show. What’s good! . PPs. Thank you, @nonokids03 for showing me homelife. I miss it, so much. Laundry and Pancakes FTW. College days! I love you and your fam.

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Did you tinker with multiple angles for the book before deciding what direction to take, or was it clear from the beginning? Tell us about the title.

I’m happy with the book, but there are compromises made when dealing with a team and one that has their own ideas, experience and creative processes. So the final product is one I’m proud of but think is only a glimpse of my thoughts and of what I want people to know of my travels and understanding of Filipino food and culture. When I lamented and revealed this to my friend Nelson George, he basically told me to STFU and stop acting like this is my only book. 

Noted. 

I fell on this title through the speech from General Carlos Romulo. I love the declarative sentence. I love that it says “a” before Filipino. I. Am. A. Filipino.

Why did General choose that? Why didn’t he say “I am Filipino”? Why didn’t he say “I’m” with contraction? 

The opening paragraph of the speech greets my customers at the restaurants. And to this day people take photographs in front of it or snap it for Instagram. Why is that? I think it’s because it’s so confident. Practically defiant in its declaration. It doesn’t ask for permission.  

If I was going to do a cookbook, I knew this was going to be the title. The fact that my publisher didn’t blink at the title, sealed the deal. 

Let there be no mistake: I am a Filipino. 

 

Photos courtesy of Sarah Meier and @nicoleponseca