When I read the story Chef Cristina Quackenbush contributed to our upcoming Filipino food anthology, I was hooked. Through vignettes of memories from her early childhood in the slums of Malabon to fishing trips by a river in Indiana later in her childhood, she explores what kinilaw, a dish she initially found repulsive, means to her now as a Filipino food chef in New Orleans.
Her story left me craving for more. Luckily, although extra-busy with her upcoming relaunch in New Orleans, Louisiana, Cristina graced us with a Q&A. Again, I was hooked. Her answers opened my eyes to two little-known, yet immensely interesting facts:
1) the first Filipino settlement in the entire United States of America was in . . . Louisiana!
2) it took as long as 250 years before, what is possibly, the first mainstream, brick-and-mortar Filipino resto opened its doors to the state.
A quick online search reveals that in 1763, Filipino sailors in Spanish galleons jumped ship and took refuge on the shores of Saint Malo (now Saint Bernard), Louisiana. There, these Filipino settlers flourished; they started the dried shrimp industry, which later paved the way to major shrimping businesses.
Despite this notable contribution of Filipinos in the food industry in Louisiana, it took a mind-boggling quarter of a century for Filipino food to make a major debut in Louisiana’s main food scene. It was only in April 2014 when Philippine cuisine took a big leap in New Orleans a.k.a. The Big Easy with the opening of Milkfish NOLA, the brainchild of Philippine-born Chef Cristina Quackenbush.
Milkfish a.k.a Bangus (Photo credit: Milkfish NOLA)
Milkfish, the restaurant, premiered after two years of popping up around town. While it received outstanding reviews, it was short-lived. In March 2016, Milkfish closed its doors, but even then, Cristina vowed that she would return. And she’s keeping her word. By this summer of 2017, Cristina will be back in business in New Orleans. Her upcoming restaurant, scheduled to open in mid-June, will feature Filipino-inspired dishes using local ingredients.
Milkfish Restaurant (Photo Credit: Todd A. Price / NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)
MFB: You were only five years old when you moved from Malabon, Metro Manila to Evansville, Indiana. What was it like for you to grow up in the Midwestern U.S.?
CQ: I had grown up with mostly an American family. My mother taught me all of my Filipino food cooking, as well as flavor profiles. This combined with my step grandmother’s from-scratch-style led me to develop my own style, which is Southeast Asian Soul food.
Growing up, I was the only brown girl in a lot of situations, so I felt like an outsider.
My stepfather ran a very strict household. Any time I would feel slighted, my mom would remind me of how it would be for me in the Philippines.
MFB: Have you ever been back to the Philippines since? If yes, what were your impressions?
CQ: I have not been back to the Philippines since then, I am actually planning a trip.
MFB: How did you get started in food?
CQ: I was working at restaurants while in college for a communications degree. I always gravitated toward food related projects, jobs etc. Even as I graduated from college, I had never used my communications degree –EVER! I started my journey into the restaurant business and started to explore different cuisines and the business in general. I fell in love with the restaurant scene and made it my living.
MFB: Please describe the Filipino food scene in New Orleans?
CQ: There was literally no Filipino food scene here in New Orleans, which is odd considering Louisiana is the first settlement of Filipinos in the US and that they are responsible for the shrimp drying industry here. I recently visited Jean Lafitte Louisiana, where Manila Village was and where most of the ancestry from here still live, although very diluted. There are a lot of blond-haired, blue eyed Filipinos but all know their history. My opening of Milkfish was long overdue, I wanted to represent our cuisine and challenge the reasons for it never becoming mainstream. I was fortunate to receive such great accolades and attention in just the first year! I was able to introduce our cuisine to one of the biggest food cities in the world and it was welcomed with open arms. I was truly stunned by the number of compliments and reception. The scale went from a 0 to a 9.
MFB: What do you consider as the greatest challenge in promoting Philippine cuisine in NOLA?
CQ: The greatest challenge was to get everyone to try the more adventurous food items, when creating the menu, I always asked myself, “Is this approachable?” Because even though I was introducing Filipino food, I didn’t want to scare anyone away. My solution was leaving it up to my servers to relay a story and descriptions of the food that piqued curiosity and willingness to try new things.
MFB: If you could only eat one Filipino dish for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Pork Adobo will always be my favorite dish. It’s nostalgic to me. It’s truly the one thing that would always satisfy and make everything ok. The smells permeate my house and linger long afterwards — like a good memory.
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