Pictured above: Chef Reina Montenegro
Meat with rice makes it a meal, so the thinking went as I was growing up. Chicken adobo, sinagang, or kaldereta would be the meals sitting and glistening in stewy glory on the kitchen table and in aluminum trays at family parties.
If you grew up eating Filipino food, Filipino and vegan weren’t words you’d put next to each other in a sentence, let alone be a concept you’d ever imagine.
That is, until you’ve eaten what Chef Reina Montenegro cooks.
Chef Reina grew up eating meaty Filipino food. In 2015, she turned vegan and never looked back. With all the substitutes for milk, eggs and meat out there these days, she found that she was able to manage her diet without choice being an issue.
Today, Chef Reina is co-owner of Nick’s on Grand in South San Francisco and Nick’s on Mission in San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District. Each ingredient used at Nick’s is 100% animal-free. Chef Reina proves Filipino food can be free of chicken and pork and still remind you of the tasty cuisine you used to pour over a healthy serving of steaming white Jasmine rice back home.
But where the difference lies, resistance breeds. “Abomination, disgrace and Filipino vegan food is an oxymoron” are among the insults the chef has received throughout her time owning and operating one of the first and only Filipino vegan food establishments along the San Francisco Peninsula.
To cook and choose a vegan lifestyle is an act of defiance to what Filipino food mostly is: meaty. Sizzling mushroom and tofu replaces pork in Chef Reina’s sisig. Mock shrimp and chicharron make vegan palabok possible. For those accustomed to eating the Filipino meat dishes they’ve known and loved their entire lives, trying Chef Reina’s vegan food can shake up what they once thought they knew: that all there is to Filipino food is meat and rice.
Battling Covid-19 has been a struggle. Chef Reina and her business partner Kenny Annis had to let go of all 9 employees in both restaurant locations.
Nick’s on Mission, the take-out sister restaurant of Nick’s on Grand, shut down due to lack of revenue. Catering used to bring in a significant amount of sales until social gatherings became risky endeavors. At one point, overall daily sales were at 20% of the restaurant’s normal daily average.
Thankfully, Nick’s on Grand is open for take-out and catering. The restaurant space is also being used to prepare restaurant meals for low-income seniors—thanks to a county sponsored program—and healthcare workers through a #FilipinosFeedTheFrontline initiative.
With the uncertainty of the pandemic still looming, the chef has her sights on pivoting to a catering and food delivery business model. Whatever she chooses, it will involve her love for plant-based food and improving the health and lives of those around her.
Chef Reina is an immigrant hailing from Dumaguete—a city along the coast of Negros Island in the Philippines. She acknowledges how throughout the years in the US, there may have been “missed opportunities” as a woman of color cooking and running a business of her own. Instead of dwelling on what could have been, she focuses on her daily priorities: staying afloat amidst an economic downturn, as well as continuing to engage in culinary activism.
“People are fighting to be heard,” says Chef Reina. A reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement has rejuvenated the meaning the chef gives to each vegan dish she produces. To top it off, she is now less afraid of how people perceive what her Filipino cooking should look like.
“I want to save lives,” she says. “I can create dishes that are close enough, even better than the meat you would have at a Filipino restaurant.”
The chef’s other tremendous hope at the moment is receiving rent relief so that her restaurants can operate with a “clean slate.” She is receiving support from the county government but is hoping a rent pardon can help further.
A new and younger customer base is curious about what the Filipino vegan chef is doing to offer meat and cruelty-free meals. The millennial group is bringing their parents and relatives along to try a new take on Filipino cuisine.
It should also be mentioned that former 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has eaten at Nick’s on Grand to satisfy his vegan cravings. You see, Filipino vegan food attracts a good crowd!
Our attitudes towards the matters that once were, like the food we have known since childhood, can shift with time. They must shift with time. Chef Reina of Nick’s on Grand and Mission shows us that Filipino food can be nostalgic and yes, innovative at the same time.
But more than that, Filipino and vegan food belong together because they cater to a new generation. A critically-minded generation that wants to do things differently for better days to come.