When I moved to New York, I had only $75 to my name. I was like a stowaway with a college degree.
I stayed at an Econo Lodge in New Jersey — the kind of place where you don’t want to look under the mattress — and I gave myself two weeks to find a job. My first meal in New York was bagel and lox. I didn’t realize lox was so expensive, so I ended up spending $16.45. And the bills kept adding up; my cell phone bill was $1,000 from all the interviews, and I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to pay to go to Internet cafés. But on my fourteenth day in the city, I landed a job at Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency. I was low on the totem pole, but I had an expense account; so I was getting to go to the best restaurants.
Everyone, thinking I was Thai, would always ask, “Nicole, where do I get Thai food?” I started correcting people — telling them I was Filipino — and then I realized that there was zero representation of Filipino food in the city, even though we’re one of the largest Asian communities in the country. I thought, “Filipinos are highly educated! We fought in the US military! Why don’t we have any place where I could bring a client for dinner and actually spend money and have a cocktail?”
So I started moonlighting in restaurants to learn more about the industry. For 12 years, I led a double life: during the day I wore oxfords and sensible pants, but by night, I was washing dishes. Neither of my bosses knew. I got promoted at Saatchi & Saatchi all the way to VP. I was making six figures, I had a health plan, I got to travel. But eventually I decided to give it up because I wanted to make it my singular goal to get people to know about Filipino food.
It wasn’t about the money. I didn’t want to build a brand. I just wanted a restaurant in Manhattan.
I went out to investors, but no one would invest in me. I had no clout or credibility, and there was no proof of concept. At the same time, I was knocking on every door, trying to find a Filipino chef to run my restaurant, and everyone either ignored me or told me that no one [cared] about Filipino food. But then I met Miguel Trinidad, a Dominican chef who was working at one of the restaurants where I worked. He believed in me, and he was up for the challenge.
The two of us started cooking in my apartment every Saturday, trying different Filipino recipes. I set up a mini-restaurant in my living room — I would meet people in bodegas and invite them to come dine. It was like playing house. After four years of doing that, we found a restaurant that was closed on weekends, and they agreed to let us do brunch in the space on Saturdays.
The first weekend, only four people came. By the third weekend, through the power of social media, there [was] a 30 minute wait for a table, then a two hour wait, and then we had a two month waitlist for reservations. The owner saw how well we were doing, and promptly kicked us out so that he could start doing brunch. So, we went and found our own space in the East Village — and we built our first restaurant, Maharlika, and then a few years later, Jeepney.
There were a lot of bumps along the way. There was a lot of prejudice against Miguel because he wasn’t Filipino — all people saw was a black guy. But there has also been so much greatness that has followed our endeavors, [and] Filipino food has blown up.
I don’t really look back these days. I don’t have time. I have bills to pay. I have to figure out how to go from being a mom-and-pop entrepreneur to being a business. I have big dreams, and I’m focused on them.
What I’ve learned is that you can’t wait for other people for validation. If you look outside yourself for people to legitimize you, you’ll be waiting a long time.