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Executive Chat - Nicole Ponseca - May 2023



Executive Chat with Rebecca Patt, Wray Executive Search

Featuring Nicole Ponseca of Jeepney

The New York Times has hailed Filipina restauranteur and chef Nicole Ponseca as an "empire in the making." She is widely recognized as the pioneer of modern Filipino cuisine, having opened her successful restaurants, Maharlika and Jeepney, in New York City. In addition to her culinary expertise, Nicole is also an accomplished author and speaker, with her James Beard-finalist cookbook I am a Filipino in its third printing and recognized as a Cookbook of the Year by numerous publications. Nicole splits her time between Manhattan and Miami, where she has opened a branch of Jeepney in Wynwood's 1-800-Lucky food hall and is busy cooking up new ventures.

  1. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you developed the concept for your restaurants?


When I was growing up, I had very little representation. I borrowed inspiration from Black culture and saw Irene Cara, Oprah, and Debbie Allen as women who I could emulate. This was not enough for me.

I thought that maybe I could change that and create representation for people like me--Asian, Filipino. Before social media and the rise of chefs as superstars at Food Network, I knew food could be a passport for people to see us and Filipinos to lift themselves. So, I embarked on a journey to learn the business and open the door for a commercially and critically successful Filipino restaurant.

For 12 years, I led a double life. Advertising exec by day and server/hostess/bartender/manager by day. I developed my concepts from a marketing perspective---honing in on demographics, price point, competitive landscape, and vibe---and from a Filipino-American perspective by researching provinces, recipes, psychographics and inspiration execution.

Maharlika was my first baby, a take on a French brasserie. I loved it. So much time and effort went into it. Jeepney was like an accidental pregnancy (long story). Both had a distinct menu and energy. Both were made to advance the Filipino profile in America.

  1. How do you approach menu development and creating new dishes?

I start with an overall vision. What do my guests want? What do I want? What's missing in the market? What can I improve on? If I don't feel a pull--I won't do it. I abhor gimmicks.

  1. What challenges have you faced in running your restaurants, and how have you overcome them?

There are so many challenges, for me the main challenge was how to level up my mind set on growth and acceleration from a higher level. I'm working on that. Aside from that, work and life balance are a challenge. I threw myself into my work, so that when I closed Jeepney in NYC, I hadn't realized how myopic I was. I had no tangible relation to the outside world or way to articulate myself. This, thankfully, has changed.

  1. How are you adapting and staying up to date with changing consumer trends and technology in the restaurant business?

Funny you ask. I'm currently working at a restaurant on the DL; I'm working as an entry level position part time to see a) if I still want to be part of this business, b) what are the new technologies and c) how to operate as a robust corporate business.

  1. Can you share any exciting projects or ventures you have in the works for your restaurant(s)? You mentioned licensing deals? Expansion? New menu items? Cookbooks?

I'm currently working on a new Vietnamese American cookbook as a ghost writer. I've segued Jeepney as a licensing deal, and I work with companies as a DEI speaker and consultant. It's been great working with Kellogg's, Heinz, Price Waterhouse Cooper and Mondelēz to name a few. Recently, I was a visiting chef for the luxury cruise line, Silver Sea and had an opportunity to travel to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. I've also taken up membership with ACE, an organization dedicated to Asian entrepreneurs. I feel busier than ever but have way more balance.


Want to recruit top talent for your restaurant executive team? Contact Rebecca Patt at rebecca@wraysearch.com

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