Heritage on a plate: The story behind Lola’s, Chef Suzanne Cupps’ new NYC restaurant

Best known as the executive chef of Untitled at the Whitney under Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, and the short-lived 232 Bleecker, a sit-down concept from the lunch chain Dig that closed during the pandemic, Chef Suzanne Cupps has established herself as a culinary force to be reckoned with.
AJPress photos by Momar G. Visaya

Chef Suzanne ‘Suzy’ Cupps is making waves in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood with the opening of her latest restaurant, Lola’s, a culinary haven where innovative design meets exceptional cuisine. Amid the challenges of a post-pandemic world, Cupps transforms a historic space into a vibrant dining destination, promising a blend of modern elegance and comforting familiarity that reflects her unique vision and resilience.

The name Lola comes from the Tagalog word for grandmother, in honor of her father’s mother Annunciasion “Noning” Rocamora Paraiso, who fled Japanese occupation in the Philippines during WWII.

“I really wanted to name my restaurant after such a strong woman. It’s not really about the recipes—I don’t even cook a lot of Filipino food; I’m trying to learn. It’s more about my heritage and honoring my family,” Cupps told the Asian Journal.

By the bar at Lola, a photo of Lola Noning’s wedding to Rosendo “Roding” Dimaculangan Paraiso and a single jade bead from her adorn the wall and displayed proudly at the restaurant.

During World War II, Chef Suzy’s grandmother, Lola Noning, faced unimaginable hardships. Her husband, Roding, a doctor, was suspected of aiding the Filipino guerrilla warfare efforts. Captured, tortured, and ultimately killed, he managed to send a final message to his wife: take the children and run.

At that time, Cupps’ father was about three years old, and his sister was a year older. Noning, pregnant with another child, dropped everything and fled into the mountains with her children, living in tree houses for months to escape detection. She gave birth while in hiding, demonstrating extraordinary resilience and courage. Eventually, they escaped to Manila on a U.S. Navy ship, where they reunited with extended family.

Tragically, about a year later, Noning succumbed to tuberculosis, and Cupps’ father went to live with his cousins. His earliest memory is of a U.S. soldier giving him chocolate on the Navy ship, a small but poignant kindness during such a turbulent time.

These stories passed down verbally through the family, have deeply influenced Cupps. The name of her restaurant, Lola, doesn’t just honor her grandmother’s strength, it is also about their family’s legacy.

Chef Suzy’s grandparents, both well-off—her grandfather a doctor and her grandmother from a wealthy family—faced a drastic change when they had to flee during World War II. It is believed that her Lola took her jewelry and valuables with her to barter for food as they escaped.

Chef Suzy shared the story of how a gold bracelet belonging to her grandmother resurfaced and found its way back to Cupps’ father. The bracelet featured three jade pendants, which her parents had separated and made into necklaces for Cupps, her brother, and her sister. By the bar at Lola, a photo of Annunciasion “Noning” Rocamora’s wedding to Rosendo “Roding” Dimaculangan Paraiso.

Remarkably, a few years ago, a gold bracelet belonging to her grandmother resurfaced and found its way back to Cupps’ father. The bracelet featured three jade pendants, which her parents had separated and made into necklaces for Cupps, her brother, and her sister. Each sibling now holds a piece of their grandmother’s legacy.

This connection to her grandmother inspired one of the design elements in Lola. Cupps chose jade green tiles for the kitchen as a tribute to Noning, creating a vibrant, meaningful statement that ties her family’s history to the restaurant. The name Lola and the jade accents throughout the space honor her grandmother’s memory and the resilience that defines their heritage.

Family legacy

Chef Cupps’ family history is deeply rooted in the Philippines, particularly in Luzon. Her father had an older sister and a baby sister, both of whom were born during World War II and have since passed away.

Chef Suzy herself has only visited the Philippines once, a little over ten years ago, a trip she found profoundly special.

Growing up in Maryland, Cupps’ father, who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Washington, D.C., met her mother through her Filipino roommate in nurse training. The family lived in Maryland until moving south when Cupps was about 11. Her mother, the family’s cook, often prepared traditional Filipino dishes like pancit, adobo, and Cupps’ favorite, leche flan. Despite her American upbringing, these Filipino staples were a constant in her childhood.

Cupps’ father rarely spoke about his wartime experiences, but now in their 80s, her parents are committed to preserving their stories. Her father has meticulously handwritten accounts of his childhood and his mother, ensuring these memories are not lost to time.

Renowned for her vegetable-forward, ingredient-driven cooking style, Cupps brings nuanced flavors and impeccable seasonal sourcing to every dish she creates. Drawing inspiration from her Asian-American heritage, her South Carolina upbringing, and the guidance of mentors like chefs Anita Lo of Annisa and Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Cupps’ culinary approach is both deeply personal and widely celebrated.

Inspired by her heritage, her southern upbringing, and over 20 years of culinary experience in New York, Cupps has created a unique blend at Lola. The restaurant reflects her love for Asian ingredients and the diverse culinary influences that have shaped her career. Through Lola, Cupps brings together all parts of her life, honoring her family’s legacy while showcasing her passion for innovative, ingredient-driven cuisine.

Crafting the Lola Experience

Walking into Lola, guests are greeted by an inviting atmosphere that seamlessly blends modern design with cozy, intimate touches. The open layout creates a sense of flow and connection, allowing diners to feel engaged with the culinary process and the vibrant energy of the kitchen.

Chef Suzy has always been known for her meticulous attention to detail, and Lola is a testament to her vision. The interior design features a harmonious blend of warm tones, elegant lighting, and contemporary artwork, creating an ambiance that is both sophisticated and welcoming. The centerpiece, a beautifully tiled pizza oven, serves as a nod to the space’s history while anchoring Lola’s modern aesthetic.

At the heart of Lola is its menu, a carefully curated selection of dishes that reflect Chef Cupps’ culinary philosophy. Known for her dedication to seasonal ingredients and innovative flavor combinations, she has crafted a menu that celebrates the best of local and global cuisine.

“We wanted to create a menu that is both approachable and exciting,” says Chef Cupps. “Our focus is on high-quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation. We want our guests to feel comfortable trying something new while also enjoying familiar favorites.”

Lola’s menu features a diverse array of dishes reflecting the chef’s Southern and Pan-Asian influences, from fresh pasta to inventive small plates and hearty entrees. Highlights include a sea scallop + shiitake bowl, chopped beet salad with feta cheese and sunflower seeds, and a slow-roasted beef short rib with sweet onion and tamarind-date chutney. There’s also a pecan pimento cheese ball, carrot masala yogurt, fried tilefish lettuce wraps, adobo-style fried chicken, and her favorite Filipino dessert leche flan, which they serve with cara cara marmalade.

Each dish is a celebration of flavor and technique, showcasing Chef Cupps’ ability to elevate simple ingredients into extraordinary culinary experiences.

While Cupps doesn’t cook much Filipino food, she sees the restaurant as a tribute to her heritage and a way to honor her family’s history as she was able to incorporate some elements into the menu.

Overcoming Challenges

Opening a restaurant is never easy, and doing so in the wake of a global pandemic presents additional hurdles. Chef Cupps is no stranger to these challenges, having opened her previous restaurant in December 2019, just months before the world was turned upside down.

“It was definitely a difficult time for the industry,” she recalls. “But it also gave us a chance to rethink and adapt. We’ve learned a lot about resilience and creativity, and that has shaped how we approach Lola.”

Looking ahead, Chef Cupps is optimistic about the future of Lola and the dining industry as a whole. “We’re excited to be part of the NoMad community and to contribute to its vibrant culinary landscape,” she says. “Our goal is to create a space where people can come together, enjoy great food, and make lasting memories.”

Praised by industry peers for her mentorship, collaborative leadership style, and exceptional cooking skills, Chef Suzy continues to navigate the post-pandemic landscape. Through Lola, Chef Suzy’s resilience and innate creativity are shining through, making her new place a staple in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. n

 

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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