Naks: A chef’s culinary odyssey unveils authentic & unapologetically Filipino flavors in NYC

A NEW Filipino culinary haven has taken root in Manhattan’s East Village and it is called Naks. 

Under the skilled guidance of Chef Eric Valdez, this restaurant showcases the rich and diverse culinary landscape of the Philippines, offering a gastronomic journey that transcends traditional tourism and dives into the soul of Filipino authenticity.

The genesis of Naks finds its roots in a transformative nine-day expedition through the Philippines—a culinary sojourn that saw Chef Eric, along with James Beard Award–winning Chef Chintan Pandya and Roni Majumdar (the men behind Unapologetic Foods), traversing the gastronomic wonders of Manila, Pampanga, Ilocos, Cebu, and Davao. This immersive experience laid the foundation for what Naks would become—a celebration of undiscovered Filipino dishes, steeped in the rich history and regional diversity of the archipelago.

“Nine days of traveling and eating; we dug deep and went to different areas; that trip influenced a lot on what we serve here at Naks,” Chef Eric recalled. From the exotic swaki (sea urchin) to the intriguing kinilaw na bat, the adventurous Soup No. 5, and the regional delight bas-oy, Naks brings to the forefront a plethora of undiscovered Filipino delights, presenting a fusion of tradition and innovation.

“It was mind-blowing. The entire concept of the restaurant had to be changed after we came back,” Chef Chintan candidly shared. The trip exposed them to a prevalent trend of Westernization in Filipino food in America, echoing and at the same time mirroring his experiences with Indian cuisine.

A pivotal moment during the trip was the revelation about sisig, a dish commonly associated with mayonnaise in Filipino-American restaurants. Chef Chintan recounted, “We saw how different the food is. People have taken shortcuts and made it with mayonnaise. We went to Ilocos Norte, and they used pig brain. That is how it was supposed to be, creamy with the pig brain.”

This eye-opening experience underscored the need to showcase the true essence of Filipino cuisine, untainted by Western influences.

The culinary journey of Chef Eric is marked by his tenure alongside Chef Chintan, where he imbibed not only the art of cooking but also immeasurable wisdom about discipline and camaraderie. “Maturo siya. He mentored me, and I learned a lot from him – discipline and kung paano makisama sa mga tao, kung paano susundin yung head mo,” he shared. “May sinusunod na protocol dapat, yun ang foundation ng magaling na kusinero.”

Chef Chintan said that Eric was the first employee of their company and as such, he became an integral part of their journey. “We owe him; he doesn’t owe us anything,” he emphasized. Despite initial challenges, Chef Eric’s dedication and loyalty earned him the trust and support of his mentors.

Naks stands as a manifestation of unapologetic Filipino cuisine, embracing authenticity with open arms. Chef Eric emphasized, “Don’t be too scared. That’s why our cuisine gets behind; we don’t embrace it fully. Show what real Filipino food is; there is high potential for this.”

Situated in the former home of Jeepney, Naks is poised to showcase regional Filipino cuisines through an evolving menu that highlights all 18 regions in the Philippines. “I can make this menu in a week, but it keeps on changing. It took 2 to 3 months, and I am blessed that these guys blessed me and trusted the process,” he shared.

The aesthetic of Naks is a carefully curated reflection of Chef Eric’s vision, with a captivating mural by Sean Maze and guidance from his high school friend Patrick Ondovilla. As part of the unique dining experience, guests are presented with a zine at the end of a Kamayan meal—a thoughtful compilation that delves into the stories behind each dish, fostering a deeper connection between the diner and the cuisine.

The journey to open Naks was serendipitous, driven by the dynamics of opportunity and collaboration. When Adda, one of the restaurants under Unapologetic Foods was planning to relocate to the former Jeepney location in the East Village, the space was offered to Chef Eric. “I was shocked because I thought they were not open to that kind of concept. I was surprised, I was pressured. I was blessed with their guidance,” Eric recalled.

As Naks opened its doors, it quickly garnered attention and buzz within the culinary scene. Yet, the pressure to represent the entirety of Filipino cuisine looms large on Chef Eric. “I feel the pressure; the country you’re representing is not just you. Let’s see what happens,” he acknowledges.

Naks, beyond its culinary offerings, strives to be a beacon of authenticity, education, and elevation for Filipino cuisine. Chef Eric emphasizes, “This restaurant is so personal for me; I am involved in all aspects. I just want to showcase the food that is not being noticed; it needs a lot of research. I ask a lot of people para matuto din ako. I ask guests as well. Dapat open-minded ka. Kung ano ang gusto ng tao, pakinggan mo rin.”

The menu at Naks is a carefully crafted narrative, reflecting Chef Eric’s childhood memories and the recipes passed down by his mother and grandmother. With roots in Ilocos and Tarlac, he brings forth the influence of his familial ties—of Ilocano flavors and a community-driven culinary upbringing.

Naks distinguishes itself with a delectable selection of dishes, available both a la carte and through a Kamayan tasting menu priced at $135 per person. The restaurant’s Kamayan area, with 20 seats and two seatings every day, invites patrons to indulge in a feast that traverses the diverse culinary landscape of the Philippines.

Aaron Asombrado, the maestro behind the bar at Naks, crafts an array of innovative cocktails, each with a story to tell. From the Japanese whiskey-infused Parusang Hapon to the Baguio-inspired Pilak and the creatively presented Para sa Paborito Kong Apo, the drink menu at Naks complements the culinary journey with equally enticing libations.

As a testament to Naks’ commitment to authenticity, Chef Eric and his team proudly use a variety of Filipino products in their dishes, including Star Margarine, Eden cheese, and Bear Brand milk.

Beyond the culinary delights, Naks aims to be a pioneer in showcasing the wealth of Filipino gastronomy. Chef Eric, expressing his dedication to the cause, states, “Gusto kong ibalik kung paano magluto ang lolo at lola ko, traditional method, braising for hours, marinating for days; showcase the lost techniques; done by our ninunos.”

In a fitting nod to the restaurant’s roots, the name “Naks” was chosen to evoke excitement—a word that captures the essence of the vibrant and dynamic Filipino cuisine. Chef Eric explains, “Naks – very Filipino, nabuo ko na yung menu, wala pang pangalan ang restaurant; Nag-isip ako ng catchy na word na makukuha mo yung attention ng tao; I wanted a word that excites you; that’s the beauty of our cuisine, exciting and vibrant.”

The journey of Naks is not merely a gastronomic adventure; it is a testament to the dedication of Chef Eric and his team in elevating Filipino cuisine onto a global stage. With a commitment to authenticity, education, and unapologetic flavors, Naks stands as a beacon of Filipino culinary excellence in the heart of Manhattan—an invitation for diners to explore, savor, and celebrate the diversity of Filipino gastronomy. 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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