FOR small business owners, especially those in the restaurant industry, “pivot” was a buzzword of 2020 — whether it was making meal kits, embracing delivery services or offering online cooking classes — in order to survive during the ongoing pandemic.
In the Bay Area, Filipina American chef Reina Montenegro knows the immediacy of having to shift and has, in fact, embraced it.
“What I’ve learned is that if you don’t move with the times, you’re going to get left behind. You have to ride that wave anywhere it goes and be flexible,” Montenegro told the Asian Journal.
Since 2016, Montenegro has operated Nick’s Kitchen in Daly City, which was transformed into the first Filipino vegan restaurant in the Peninsula a year later, serving up plant-based versions of dishes that traditionally have meat as the central component.
The standout items include sisig using grilled mushrooms and tofu, palabok with mock shrimp and chicharron, and silogs featuring alternatives to pork and beef and vegan eggs.
The popular restaurant — garnering a PETA accolade as a cultural trailblazer and even praise and regular patronage from non-vegans — became a local micro chain with Nick’s on Grand in South San Francisco and Nick’s on Mission in the city’s Filipino cultural district, SOMA Pilipinas.
As of last fall, all three locations of Nick’s have shuttered their doors, partly due to the ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions. But the silver lining was that the challenges gave Montenegro a window to rebrand and re-introduce herself as Chef Reina.
“I was definitely getting tired of being asked, ‘Who’s Nick?’ Nick was the guy who I bought my first restaurant from and I didn’t change the name for legality reasons and it just happened to take off,” Montenegro said. “It was time to hide behind a mask and emerge out of this as this person that nobody even knows.”
Montenegro, who immigrated to San Francisco from the Philippines in 1997, is ready to tell her own story and be “empowered” as a woman of color and entrepreneur, especially in the plant-based space. The stay-at-home period has also fueled her creativity in the kitchen as she’s been working to ‘veganize’ and replicate the flavors and textures of animal products.
“This is when I thrive, when I am creating new things and new dishes,” she noted.
Now an online storefront operating out of a ghost kitchen, the beloved dishes from the Nick’s menus are available for delivery in the Peninsula, as well as in frozen form for those who want to cook at home. Prices range from $12-20 for the prepared dishes, and prepacked vegan meats (e.g. chick’n adobo or caldereta) are available by the pound.
In addition to the reimagined sisig, bestsellers continue to be mock pork tocino and lumpia. Chef Reina also offers variations of other non-Filipino dishes like loco moco, ‘chicken’ katsu, carnitas and bulgogi.
On a grander scale, the chef sees this as an opportunity to make adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, while enjoying Filipino favorites, less intimidating.
“If you’re stuck starting out as a vegan and don’t know what kind of meat to use and what alternatives are out there, that’s where we would come in with the pre-cooked frozen meals,” she said. “For the carnitas or sisig, they can add it with rice and a vegan egg and make burritos or tacos, or whatever they want, but at least the base is there.”
With a fresh new year, Montenegro is ready to manifest a brick and mortar spot for Chef Reina in Brisbane, nationwide shipping for the frozen vegan meats to reach a broader audience outside of the Bay, and more virtual cooking demonstrations.
“My whole concept is that this is my culinary activism. I’m here to save lives and if I can convince people to cook healthy meals at home, they don’t have an excuse because it’s already pre-made for them,” she said. “I want them to know that you can eat vegan food and feel like not you’re suffering and like you’re not eating good food.”