When the Asian American Movement exploded in the 1960s, various activists focused on representation in the institutions of power — access to higher education, the legal system, and the political system. As a demographer based in the nation’s capital, I focused on the federal statistical system to ensure that Asian Americans, including Filipinos and Filipino Americans were counted, especially in the U.S. Census Bureau. Since then, other avenues of representation became prominent — media, arts, literature, music, entertainment and cuisine.
The cuisines of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region are blessed with a bounty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and seafood in all seasons. In recent years, its chefs and cooks, many who grew up here, have been showcased locally, nationally and globally.
Melissa Miranda is in the lead among them, with many accolades including Best New Chefs of 2022 by Food and Wine Magazine and a semifinalist for the 2023 James Beard Award. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she founded Musang, a Filipino restaurant in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, where she grew up.
In 2023, she opened Kilig in the Chinatown International District (CID) which features pancit, a Filipino noodle classic. Her responses below confirm Miranda as a marvelous muse, inspiring us to know more of food and people connections as we savor her comforting dishes.
Juanita Tamayo Lott: You have very varied and fascinating work experience and job skills from positions in the United States and abroad, from fashion management at Nordstrom, to teaching English in Italy, to being Chef at Bar del Corso. Is there a common theme about life and food that you’ve gained?
Melissa Miranda: The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that the journey in life is never linear. Food is what connects us and is an incredible way for us to communicate and tell stories.
JTL: Is Musang a metaphor?
MM: I don’t know about that. I think it was a way to honor my dad, and through it, it’s evolved into something else. It means different things for many people. I’ve always hoped it would be a place to bring people together, a place that would heal people and our community. I was in Benguet, near Baguio, at a Filipino coffee farm with my friends from Kalsada Coffee. I visited the local healer to look at some pains I’d been having and she looked at my tattoos. I have an owl tattoo and she said in her dialect: “Why does she have an owl? She should have a musang.” It blew me away, as that was the nickname of my dad, and I was so far away. It felt like, “This is my sign for whatever is next.”
JTL: I first learned about you during the first few weeks of COVID-19, in spring 2020, when Musang was one of the first restaurants in Seattle to feed first responders and essential workers. Why and how did you do this, especially since you were just starting Musang?
MM: We did it because that was the only thing we knew to do. We had an empty restaurant. We had food that needed to be cooked. We knew other restaurants would have food that needed to be cooked, too. My sous chef, Jonnah Ayala, and I were roommates at the time, and we knew that we could be safe — and keep our team safe by having them at home —and just started cooking. It was more important to help feed the people on the front lines, the people that were impacted the most. I applied for grants and asked our community for support, and we just put our heads down and hoped for the best.
JTL: I think of you in the mold of chef, author Sean Sherman of The Sioux’s Chef Indigenous Kitchen, taking indigenous food preparation/serving, then updating and evolving it for today. It honors collective products and creates institutional memory. You have come full circle, especially being a native Seattleite. Describe this process with a couple of examples.
MM: So much of my life has been influenced by my family. My mother, my father, my lola. I have core memories of going to Fou Lee with my dad, ordering Lechon from Kau Kau, going to Lucky Seafood when it was located at Victrola on Beacon Hill, visiting Tito Ernie at Inay’s. So much of it was food-driven and spaces where I saw Filipino businesses existing.
When I moved back home, all of it had changed and it really hit me. Thankfully, Fou Lee is still holding it down, but so much of my childhood — I felt sad that people couldn’t experience that anymore. So much of my time abroad, my feelings of homesickness were always cured with a Filipino meal and that is what I wanted to share. Pop-ups at Bar del Corso brought back that feeling of Filipino community on Beacon Hill and all I wanted was for people to connect and educate people on the foods I grew up with.
JTL: How do you feel about traditionally comfort (affordable) ethnic foods being showcased and curated in restaurants that cater to higher income folks? It feels weird to see more white folks in such restaurants, eating dishes created by people of color who can’t afford to eat there, or even get reservations.
MM: We need to rethink how we represent our food. There are many different entry points to our food. From the mom and pop shops like Oriental Mart in Pike Place, fast food like Jollibee, and places like Archipelago and Kasama in Chicago. So much of how our idea of food has been shaped by quantity over quality, and thinking that our food isn’t “worth” more. Instead of taking pride in the fact that we can put and choose to put value to our food — the time it takes to make it, the way we source ingredients, which farms we’re supporting — we need to support all of the entry points to our food because so much work goes into all the sides. Instead of seeing the white folks in these spaces — take a look around and see the Filipino families that are sharing stories and how much pride they have to have such spaces for them; that a younger Filipino couple can share space with their grandparents and children, and they can build those core memories together.
JTL: The late Uncle Fred Cordova of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) used to greet folks not with, “How are you?” but with “Have you eaten yet?’ Talk about the centrality of food to you, your family, Musang, and the greater community.
MM: “Have you eaten yet?” — shows how much my family cares about you, without actually saying “I care about you.” The extra scoop of rice — the best pieces of beef from the mechado. I think in my family, there’s so much healing occurring because our parents were never asked how they were. They can care about you through food, but then have difficulty furthering our relationship deeply. It’s understanding when my mom spent a whole day making her Pancit Palabok and that is her way of showing her love. I think Musang is trying to bridge that gap. That we can ask the deeper questions of care, over food, not just with that extra rice scoop.
JTL: Although young Filipino American chefs like you stress that your dishes are not your lola’s or mother’s cooking, might you have been influenced by history of Filipino cooks in U.S. institutions like the armed forces, hotels, restaurants, and even the White House? What about by pioneer Filipino agricultural workers in Hawaii and the West Coast?
MM: What I’ve always stressed is that the food we cook is based on our childhood memories. I’ve been influenced by all of the stories and memories from my team, my family, and friends. Tita Amy and Tito Romy from Purple Yam are huge inspirations to how we share our food, and all of the mom and pop shops and turo turo’s along the coast and in Hawaii have created memories that shape how we cook our food.
JTL: How can we reduce food waste and food insecurity in the Seattle and Pacific Northwest region?
MM: Connecting with farmers locally, understanding the parts and needs of your restaurant so that you are consistently using fresh products, using scraps for new dishes, and working with non-profit organizations that can help with meal delivery.
JTL: Tell us more about the Pacific Northwest collaboration of Filipino chefs — collaborative cooking; different flavors and cuisines of the islands. Filipino chefs showcase heritage through cooking both for elite and everyday people.
MM: I think that we all kind of came up together. Chera Amlag, Aaron Verzosa, and I were all doing pop-ups and figuring out our identities as chefs. We were there to help and support each other. As we continued our pop-ups and building our brick and mortars, we were always there at each other’s events, even cooking and collaborating together. Our community saw that, and the idea of community over competition really became real. When we share space, we learn more by being together. Chefs from London, Vancouver, and San Francisco have all been in the Musang space, and what we learn from them and vice versa is more important because of those shared experiences.
JTL: Your accolades are not just for being a fantastic, innovative young chef and business owner, but also for your infectious generosity and empathy. What are your cooking adventures for the next few years?
MM: To continue to travel and collaborate with other like-minded chefs and people. I’d love to continue to grow Musang, our Wild Cats Catering Company, and Kilig in the International District.