The Secret Ingredients of Chef Miguel Trinidad

ArticleBrian WaniewskiComment

“Love, technique and talent,” says chef Miguel Trinidad. That’s what it takes to make great food. And it describes the trajectory of his own career, which he traces back to his mother . . . and Saturday morning cartoons.

Saturday mornings, when boy Trinidad awoke to win control of the TV from his siblings, he got hungry. One Saturday—after carefully observing his mother making breakfast all week—he fished a frying pan out of the cupboard, grabbed some eggs and cheese, pushed a chair up to the stove and got cooking. “What is this?” he heard his mother call from the doorway. But once they had settled down at the table with the eggs that he had scrambled, she was smiling. “From now on you can make breakfast for your brother and sister, and I can sleep in!” And that was how it started, in a little apartment in a then Dominican Lower East Side neighborhood not far from where, decades later, Trinidad and his business partners, Nicole Ponseca and Enzo Lim, opened their first restaurant, a modern Filipino place called Maharlika.

“Back then, when I was growing up down here,” Trinidad remembers, “There were Dominican and Polish restaurants, a few diners. Indian row was the most exotic thing we had!” But back then people mostly ate in, especially Dominicans. So mostly Trinidad remembers his mother’s love-filled dishes. There was her signature lambi, a preparation of ground conch, olive oil, onions and cilantro; her snapper, cooked in coconut milk with coconut rice on the side; and the classic rice, beans and steak he has tried and failed a million times to recreate. Today, at Maharlika, Trinidad’s mother remains a kind of muse, despite the Filipino focus, supplying the restaurant with a spiced coconut-rum drink she still prepares by hand in the kitchen of Trinidad’s boyhood.

The way from weekend egg-maker to New York City restauranteur was long and full of detours for Trinidad. There was a career in commercial photography, some cubicle time at dot-coms, a catering company and some odd years tending bar. Finally, at the magic age of thirty-three, Trinidad’s calling called, and off he went to culinary school. Some of his technique he picked up there, but the real test came at the first real gig he landed: line cook at Lola, a dinner-and-show type soul food joint in Soho. There Trinidad soon rose to executive chef. “I had no clue what I was doing!” he laughs. “So for the first few months I worked day and night, seven days a week, seven in the morning till midnight. I had to learn fast!” His now business partner, Ponseca, hired Trinidad into that job. His flexibility and facility for picking up new things made an impression. So when she began dreaming up Maharlika, she ultimately turned to him for a new take on a cuisine that was virtually unknown in the Manhattan restaurant scene.

It took Trinidad five years of trial and error in the kitchen, six months learning Tagalog—a lingua franca in a nation of seven thousand islands and almost as many cultures—and three months of non-stop travel and eating to feel his way into Filipino cuisine. In that time, Trinidad came to appreciate its parallels to the Dominican food he grew up with. Not surprising since the Philippines was a Spanish colony for more than three hundred years. Substitute adobo for ginger in a popular Filipino rice porridge, for instance, and you have the hearty Dominican stew, asopao. But Trinidad doesn’t give much significance to the fact that he, as a Dominican New Yorker, has now become a kind of ambassador for Filipino food. Many chefs have fallen in love with a far-away culture and successfully translated its dishes or ingredients back home. Trinidad’s goal is simply to bring new tastes out into the mainstream. Tastes like the poisonous-until-cooked taro root leaf or kalamansi, a lime-like citrus native to the islands. For Trinidad the test of his success are the old Filipino lolas and yayas who come in skeptical and go away soaring. “They’ve experienced what they’ve always known, but from a totally different perspective, a new angle,” Trinidad says. “They taste the food, and then they’re like, you’re OK. This is good.”

And Trinidad is just getting started. “I’m still new on the scene,” he admits. “I’m a baby compared to these guys that have been in the business for ten, twenty years.” But ask anyone which Dominican chef to watch in the city, and everyone agrees: Trinidad is talent. So check out Maharlika in Manhattan or at Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market. And stay tuned for Trinidad’s and Ponseca’s next venture, set to launch later this year in the East Village.