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Melissa Miranda On Creating Community Around Filipino Cooking

Melissa Miranda is chef-owner of Musang, a Filipino restaurant that opened in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood in January 2020. She attended culinary school and worked in kitchens in Florence, Italy, before cooking for two years in New York City. After returning to her hometown, she worked as a sous chef at Bar del Corso while developing Musang. When dine-in service shut down in March, Miranda transformed Musang into a community kitchen, and she launched take-out service in early May.

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I feel all right, and I think that’s because we didn’t build this restaurant with the intention of being revenue-driven or profit-driven. Musang was a place that I hoped would be here for 10 to 15 years, and we built it in a way that it could be sustainable.

This is week six or seven of being a community kitchen, and we averaged about 200 meals a day, five days a week. Now, with take-out starting, our community kitchen days are Sunday through Tuesday. If you have our number and can contact us, we can feed you food.

I was born on Andover Street, 10 minutes from Beacon Avenue and where we sit now. Growing up, all the grocery shopping we did was at Foulee—there and MacPherson’s because they were the only stores that carried Filipino ingredients. There’s a coffee shop down the street that used to be Lucky Seafood, and that’s where we would get all of our crabs during crab season.

After graduating college at the University of Washington, I lived in Florence for almost six years. Whenever I would get homesick, I would cook Filipino food with one of my best friends, who’s Filipina-Italian. She and I would just play with ideas, like how do you make adobo if you’re just using Italian ingredients? There are so many similarities in the cuisines. Their cacciatore is like our afritada, which is just a chicken-based stew. There are also a lot of similarities in Italian and Filipino culture—family, food, gathering at the table, building community.

After Italy and New York, I moved back to Seattle and thought I wanted to pursue Italian cooking. I had a plan and a partner who was Italian. But then driving down Beacon Avenue, I had one of those moments where I looked around, and Inay’s was closed. Kucina Filipina was closed. Manila Fast Food and Video was closed. The only foothold left was Foulee.

Ernie Rios owned Inay’s. He was a hairdresser by trade, but his mother was known for her cooking. “Inay” means mother. Ernie was the first person in Seattle who cooked and presented Filipino cuisine in a way that wasn’t scoop-and-serve. He plated dishes. The dish I loved most was his crispy pata, which is a pork knuckle boiled in vinegar, then fried and served with more vinegar.

Inay’s was successful, but it’s hard. Back then, and still some now, the older generation of Filipinos has the mindset that our food is better cooked and enjoyed at home. It’s smelly. It’s not the most expensive food, and there weren’t examples of great Filipino restaurants, even in the Philippines, until more recently.

My parents’ generation came to the States working any job they could so that we could go to college. My dad arrived in Seattle by way of Alaska, where he worked in the fish canneries. There’s a huge Filipino community in Alaska, and when he moved to Seattle, there was this little group of transplants. They’re still friends, and they all have hilarious nicknames. Dad used to drive a Mustang. The “t” fell off the model tag of the car, and they started calling him Musang. But “musang” in Tagalog means wild cat. He’s six feet tall with fair skin. He had big hair. He was this ladies’ man. My dad knows a lot of people, and so anywhere we’d go—from the mall to Chinatown to just being on the streets—people would call out, “Musang!”

But the Seattle that I remember growing up, it wasn’t here anymore. That’s why we started doing pop-ups. My Italian pop-ups morphed into Italian-Filipino pop-ups, and then I thought, “How can people appreciate Filipino food if they don’t know what Filipino food is? I can’t reinterpret kare-kare if you don’t know what kare-kare even tastes like.”

The first big Filipino pop-up we did was a Feast of the Seven Fishes. It wasn’t just a pop-up, though. This Filipino folk group called Rondalya played music. We had dancers who performed a candle dance. We included local Filipino artists as vendors. I have friends who own a flower shop, and they brought in palm and banana leaves. And this Italian restaurant became a Filipino restaurant.

A lot of Filipinos who came were like, “Oh my God. We haven’t had this food in so long.” And a lot of new people told us that they didn’t realize that this is what Filipino food tasted like.

After that dinner, I went to the Philippines for almost three months—just to travel, eat, and explore. My friend Carmel Laurino owns a Filipino coffee company called Kalsada, and I spent a lot of time with her going to farms. I also made some connections in Pampanga, which is considered the culinary capital of the Philippines. But mostly, I was there by myself, and I was still grappling with what I wanted to call the pop-ups.

When I was in Banguet, I was suffering from back pain, and my friends told me I needed to see a healer. I go, and she’s this tiny woman who only speaks in dialect. I can’t understand anything she’s saying. As she’s working, she looks down at the owl tattoo on my arm. In dialect, she says to my friend Teresa, “Why does she have an owl tattoo? She should have a musang.”

I was like, “What the fuck? Did she just say ‘musang’? That’s my dad’s nickname. This is crazy.”

It was at that moment that I said, “All right. This is what we’re doing.” We started Musang off as a brunch pop-up with a rotating preset menu because I wanted to keep educating people on what different dishes were. We really made it this thing that you wanted to come to. You knew that every month you’d run into friends or make new friends. That was the Seattle I remembered, the Seattle I wanted to bring back.

Also, early into the pop-ups, Amy Besa from Purple Yam in New York—she’s the godmother of Filipino food—she and her husband Romy Dortoan went on this Filipino cultural food tour of the United States. Carmel pushed her to come to Seattle, and Amy was like, “There are no Filipinos in Seattle.”

That’s when I finally had the opportunity to meet Chera Amlag from Hood Famous and Aaron Verzosa from Archipelago. It really dawned on us that in order for us to be sustainable, we have to support and uplift this community. If we don’t support each other first and show up to each other’s events, how do we expect people to do the same for us? So we formed this coalition called ILAW, which is a network of Filipino chefs and beverage professionals here in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

After cooking a Filipino dinner at the James Beard House and hosting our third Feast of the Seven Fishes, I took some time off and went on a trip with my family to Spain, Portugal, and Italy. I was there for almost three weeks and was still questioning if I’d ever be ready to open a restaurant. But the community was asking for it. If I’m not going to do it, who will?

When we got back, it was full force. We launched our Kickstarter and got fully funded. Then we found this space. I knew we needed to be in Beacon Hill. We needed to be on this street because of the Filipino history here. We got keys in July and opened Musang in January.

We say that this restaurant is community-driven, not chef-driven. And now, through this crisis, we actually were able to start a group called the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective. There are seven of us chefs from all over the city—Chera and Geo Quibuyen from Hood Famous, Kristi Brown and Damon Bomar from That Brown Girl Cooks, Tarik Abdullah from Feed the People, Cameron Hanin of Guerilla Pizza, and Guitar Srisuthiamorn from Sugar Hill and Ayutthaya. We started texting and coordinating about a month ago and thought, “Can we create this super group that we’ve always dreamed of, that can help envision the future of what restaurants might look like?”

We’re going to do takeout until I feel like it’s safe. The reason we closed was for the safety of my employees and their families. My kitchen staff is almost all young Filipinos, and every one of them has their own story to tell. The menu is collaborative, and every single cook has had eyes and hands on every single dish.

Now, those dishes look a little different. We’re serving a lutong bahay take-out menu Wednesday through Saturday. “Lutong bahay” means home-cooked in Tagalog, and you can come pick up a hot Musang meal. And on Sunday, we’re doing this thing called “baon,” which means food that’s packaged or provisions that are taken on a journey. I hate the term “meal kit.”

I said I would never do take-out from Musang. This is such a humbling and inspiring journey. It’s like, “How do you find joy in putting food in a box?”

The goal of both projects is for you to experience Musang in your home. Our sentiment is that we’ve been so grateful to be able to have you inside our home for our first two months and throughout all the pop-ups. This is a thank you to our community, to the people who are making a conscious decision to take Musang into their homes.