The fall chill grips the New York air as Chef Bjorn DelaCruz of Manila Social Club and Arsen Atbashian, his sous chef, browse the stalls of the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Bjorn, clean-cut, stylish, and tall, has similar mannerisms to his namesake –Swedish tennis player, Bjorn Borg. His stoic exterior gives way to childlike excitement about the heaps of fresh produce. He and Arsen exclaim over vibrant Romanesco cauliflower, even as he pulls his black overcoat a little tighter against the chill.
This is their tradition, a walk through the farmer’s market looking for fresh inspiration for their monthly chef’s table, a ten-course dinner that sells out almost immediately after opening to the public. On these occasions, Bjorn gets to experiment and explore new interpretations of various Philippine dishes. Tonight is a celebration of a different sort, however, as they are preparing to host two dozen family members and friends for their first Thanksgiving together since the opening of the restaurant.
The menu for this Thanksgiving in Brooklyn takes inspiration from their family’s history. Bjorn grew up in Davao Oriental, Philippines, a city far removed from the hustle and craze of Manila. There, the pronounced rainy season makes for a lush landscape and farming community. In this corner of the world, Bjorn and his sister Catherine grew up amidst the verdant comforts of their grandmother’s orchid farm.
“[We] didn’t grow up with our grandma cooking for us,” Bjorn says. “Instead, we would travel with her, and try new things. She taught us how to keep our eyes open.” They eventually immigrated to the United States, moving to Bloomington, Indiana, where their youngest brother, Samuel Ware, was born. Family vacations brought them back to the Philippines and to their grandmother’s gentle urging for curiosity.
With this influence, Bjorn pursued creativity with fervor. He became a violinist, fashion insider, and even an art gallery curator, eventually hosting supper clubs in vacant spaces throughout New York. He called this pop-up dinner series Manila Social Club. His goal? To create a dialogue between the rich flavors of the Philippines and contemporary cuisine.
Catherine, then living in New Hampshire and working as a grant writer; and their younger brother, Samuel, a nonprofit program manager in Indiana, began traveling to New York to lend a hand with the dinner events as they gained momentum. Eventually, the three siblings took the leap into full-time restaurant ownership, and in February of 2015, the Manila Social Club opened for business in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In the restaurant’s small kitchen Bjorn and Arsen, returned from the farmer’s market, move as if choreographed. They have a quick and quiet coordination learned from countless hours spent working together. Bach’s cello suites play softly on the kitchen’s speakers, setting the stage for their culinary dance.
Bjorn pulls the turkey from a brine flavored with aromatics where it rested the night before. “The traditional French mirepoix consist of carrots, celery, and onion,” he explains, “but for the Philippines, garlic, onion and ginger are the holy trinity of cooking. To make dishes that reflect innovation, to show that “we’re not just rearranging traditional dishes and substituting,” Bjorn continues, “we need to understand all of our ingredients, why Filipinos cook this way.”
And how do Filipinos cook? With rich sauces, abundant flavors and all the joy of fat, salt, and fermentation. Traditional foods from the Philippines reflect the island nation’s long history of colonization and occupation, first by the Spanish, then by the United States, and, finally, by Japan. Philippine foods reflect proximity to Indonesia, Japan, and China, and a hot climate that pushes the necessity of food preservation —pickling, brining, and salting — resulting in traditional dishes of addictive pungency, and rich, intense flavors.
Bjorn’s menu at Manila Social Club brings Philippine flavors to another cultural crossroads: New York. Spam fries with banana ketchup and pickled mango sauce; spicy shrimp with chili and calamansi; and a reimagination of traditional bistek tagalog, here with beluga lentils and bok choy, that takes smoky flavor from onion ash instead of from the kawali, the iron pan that it would traditionally be cooked in. Bjorn uses duck to make his adobo, often made with either chicken or pork, as the richness of the meat strikes a chord somewhere between the two.
It’s within these thoughtful interpretations that Bjorn is able to create artful renditions of classical Philippine cuisine. His food continues to be rooted in Philippine philosophy but moves forward into the modernist kitchen.
Moreover, Manila Social Club is not just an eatery, it is collaborative family effort that nurtures the same sense of curiosity and adventure that their grandmother instilled in them as children. “What people don’t understand is we are a restaurant, but the core of the restaurant is social,” Catherine explains, “it is an extension of who we are.” Bringing Manila Social Club to life as a restaurant meant that Samuel and Catherine gambled on Bjorn’s dreams. None of them had prior restaurant experience. The three bought and built it together. The first year they opened, their father, Tim Ware, passed away.
At this, their first Thanksgiving without him, the grief of this loss is present in the family’s new, restaurant home.
Catherine pulls together the wooden tables into one long, communal setting. Samuel polishes wine glasses before the guests arrive. Their mother, Ellen, who flew in from Indiana for the holiday, is lighting candles. They glow against the midnight blue walls, and the light bounces off of the white tin ceiling, casting shadows against the orchid planters, a tribute to their grandmother, that line the walls.
Bjorn and Arsen finish cooking the menu. The centerpiece is a Philippine inspired roast turkey stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, onion, and ginger. Lacquered in soy sauce, calamansi juice, and cane vinegar, its skin shines golden. Just as they have on countless busy evenings, the siblings ferry plates to the table. Spam fried rice, lobster, and shrimp. Farmer’s market leeks and mushrooms, a beet salad, and dessert, a durian pie, the flesh of the aromatic fruit tamed into a custard with cream and sugar.
Bjorn stands to carve the turkey. He smiles at the family and friends around the table. His voice shakes.
As so many others from so many places do on Thanksgiving, the Manila Social Club family passes the plates, offering thanks. They are grateful for the beautiful meal They are grateful for a successful restaurant. They are grateful, most of all, for one another.