Filipino cuisine is well-known for its savory and rich flavor dishes, but wouldn't be complete without meat. However, one Filipino-American chef who is based in California revolutionized Filipino cuisine by using plant-based ingredients without sacrificing traditional flavors.
She is none other than, Chef Reina Montenegro.
Pure Filipino, 100% Vegan
Through the years in the San Francisco food scene, Fil-Am chef Reina Montenegro has made a name for herself for converting some of the most iconic Filipino dishes into healthier, vegan options.
Montenegro was born and raised in Dumaguete City on the Philippine island of Negros, and moved to the Bay Area in 1997. Montenegro prides herself as being self-taught in the kitchen and started her restaurant career as a personal chef and caterer in 2012 when she decided, after 10 years at a corporate job, to follow her passion for food and cooking.
Montenegro has created dishes for Mayors Jean Quan of Oakland, Tom Bates of Berkeley, and the late Ed Lee of San Francisco. She also catered events for Apple, NASA, UBER, Twitter, Goldman Sachs, BlackRock Investments, and more.
In 2016, her catering business eventually led to opening a restaurant, ‘Nick’s Kitchen’ in Daly City. A year later, she decided to change the concept to be aligned with her plant-based diet and cruelty-free lifestyle; as the first Filipino Vegan restaurant in the Peninsula. Montenegro opened three popular Filipino vegan restaurants in the Bay Area; Nick’s Kitchen, ‘Nick’s On Grand’ (opened in 2018 in South San Francisco), and ‘Nick’s On Mission’ (opened in 2019 in San Francisco).
She also opened an online storefront last year, Chef Reina, but recently opened its restaurant version with a to-go window for online and walk-up orders.
Chef Reina is located in Brisbane, California, a small city south of San Francisco tucked under the lower slopes of the San Bruno mountain.
"My goal is to have everyone try vegan food and not feel like they're not missing out on their meat. So it's definitely not just vegan food, it's hopefully good, great food they want to try." - Reina Montenegro, owner of Chef Reina
Veganized Filipino Meat Favorites
Montenegro became a vegan a few years ago because of health reasons. It was at the time when she opened Nick's. However, it came to a point when she cannot even eat the dishes she was serving to her customers, albeit she was the chef. That was the turning point when she decided to transform her restaurant into 100% vegan.
At first, she was anxious as many of her patrons may not going to support her new menu. But her announcement became viral to the vegan community, and people started to storm her restaurant night after night.
Now, Nick's restaurants are closed. But Montenegro is happier that she finally got her own brand.
"Because of COVID, I was given the opportunity to build my own brand. No partners or investors. It’s quite liberating, scary as hell, but the best thing I’ve ever done. No more hiding behind “Nick.” - Chef Reina Montenegro
According to Montenegro, she didn't cut the meat out of these Filipino dishes; she merely recreated them by using wheat gluten, tofu, mushrooms, and soy protein.
"I make my own faux meat and also use products that are already on the market. I just do a lot to their product to get the desired texture and taste of the dish I am trying to re-create. It’s a constant trial and error, lots of waking up in the middle of the night thinking of what to use." - Chef Reina Montenegro
A Movement to a Healthier Lifestyle
The vegan chef will be expanding her customer base while also offering an exclusive, all-purpose, plant-based pork analog - known as Omni Pork.
"We're going to start shipping our vegan meats all over the country, so that's a big thing coming up. We also have Omni-Pork, which is like this vegan pork coming all the way from Asia. They're launching in the US, so I'm one of the nine restaurants in the country that will carry it on." - Chef Reina Montenegro
Apart from introducing Omni Pork, Montenegro is also using her new restaurant as a space for cooking lessons, virtual cooking demos, and events.
Her content will be focused on product and restaurant reviews, showing people how to cook vegan food and inviting other vegan chefs as guests to cook alongside her.
"I want to be able to do cooking lessons, cooking shows, and teach people how to replace their everyday basic food items at home with good vegan substitutes.” - Chef Reina Montenegro
Montenegro is not merely revolutionizing signature Filipino cuisine, but she also created a movement for healthier eating habits. Because of her faux meat dishes, many of her meat-lovers customers are patronizing her vegan fare.
"65 percent of my customers are not even vegan. They just come because they love good food. That is my ultimate goal: to convince people to eat vegan through my culinary activism. Give them food that makes them forget about meat and dairy." Chef Reina Montenegro
To find out more about these flavorful guilt-free Filipino dishes, visit Chef Reina's website. You can also order online or do a walk-in to their restaurant in Brisbane City.