In a lot of ways, Milkfish, the Filipino pop up started by Cristina Quackenbush and lauded by industry insiders, is the exemplary pop up?it features an innovative take on an unfamiliar cuisine, which has earned it high praise from food critics, and, perhaps more revealingly, chefs throughout New Orleans. Though grateful for the support she's received from within the industry, Quackenbush, who recently moved Milkfish from its temporary home in Who Dat Cafe so it could make a weekly cameo at Adolfo Garcia's a Mano, doesn't want to keep working out of someone else's kitchen. She's hoping to find Milkfish a permanent home, and raise the profile of Filipino cuisine in a city famous for its eclectic collection of culinary traditions.
You started a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds for a brick-and-mortar home for Milkfish. How's that going so far?
[Laughs] Not so good. There's a lot of confusion, I guess, because a lot of people didn't know where I'd be located. Even though we didn't hit the goal that we wanted, we did get some valuable networking done, which can lead to more opportunities in the future.
A lot of people, especially people like Andrew Zimmern, think Filipino food can catch on in a big way. It has with a lot of the industry insiders, but do you still feel like you're doing something fairly unique, at least in New Orleans?
It's really crazy to me. I'm just flabbergasted that there aren't more Filipino restaurants, thought I definitely think it's a trend on the rise right now. When I first started my career, I was featured in an article with Andrew Zimmern saying that Filipino is going to be the next big thing, and that was two years ago. I expected it to catch on a lot faster than it has, but it's definitely on the rise. I've gotten a lot of people up in New York who've contacted me saying that the trend is blowing up in the North?how's it doing in the South? I'm like, "Uh, not so much," though a lot of people are more willing to try it now. But it hasn't blown up the way I thought it would two years ago.
I definitely think the potential is still there. A lot of people seem apprehensive, but the food isn't that weird or anything. I think the reason why [people are apprehensive] is because the cuisine itself does not have a good reputation, and most people think that it's just a bunch of stewed stuff, which is just not the case. I've been doing my best to make sure people know that that's not true.
You've certainly attracted a lot of fans within the food industry. How do you think you've managed to win so many food critics and chefs over? Is it just word of mouth?
Word of mouth, to me, is the best weapon I have as far as getting people in. One of my big things is making sure that every single plate that leaves my kitchen is the best?I just want it to be the best meal that the guest has ever had. With every single dish?I don't care how big or small it is?I just want to make an impact. I take extra care to make sure the meal is good, and one thing I've noticed from doing this is that the guests will ask, "Can I speak to the chef?" and when I come out of the kitchen they tell me all these great things about the meal. The conversation spreads, so word of mouth is definitely amazing. It's just a matter of getting more people in and keeping it going.
Has your goal always been to open your own brick-and-mortar place? Do you think that's the goal for other pop ups and food trucks, to open a more traditional spot?
Definitely, yeah. We're a pretty tight community, the food trucks and the pop ups. I know I've always wanted to open my own restaurant for like two years now. Spending all that time working in other people's restaurants, I kind of felt like I was teaching myself. After enough time went by, I felt more confident?that I had educated myself and the time was right now to know what would make it successful for me. From that point on, it's been my goal to open up my own place?this is what I want to do.
There's no Filipino restaurant here, and I feel like it's just something that needs to be here. We have this big city with all these different cultures and flavors and there's no Filipino spot. I just really want to change the opinion of it.
It seems to be the sort of cuisine that people in this city especially would appreciate.
Definitely. The other night, I had the La Cocinita people, who I'm pretty good friends with, come in and tell me that they were trying to get their own place, too. I believe a lot of the food truck operators and pop up people are going about the restaurant business the right way, because you definitely want to test out your food to sort of see if it'll be successful before you open up and invest all that money. You develop your fan base and your brand.
How hard is it for you to balance the business side with cooking side, especially when you're still sort of in the process of getting your own space?
Believe me, it's a lot of work, but I have Adolfo Garcia on my side and I pick his brain constantly; he's probably tired of hearing from me. I'm constantly talking to him and getting his opinion on things, especially on the New Orleans food scene. My fiancé also helps a lot with the business side of things; he does a lot of my meet-and-greets, and sets up a lot of the pop up locations. It definitely makes my work a lot more manageable, but there have been things that I didn't anticipate and it's been a learning process, for sure.
What do you want your fans, the people who've been eagerly awaiting the time when Milkfish gets its own spot, to know at this stage in the game?
I just want people to continue to come. When I do the pop up, I can look out and see that the dining room has so many different kinds of people in it, not just people from within the industry, and that's encouraging. I want people to experience the food I grew up on, to feel the love and soul that went into cooking it. I want my eventual place to be family-oriented, not corporate or anything. I'd like it to be a place where families come together, because that's the kind of thing I grew up on.