Chef Miguel Trinidad
DAY THREE :: 1PM
The Pork Chop Wager
It’s a Saturday in early September. We sit on the back patio of Jeepney, a Filipino restaurant that sits on E 12th Street and 1st Avenue in the East Village of Manhattan. Chef Miguel Trinidad plucks the petals from a white gerber daisy, chuckling: “DOPE Magazine, no DOPE Magazine, DOPE Magazine,” as each petal falls. Bamboo sprouts along the edges of the patio’s perimeter and fresh flowers in small vases sit sprinkled atop picnic tables. We’ve spent the majority of the last three days with Trinidad, who is referred to simply as “Chef” by his staff. It doesn’t take long for this nickname to catch on; before the end of our New York tenure with Trinidad, the video crew and myself find ourselves chirping “Chef this” and “Chef that.” Trinidad is a bit of a prankster, having come from a large family with a gaggle of nieces and nephews, so it’s no surprise that he uses sarcasm and comedy to make those around him feel comfortable. And it works.
We’re about to begin our interview when Miguel starts sniffing the air. The restaurant next door is beginning to prep for an evening of entertainment. “Ah, it smells good,” Miguel whispers, his nose investigating the delectable scent. “Smell it? It’s the Thai Restaurant next door. They’re charring something over there. That’s the grilled pork chop,” Miguel declares with certainty. “Ohhhhhhhkayyyyyyy,” I retort in a smart-alecky fashion. In my head, I’m thinking it’s ridiculous he can call out the type and cut of meat wafting on the breeze with a quick whiff. “I’ll bet any amount of money on it that it’s a grilled pork chop,” he says, smirking. I didn’t take him up on his wager. I don’t dare to go nostril-to-nostril with Chef.
DAY ONE :: 9PM
Utensils Need Not Apply
It’s Thursday in New York, and we are preparing to enjoy a traditional Kamayan feast at Jeepney. Banana leaves sit in lieu of a table cloth, and rice snakes its way down the length of the table in a two-inch by two-inch path. Atop the rice rest sausages, crawdads, head-on prawns and Filipino-style cornbread. Alongside the rice sits a refreshing cucumber and tomato salad, short ribs and a Filipino mole. This meal will be eaten without utensils of any kind, and we are given a brief yet all-encompassing lesson on how to refrain from looking like heathens while dining. You eat with your hands—this is the traditional Filipino way, creating little rice “gloves” between your index, middle finger and thumb. The newbies at the table, including myself, make a mess. Trinidad completes the feast like a pro and only tarnishes one small, paper-thin napkin along the way. I pulverize a whole stack, and hide them quickly when no one is looking. I am a clever diner with years of practice, having hidden unwanted vegetables in imaginative places as a child. We chat about family, restaurant culture, Jewish-fusion food, must-eat NY diners and Miguel’s relationship with cannabis as an ingredient in cuisine.
Miguel and his business partner, Doug Cohen, started 99th Floor in 2015. 99th Floor puts on invite-only dinners in states where cannabis is legal. You can’t make a reservation, you won’t find a list of upcoming dinners on their website and you certainly can’t buy your seat at a 99th Floor dining table. I ask Miguel what has changed in the culinary cannabis scene since our interview from last year. Miguel shares that new technology has allowed him to dose cannabis dishes with more accuracy—an essential component of ensuring that your guests enjoy themselves. “We have better control over how much medicine we are giving people—which takes the guessing game out. It’s a lot of fun because now I can play around with other components of the meal while ensuring the dishes aren’t too strong,” Miguel shares excitedly. At home, Miguel’s kitchen walls are covered in chalk. He often wakes up in the middle of the night, jotting his ideas down in rapid-fire scribbles before his head hits the pillow again. “It’s a constant evolution. You’re finding more out about cannabis every day, a different cannabinoid, terpene, flavor profile, texture or strain. We’re figuring out how to work with all of this new information. It’s an exciting time!”
Rounds of shots are set before us and taken just as expeditiously as they arrive. As the dessert is dropped off at the table, the young man who brings it is clearly earning his “sea legs.” In an attempt to drop off dessert, a playful take on traditional halo-halo, a stout parfait glass slides from one end of the oval tray to the other. It is rescued by the quick grasp of the young man just as another parfait glass heeds to gravity and leaps from the tray to the ground below. Coconut shavings and colorful gummy bears lay sprinkled on the floor. His nervousness is palpable, and I’m brought back to when I worked my first restaurant job. I feel for him, yet nonetheless he is still brought aside by Trinidad for a chat. When I peek around the corner I see Miguel holding a tray, giving the new Jeepney employee a lesson on balance and expo execution. He didn’t receive the scolding I expected to bear witness to. Later on, I ask Miguel how he balances having to be a hard-ass in the restaurant industry and being the jokey, nerdy, sweet and courteous chef that he is:
“Being a hard-ass in this industry is also necessary, but deep down inside I am a delicate flower, so you have to find a balance. I mean, there is a lot of pressure being a chef in any kitchen, no matter where you are. You’re multi-tasking, you wear many hats, but as hard as you work, you have to find time to play and balance and say thank you and appreciate the people around you. You can’t do it on your own.”
Culinary School and Artistic Endeavors
Miguel didn’t opt to go to culinary school until he was in his thirties. Since discovering this information, I keep coming back to the idea that education is often wasted on the youth. Miguel propelled his way to success on a trajectory much more direct and expeditious than many renowned chefs before him. I wanted to know if having waited until he was in his thirties to attend school had given him an edge. Was he wiser? Had he reigned in the fast-paced lifestyle that often comes with living in NYC? Was he more appreciative?
“You know,” he recalled, “going to culinary school in my thirties gave me a different perspective. It gave me a different way of looking at things, ‘cause if I was in my twenties I probably wouldn’t have taken it as seriously. When you’re still in your twenties, you’re still fucking around, you’re in NYC, you have all of this freedom and liberty—there is so much to explore.”
Miguel went on to share that he traded work for tuition via a work study program at The Institute of Culinary Education in NYC. He didn’t have time to mess around, or it would’ve cost him his enrollment. The work study program allowed him to work alongside international chefs and with rare ingredients. “The first time I saw sumac or mace, I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’” Miguel laughs. “There was so much knowledge at my fingertips . . . everything happens for a reason, and I went into culinary school at the right time in my life. It’s never too late.”
All in a New York Minute
As our time in New York comes to a close, I find myself thinking about New York as a cultural beacon—fashion, food, art, theatre—it’s all happening on a level unrivaled by most places on Earth. Miguel grew up in Queens. New York is such an electric and rapidly evolving city. Does the evolution and beauty of a place as eclectic and fast-paced as NYC reinvigorate creative types, or can it be an unwanted distraction? How has the city shaped and molded the trajectory of Miguel’s career as a chef?
“Well, I grew up in NYC and it is ever-evolving; it’s electrifying, it’s constantly different. Just like me. So you take that energy from the city, and it shapes you into the person you are today. There was a time in NYC when it was all fine dining. And now you have fine dining chefs who are moving into fine casual, or what we do at Jeepney, which is slow casual. Food, man—the best quote I ever heard about food was on my first day in culinary school. I was with Chef Richard Reuben and he said, ‘Food is a living art, it’s constantly evolving and changing.’ You can make the best dish in the world today and I can come and add one ingredient that will just take it over the edge. So take your ego and throw it out the door. ‘Cause if you aren’t learning, then it’s not worth it.”