Opportunity to rise: a Kobe-inspired review of Chef Nikko Cagalanan
By Steve Seguin
This kind of food is meant to be shared, to be talked about, to be marveled over. The kind of food that makes other chefs take another look at their own cuisine and step up their game.
From my first visit to Nikko Cagalanan’sMansueta’s Filipino Foodstall at Workshop, I fell in love with the food. How to accurately describe the food is a task I don’t take lightly, either. I think it is a combination of things: a beautiful three pointer fromRay Allenwith its rainbow arc and teardrop finish at the bottom of the net, graciously accompanied by a jubilant verse from aPaul Simonsong. A buoyant thing of beauty destined for replays… but it is so much more too. *SWISH*
There is also the indescribable “IT” quality that is hard to pin down. Like hearing Andre 3000’s smooth and poignant delivery on countlessOutkasttracks, you don’t need to describe it any further. You just know that Mr. Andre Benjamin was meant to rap. Music and hip hop just emanate from his entire being. Tasting Nikko’s sisig that star-crossed day at Workshop for the first time, I knew I was in trouble. I went back for a second helping, ordering pancit and lumpia to satisfy my pleasantly awakened hunger.
Chef Cagalanan’s food has that quality. You taste it and things make sense. A flick of the switch, a gentle tug of the lightbulb string; illumination. Whether you have that first bite of adobo or are finishing your meal with a halo halo cocktail, you are likely wondering, “should I get some to go?” You keep coming back for more. Each bite contains such a depth of flavor as to keep your palate on high alert, tantalizing your senses and drawing you back for another until you clean your plate. Then, as if by an unseen force, you notice your mouth ordering more food because you cannot get enough.
I think it is a combination of things: a beautiful three pointer from Ray Allen with its rainbow arc and teardrop finish at the bottom of the net, graciously accompanied by a jubilant verse from a Paul Simon song. A buoyant thing of beauty destined for replays… but it is so much more too. *SWISH*
Like Kobe Bryant was born to hoop, Nikko Cagalanan was born to cook. Simple as that. You taste the joy and the love. The love for his grandmother, his meticulously honed and ever-evolving craft, his Filipino heritage, and the attention to detail in every bite of food. I’ve told countless people about this cuisine and Charleston has taken notice. Having come to town in 2017, staging with the likes ofSean Brock,Mike Lataand their teams atMcCrady’sas well asThe Ordinary,Nikko was shooting straight for the stars from the start.
Since then, he has worked with the likes ofVinson Petrillo,Maryam Ghaznavi,Alison Cates,Orlando Pagán,Brooke Warden,Justin Booher,Shamil Velazquez,Jacob Schorand more. He and his friends fed essential workers at hospitals during the pandemic. He has participated inCharleston Wine and Food,and was arguably one of the most talked about chefs to come out of the former Workshop chef incubator during its tenure on Upper King Street.
I was fortunate enough to host him at my former place of employment for a couple of pop-ups last year. The sheer joy I got from telling people to come and see this supremely talented chef made me happy. I am proud to write about him and share his story.
A story that started almost ten years ago coming from the Philippines to The United States, working atLittle Donkeyin Massachusetts for his first real taste of the culinary world, then moving down to South Carolina with his wife as her job required her to do. Every week, Nikko took the bus from Conway, South Carolina to work in Charleston, staying for five days at a time while he honed his craft at McCrady’s, The Ordinary,Zero GeorgeandThe Daily.He would then commute back to Conway, take two days to rest and see his wife then do it all over again, week after week, in pursuit of a dream.
Coming from the healthcare field, he was no stranger to the grind of long hours. This was a tastier world, and more of a natural fit. One where he could channel his passion for food, the love and memories from his grandmother’s cooking, and his vibrant personality all onto a plate. One dish at a time, we get to know who he is with exuberance in every bite. His passionate dedication is paying off, and we should all be grateful he is pursuing his heart’s calling.
Now in Charleston full-time, he is blossoming, winning the hearts and taste buds of countless diners here in the city and beyond. We all wait with baited breath for his next pop-up, hoping selfishly he lands in a permanent location so we can enjoy his Jabee lasagna, Ube ice cream sandwich, Adobo chicken, Inasal, Sariwa anytime. His playful themed dinners like “The Office”-themed one are not to be missed, either, nor are his kamayan feasts meant for consuming communally with friends. I know I am not alone in wanting to dine with the culinary craftsman for years to come.
This kind of food is meant to be shared, to be talked about, to be marveled over. The kind of food that makes other chefs take another look at their own cuisine and step up their game. The magnetism that draws people to it. That makes people want to work with him, goofily singing along toTaylor Swiftas they turn out gorgeous plates of food. Nikko is to the culinary scene whatJ Dillawas to hip hop. The detail, the depth of flavor, the fun, the passion for the craft. It’s all there.
But for now, we wait. Save your money, and when the next pop-up comes along, bring your friends. Order the whole menu and see for yourself what the buzz is all about.
Editor's note: the title is a derived from a well-known Kobe Bryant quote, "Everything negative—pressure, challenges—is all an opportunity for me to rise." All images provided and published with permission by the author, Steve Seguin.