Say Hi to Miguel Trinidad: Chef at Maharlika and Jeepney, Edibles Innovator & Lover of Fish Sauce

Even if you consider yourself savvy about food, chances are that the names of Filipino dishes don’t roll off the tongue. Not yet anyway. But just as sushi made the leap from from strange to staple in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Filipino cuisine is taking root, and quickly. In fact, Vogue published a story in 2017 that called Filipino food “the next great American cuisine,” giving credit to the food tv personality Andrew Zimmern for predicting the rise of the Filipino eats back in 2012.

We’d be foolish to argue with Vogue on trends, but we will argue that the popularity of fare from the Philippines should actually be credited to Miguel Trinidad and Nicole Ponseca, who opened the restaurant Maharlika in New York in 2011, followed by Jeepney the following year. Miguel is now one of the most recognizable names and most outspoken advocates of the cuisine in the country. A New Yorker so native that he was born in a cab, whose family immigrated from the Dominican Republic, Miguel was inspired to learn the cuisine of the Philippines by his business partner Nicole Ponseca. Far from inauthentic, Miguel is the living embodiment of his culinary vision to get Americans to learn and love Filipino food.

He’s also one of the founders and the chef of 99th Floor, a series of invitation-only cannabis-infused dinners held in states where adult use of marijuana is legal. His approach: to embrace the effect and flavors of cannabis to create unexpectedly delicious and lightly buzzed experiences, all in an effort to destigmatize cannabis consumption. In a career that has only been snowballing in momentum, Miguel is also releasing a line of savory edibles that will be available in California and Washington at the end of 2018. Yes, get excited.

We had the enormous pleasure of talking to Miguel — whose creative mind, thoughtfulness, and infectious laugh make him irresistibly likeable — about the secret to great Filipino cooking, the future of cannabis, and the magic of fish sauce.

What are your thoughts on cannabis, and how do you incorporate it into your life?

I use cannabis as a pain reliever in the form of CBD, and I smoke it. I’m a chef, I stand all day, and my knee hurts. Sometimes I can’t turn off my brain when I get home and have difficulty falling asleep.

I also saw that my mother was taking a lot of medications for her diabetes, for depression, for her liver. I started bringing her topicals for some of her ailments, and she really resisted trying them. As a Latina women who grew up in the early 60s, she was really against cannabis. Her attitude was that if you have anything to do with cannabis, you’ll be an addict and end up in jail. But one day she let up and tried a topical, and she called me to say, “I’m not going to tell you it made me feel better, but it didn’t make me feel any worse.” That was her reluctant way of saying it worked, and it was a breakthrough. I’ve been trying to get her to take edibles, but she doesn’t trust me that much. [Miguel laughs.]

I’m also one of the founders of 99th Floor, along with Doug Cohen. We met on the set of a tv show, and we knew we wanted to work together on other projects. One day, over lunch, he asked, “what do you think about doing something related to cannabis?” Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the idea because edibles were always sweets — brownies, cookies, candies — and I’m more on the savory side. But we realized that if we could infuse savory foods, it could really take off. We went to LA to meet with one of our current suppliers, who introduced me to a whole new world of cannabis: distillates, CBD separate from THC, individual terpenes. I was a kid at FAO Schwartz.

So we started holding dinners two and a half years ago, and they really gained momentum quickly. We’ve been covered by so many media outlets, The New Yorker being the biggest one. And having The New Yorker come out and write a positive story was epic because we’re trying to destigmatize cannabis through food. Everyone loves food, everyone’s gotta eat. It’s universal.

You take a unique approach at 99th Floor by embracing the flavors found in cannabis, pairing them with ingredients that compliment those flavors. What are some of the most successful dishes you’ve made?

There is so much. [Miguel laughs]. Some might say that that’s the munchies talking, but it’s not. You can actually look at a specific strain and its terpene profile to know whether there are earthy notes, cinnamon notes, chocolate notes, and you create a dish around those flavors.

Some of our work is also the result of happy mistakes. In fact, I was playing around with a chocolate ice cream base and accidentally put some wax into the base. Instantly the apartment smelled like cinnamon and Mexican hot chocolate. So we ran with the Mexican hot chocolate flavor: we added some chilis, and because sour cherries have some of the same terpene profiles as the wax, we added some dried cherries. That was the birth of the Four Cs: cannabis, chocolate, cherries and cayenne.

That was a happy mistake, and that kind of creativity is the basis of our dinners. We basically create a menu based on the strain we’re using. And we always use the best quality cannabis. Just like vegetables, you want to work with the best possible product.

At Say Hi, we think that being inclusive goes hand-in-hand with destigmatizing cannabis. Do you have any plans to make your savory edibles more accessible?

Actually, we’re currently in production of an edibles line. We’re coming out with a line of hard candies, but we’re primarily focusing on savory foods like nut bars, condiments, sauces, and things that you can add to your meal. Think of: canna-mayo. We also have additives that you can put in your water for flavor and to relax. It’s a whole line of savory condiments and applications that should come out in the next six months.

I love making savory foods and infusing them with cannabis, but one thing I’ll say is that I’ve experienced loss from cancer, and that’s an important reason for creating this line. I’ve seen people deteriorate so quickly. It can be so hard to get the proper nutrition as a cancer patient. A lot of them can’t go buy groceries and can’t cook, and I don’t want them to microwave and eat a Hot Pocket. Instead, you can have a whole meal that’s made with fresh produce and organic proteins, that’s flavorful, that’s medicated, and that’s not expensive. It shouldn’t be about making money, it should be about helping people.

You’re based in New York City, and cannabis has been a big topic in the New York gubernatorial race. Is there a message about cannabis that you’d send to Andrew Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon, or whoever wins?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s about time! New York is supposed to set the pace for the rest of the world. But then I’d ask, if they’re going to legalize [for adult use], how are they going to educate people on the basics, so that people can use cannabis responsibly? I’d like to see a plan for educating the public on proper use and the benefits of this plant, especially because there will be a lot of first-time users. Putting an age limit on purchasing is just one step. How do you prevent people from going out on the street and just smoking blunt after blunt just because it’s legal? How do you prevent people from making shitty ass brownies? [Miguel laughs.] That might be a little extreme, but it’s all about educating people in my book.

There’s more and more great Filipino food out there, but I’ve also experienced really bad versions of it. What’s the secret to great Filipino cooking?

Just like my lola [Filipino term of endearment for a grandmotherly figure] said to me in the Philippines, “Miguel, when you cook, you put your corazon into it.” You cook from the heart.

There are also basic techniques to Filipino cuisine that go against everything you’ve learned in culinary school. For example, take garlic and brown it before you sauté your chicken. In French style cooking, you’d never do that, but that’s a key component to really getting that Filipino flavor. You caramelize the garlic, just like you caramelize onions.

What’s your favorite thing to eat when you have the munchies?

One of my favorite things to eat is ice cream! But I usually go towards the savory side and make some kind of a sandwich.

Into the icebox, middle shelf: what’s the one thing in your fridge you couldn’t do without?

I can only pick one‽ It would have to be fish sauce. It goes extremely well in condiments, it makes a great marinade and a great dressing. A little bit of lemon, fish sauce, some sugar and chilis make a great dressing for salad or dipping sauce for dumplings.

By the way, have you ever made soup dumplings? Adding a little bit of fish sauce in that broth before it gelatinizes really takes it to the next level. And when you’re making that broth, before it solidifies, go ahead and put a quarter of a gram of shatter or wax into it. Fish sauce and cannabis in dumplings…a whole new ball game.

The truth about Miguel and Hot Pockets:

I do make a mean ass hot pocket, and it’s super delicious. We’ve done an adobo pocket with homemade ricotta cheese that gets pressed, and I’ve done it with spinach, with chicken adobo. I’ve done just plain home cooked applewood ham with artisanal cheeses.

I got started making these because a friend of mine one day said “I just want a Hot Pocket,” and I responded by saying that that shit is crap. It’s delicious when you’re really high, but it’s so bad for you. I proposed that I just make one, and my friend said, “Okay you make me one, and I’ll try it. I bet I’ll just like the Hot Pocket better.” I showed him, and now it’s one of the savory items we’re working on for release.