Wearing a beaming smile and gilded Nike Air Maxes to match his customary white chef’s coat, Chef Bjorn De La Cruz of Williamburg hotspot Manila Social Club looks every bit the part of successful, emerging restauranteur. Looking around at the carefully considered decor and fully stocked bar, you’d never imagine that the eatery (just one year old) was built from the ground up by three siblings who had never previous worked in the hospitality industry. And after tasting complex dishes like the Kinilaw of Scallop and the Belt Fish Escabeche, you certainly never think that Chef Bjorn De La Cruz has had no formal culinary training other than cooking poolside for family. At this point in the story, it should come as no surprise that there is much to learn about Chef, but luckily his dishes are the best way to start.
Inspired by memories of his grandmother’s home in the Philippines, Manila Social Club is populated with blooming orchids and dotted with baby pineapple plants (an obvious TTS favorite). His grandmother was the largest orchid farmer in the South Philippines, and Bjorn recalls summers spent hiking and exploring the countryside with his siblings. What he reflects on most often from his time spent there was how the tropical abundance of produce and flavors helped communities both survive and thrive; from a young age, Bjorn had no doubt that the key to the culture of the Philippines lay in its combination of fiery, smoky and sweet flavors.
Manila Social Club is Bjorn and the rest of the De La Cruz siblings’ (sister Toki and brother Sam) way of introducing that culture to a new community. While Filipino cuisine has slowly begun to ascend in New York thanks to spots like Jeepny, Manila Social Club is different in its viewpoint. Throughout our separate conversation, all siblings mention at least once that the “social club” aspect is what makes their restaurant special. Prior to taking up residence in the kitchen or behind the bar, they were all artists and creatives who understood the value of curating not just flavors, but experiences as well. Whether through eye-popping flavorful favorites like their vibrant purple and now insta-famous Ube Donuts, or intimate events like their live street art event that takes place on cool summer nights in their front garden, Bjorn and crew take great pride in feeding their community with more than just food.
Check out more from our inspiring interview with Manila Social Club, and make sure you scroll through for peeks at their delicious Duck Adobo (#foodporn).
Favorite International Foodie Destination?
Obviously, Manila. I love eating all over Manila. It may not be seen as an International Foodie Destination as of yet, but I’m declaring it right now.
NY in the Fall or in the Spring?
Your Favorite Dish on the Manila Social Club Menu?
The Lobster with Durian Soubise, braised leeks, and Confit Duck Yolk.
Go to Nightcap?
Cognac, St. Germaine, topped with Cristal. Twist of orange. This drink is called a Bjorn.
Last thing you do before bed?
Pray and thank God I get to cook food and eat for a living.
You have a diverse professional background. Tell us about your past-life career(s) prior to opening Manila Social Club?
I never actually went to culinary school or worked in the culinary industry. After college in Indiana At Indiana University studying international business and economics, I went to New Hampshire and worked for a small online publication reporting on renewable energy. During this time I was part of a Folk Americana band called Lonesome Lake and toured the East Coast and northeast playing my violin with different groups and recording several different albums.
After three years living in rural New Hampshire, I decided to go to New York City to continue exploring my musical outlets. However when I got here, I instead entered the fashion industry working as a marketing and sales director for a small design company. It was during this time that the president and the CEO of the company mentored me and had a great influence in developing my appreciation for fine art and collecting. They both also encouraged me to develop my interest in cooking and gastronomy.
After working with them for three years I decided to enter the contemporary fine art world and began to work with a few artists and began to represent them and sell their art. I love art and the study of aesthetic, be it visual, sonic, or gastronomic. It’s all really about lifestyle. During this time though, I was hosting pop-up dinners around the city.
A few years of that and with couple Art Basel’s under my belt, my sister found a restaurant for sale in Williamsburg. Within two months we closed on the location and established a permanent location for Manila Social Club.
How difficult was the transition from hosting pop-up dinners to launching a restaurant open for full-time service?
This step wasn’t the most difficult. Everything really just fell into place and when we needed something he came just at the right time. The hard part was building a strong team that understood my passion and vision for Manila Social Club and my interpretations for what would become Progressive Filipino Cuisine.
When it was time to start building your staff, how did you go about recruiting? How important was it that each team member understood your mission and what you were trying to create?
This was really a very hard process as I had no experience in the industry. No one in the restaurant industry knew my name or really cared what I was doing. I myself did not know what I was actually doing and trying to recruit good cooks with experience and a passion for cooking.
Understanding that thought is one of the most important aspects of any cook that wants to work under me. Two of my current sous chefs sought me out after hearing about Manila Social Club — they quit their jobs at two very famous restaurants to cook and journey with me on this culinary adventure. I really believe that the team that I have now is extremely strong and is exactly the team that I need for this part of the Manila Social Club experience.
Every detail in Manila Social Club is so thoughtful! Can you share with us the aesthetic vision and the key inspirations you pulled from while building out the space ?
It’s all very simple, really. Food for Filipinos is always an experience that involves family and friends. The space we built out is inspired by my grandmothers’ house in the southern Philippines. She had a beautiful house with big windows with colors of blue and white surrounded by orchids, banana plants, mango and star fruit trees, and other beautiful tropical flora. As she owned and operated one of the largest orchid nurseries and cut flower operations in the southern Philippines, I remember waking up to see all the orchid flowers fly away and then realized they were all butterflies and that the orchid blooms were still there. Some might say it was very surreal growing up surrounded by that kind of beauty, but really when you think about it, it wasn’t surreal, it was just real. It was real life. The life that you had in the Philippines. What you experience at Manila Social Club is a very very small part of what I could show you in the Philippines. One day you’ll have to come with me and see it for yourself. It will take you to the next level.
How do you balance maintaining family history and cultural traditions with innovation and pushing the envelope?
For me it’s very easy, really. My family history and my cultural traditions have always been about innovation and always included pushing the envelope. I think sometimes that’s what a lot of Filipinos forget. Filipino food tradition has always been about a progressive and innovative take on cuisine. It is never static and is a very exciting and dynamic look at cuisine. It has always been about seeing the influences and understanding the diversity of ideas and ingredients that we have available to us. Filipino cuisine could be seen as the first real fusion and that makes it a very powerful platform to create and develop. That is my experience in the study of Filipino food.
If you were to provide a cheat sheet to someone who has never tried Filipino food, what would you describe as the essential flavor profiles of the cuisine?
It’s about sweet, sour, and salty in a very bold and fresh way.
Why do you think Filipino food has been slow to catch on with those outside of the culture?
I’m not sure really. Maybe it’s because those on the outside are only now starting to really understand and appreciate the complexities and taste that Filipino food has to offer. People are just starting to become more educated and adventurous when it comes to learning about Filipino food — it is very bold and never apologetic.
Manila Social Club has partnered with brands in the fashion space, the art world, the music community and more. As you grow and evolve, do you view yourselves transforming into a lifestyle brand?
Its very foundation is just that. I didn’t name it Manila Fine Dining or Manila Bar and Grill, I named it Manila Social Club. It has always been a place and an idea focused on living a great life and experiencing it with passionate, creative people. Experiencing Filipino food is just the easiest, most accessible and first step of the Manila Social Club life.
Real talk time… tell us about the donuts! How did your dream them up and how does it feel to watch them develop their own rabid following?
Oh, the donut! After making a dessert special last summer for our regular dinner service, the following morning I piped out the leftover dough into rings and gently placed them in the fryer. That first morning, I made 8 donuts. A customer walked in and bought all eight. So, the next day I made 8 more. She came in every day that week and bought all the donuts. After that, we decided to throw a party with just donuts. We didn’t have our liquor license yet, so all we could sell were donuts. The parties got crazy even without alcohol. I’ve never seen such a wild bunch partying and dancing off of just Ube Donuts! With that in mind and after a lot of calls, we decided to offer donuts you could pre-order on our website to be picked up only on Fridays. Usually there is about a two week wait for a box of one dozen Ube Donuts.
In one word, what do you want diners to take away from their Manila Social Club experience?
Either love or family. Hopefully diners will feel, see and taste the love we put into our shared experience, and hopefully they feel like they can be part of the Manila Social Club family.
Photography by Vanessa Granda