While vegan food used to be relegated to health stores and granola hippies, plant-based diets have become all the rage—and we’re not just talking blackbean burgers and Beyond sausage.
Chef Reina Montenegro is a vegan chef in San Francisco who’s dedicated her career to sharing the benefits of a plant-based diet with her family and her customers. Born and raised in the Philippines, she digs into her cultural roots to create vegan versions of traditional Filipino dishes, as well as plant-based takes on Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other cuisines around Asia and the world.
She used to run the popular Bay Area vegan eatery Nick’s, but when the pandemic forced restaurants to shutter, Montenegro turned the trial into an opportunity to re-imagine her services. Today, she runs Chef Reina, a self-titled business serving mouth-watering plant-based meals from a take-out window in Brisbane with plans to ship her frozen meat substitutes nationwide.
We caught up with Montenegro to learn more about her passion for plant-based foods, why she made the switch and how she manages to make spam musubi, baconsilog and lumpia Shanghai so freaking addictive without an ounce of real meat.
What inspired your passion for cooking and interest in the plant based diet?
I've been cooking since I was nine years old. I lived in this small town called Dumaguete city, on the south side of the Philippines. There's nothing much to do there, and my grandma really influenced me to cook—my father as well.
When I came here to America in 1997, I came after college and dove into work. I worked three jobs—the typical story of people immigrating to this country. I was given the opportunity to be a caterer, and when I had kids, I noticed my children had these weird skin problems. I started panicking and researching online. I came across an article saying skin disease is connected to dairy. I cut [my daughter's] milk intake and my partner at that time, too, who had the skin problem. He was vegetarian and still having these problems.
I had my personal veganism awakening for health reasons, and I started to worry about not eating the stuff from my childhood. I'm Filipina. We love pork, and if you don't eat meat, what are you going to eat? So, I started veganizing everything.
How did your life change after adopting a vegan diet?
I just remember feeling very light in my gut, and I remember more mental clarity. You feel like a different person. I come from a line of family with heart problems. My mom had high blood pressure in her 40s . My dad has very high cholesterol. My brother is in his 40s now, and he's struggling with the same thing.
I recently went to the doctor because I wanted to see, how am I doing? I'm 47, so I must have something. They did bloodwork and everything, and the doctor basically said, “I want to be vegan,” because I'm like the poster child of what healthy looks like. The results show. You feel better. Your skin's better. You don't feel sluggish like after you eat a lot of meat.
How did you make the switch as a chef?
I transitioned from the corporate world into a caterer. That's a whole different story, but I was catering to the mayors of the Bay Area, NASA, Uber, Apple and all these big companies downtown. I bought a restaurant, too. It was called Nick’s. I bought it from this couple. I used to eat there all the time before I went vegan, and they approached me saying they wanted to retire. I decided to throw my entire 401k into Nick’s, because why not?
The business suffered at first. [I had recently gone vegan], I’m the chef, and I couldn't really eat at my own restaurant. Either I was going to close the restaurant, or I could change it into something I'm already eating at home. It was a whole year of thinking "should I close it? Should I reopen?" Finally, I thought “let's just change it and see what happens.”
I already had these recipes, so I opened as a vegan restaurant with a very small menu. We basically went viral and went from not having any sales to making an incredible amount of money every night and running out of food all the time. I had a realization that you have to align yourself with your belief system, because that's the only time your life is really going to happen for you. If you're not aligned, there's always going to be struggles.
Filipino food is heavily meat-based, especially with pork and seafood. How did you create vegan versions of the traditional menu?
A lot of trial and error. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been months of trying and always evolving, "but what if I use this gluten? What if I fry, bake and do everything to it?" We manipulate the meat substitute to make it taste like the real thing. I think the advantage that I had was I wasn't a vegan for so long. I remembered what meat tasted like. There's a lot of people that I have so much respect for who’ve been vegan for 30 years, but I knew exactly what I was missing.
I still test until this day, try to perfect dishes. It's very difficult, but it's definitely doable. With my Filipino barbecue, I couldn't get the taste from when I was a child in Dumaguete eating street food barbecue. Finally, a few weeks ago, I was like, "damn, this is it!" So we sell that at the restaurant now.
What has been the most difficult to recreate?
Vegan Spam! When I heard OmniFoods had it in Hong Kong, I was emailing the CEO, the corporate executives and the investors like "please bring it to the Bay Area.” It was whole year begging, because I knew that's something I could never recreate. It's now here, and I'm so excited. Another would be pork chops. I would love a company that would come up with pork chops.
In general, I think my challenge is the texture. Meat is hard to replicate, and that's why I do a lot of things with gluten. I steam it, fry it, bake it, and grill it. I do a lot of things to manipulate it so it mimics the texture of meat. Taste I can basically get immediately.
How do your vegan versions get that special flavor?
We use a lot of kombu, like the seaweed. We use a lot of nori. We use mushroom flavor. There's vegan chicken seasoning. We use liquid seasoning. There's a lot of things that really add to the umami flavor of the dish.
Before the pandemic hit, you expanded Nick’s to three restaurants. Last year, you closed them and started your own online version, a store-front delivery service, and you named it after yourself, Chef Reina. Why?
One reason is definitely the pandemic. Now there's Delta. Could we go on another lockdown?
It also wasn't really my intention to have a sit down restaurant. I'm not a very social person, and I don't like to serve people at tables. I think it was a blessing in disguise that the pandemic shut us down, because I was able to do this exact thing.
Also, I was hiding behind the Nick's brand for a long time. People would ask, “who is Nick?” I'm the person who invented the recipes, who is responsible for all this. I emerged from that, finally coming front and center, letting people know this is me.
We did online for a while, working out of a ghost kitchen, and on April 8, I was able to open Chef Reina in Brisbane as a takeout place. In the near future, we're going to ship our vegan frozen meats nationwide, so that's a huge deal. The online business model is, for me, more successful than I ever had as a sit down restaurant. I'm also launching my own menu consulting business, helping restaurants and hotels in San Francisco that need a good vegan option.
You’re also trying plant based versions of traditional dishes from China, Hong Kong and street food favorites from all around the world.
When I opened the vegan restaurant and used to work as a caterer, I wasn't just a Filipino chef. Really, I'm a world cuisine chef. When I was a caterer, I would cook any cuisine; from Chinese to Malaysian. I’ve made African and German food, too. I think my catering business was so successful because I was a one-stop shop.
When I opened Nick’s as a vegan restaurant, we did have Filipino food there, but I also had Korean or Chinese or whatever. I'm always trying to add different cuisines in my menu, but I think Filipino cuisine has made me a niche, because no one else is doing it right now. Hopefully more people will.
When you opened in April, you said you want to be a gateway for some vegetarians who haven’t gone vegan because they struggle to enjoy their favorite traditional dishes. After a year, are you closer to this goal?
I've definitely become the gateway. I mean, 65 percent of my clients are not even vegan. I would have turned vegan a long time ago if I had my food ready for me. All the time meat eaters say, "if I could eat this food every day, I would turn vegan." It's being accepted, and people agree it's easier to be vegan when you eat at Reina's. I'm proud of that.
Where do you see Chef Reina in 10 years?
I don't want to sound conceited or cocky, but I want to be the first vegan celebrity chef in the U.S. I know that's very ambitious, but I want to be the trailblazer. I already got an award for that from PETA, but I want to be the person who leads the way to get vegan food known nationally. No one else is going to do it, and I'm ready for it. I'm ready to get vegan Filipino food known, and I think shipping nationally is one thing that can get me there.
Photography by: Anthony “Mogli” Maureal