Ruta Smith

Nikko Cagalanan’s culinary journey began 9,000 miles from Charleston. Growing up in the Philippines, his grandmother Mansueta taught him how to make traditional Filipino dishes like adobo, sisig, and lumpia. Since debuting his stall, lovingly called Mansueta’s, at Workshop in November, Cagalanan has built a menu of tried-and-true Filipino favorites plus dishes like chicken drumsticks and pork ramen. Although Cagalanan didn’t start working in kitchens until 2014, the chef is making up for lost time with the help of members of the Charleston food community.

If you follow Mansueta’s on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that Cagalanan frequently collaborates with other chefs. “I didn’t go to culinary school, so collaborating with others is a way for me to learn about different cuisines.” Facilitating these pop-ups might be exhausting for some, but not Cagalanan, who welcomes the chance to reach out to other members of the food and beverage industry. Recently, he teamed up with Butcher & Bee’s Alison Cates for a Filipino/Korean yakitori-style pop-up, and he has even more planned.

This past Mon. Jan. 27, Cagalanan joined forces with El Pincho Taco’s Sandra Aguirre, whose culinary journey also began in grandma’s kitchen as a child in Mexico City. Cagalanan says he heads straight to El Pincho at least twice a week following his shift, and eventually he and Aguirre began to discuss what a Filipino/Mexican fusion meal would look like. As is often the case, Cagalanan made an effort to turn the casual banter into reality, developing a menu featuring five Filipino tacos.

In less than a month, Mansueta’s will host another collaboration at Workshop featuring Matzo Y Masa, a local Jewish/Mexican pop-up operated by Samantha Kramer and Jullian Abarca. Later in March, Cagalanan will team up with Emily Hahn, who competed on Top Chef, for a seafood-forward pop-up. With each one of these dinners, Cagalanan hopes to learn from his peers and shine the spotlight on Workshop.

And what does the rising chef hope to accomplish during his Workshop residency? Eventually, Cagalanan says the dream is to open his own restaurant, but for now the main focus is excelling right where he is. Future plans would surely include his dedicated sous chef Joel Carnright, who has played a key role in managing the hustle and bustle at Workshop. “We both came into this without a lot of experience, but we have a shared vision of pushing Filipino food to Charleston,” said Cagalanan. “He’s been an essential part of this since we popped up at Kwei Fei for a week last July.”

Cagalanan has earned the respect of his peers who would say it’s well-deserved given his work ethic — the chef recently took his first day off in two months.

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