Chef Nikko Cagalanan, who was born and raised in the Philippines, has found a home in Charleston, and the city has quickly embraced him as one of its own. Known for popular pop-up Mansueta’s that was once hosted in now-closed food hall Workshop, Cagalanan opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant, Kultura, as a way to share more of his story, culture and delicious food.
Cagalanan has been all over Charleston in the past few years, from working in some of the city’s top restaurants to doing solo pop-ups and collaborations with other chefs, showcasing not only his Filipino heritage but the wide array of chefs here in Charleston and across the country.
That’s where the concept behind Cagalanan’s new restaurant Kultura began. Cagalanan made a name for himself as a chef after quitting his job as a nurse and moving to South Carolina with his wife.
Outside of his successful pop-up series and career in the local food and beverage scene, Cagalanan has been a favorite at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and even won the top prize on Food Network’s Chopped last year.
He was ready for more — with the prize money from the show and a great business relationship with Paula Kramer, co-owner of Baguette Magic (where Kultura now operates), he was ready to set down roots.
“In 2015, that was my last year as a nurse working in a nursing home in Holliston, Massachusetts. My first year of cooking, I worked as a garde manger (cold station),” he said. “I fell in love with it. I’ve always loved taking care of people, but cooking felt different. I went from making a good salary with nursing to making $11 to make salads.
“But every day, I’m still learning, and I’m lucky to have a business partner like Paula to help me through this process,” he said. “Kultura started a year-and-a-half ago (post-Covid) when Workshop shut down, and I was trying to figure out what to do. I’d already done collabs and been traveling across the country, and it felt like the right time.”
Kultura, the Filipino word for culture, is an homage to Filipino food and Cagalanan’s grandmother, Mansueta. The rotating menu offers his takes on her family recipes.
“The Philippines has a lot of influence from other cultures, Spain particularly with dishes like adobo, menudo and afritada, but then I took those dishes and made them my own,” he said.
Although the menu offers Filipino food, Cagalanan focuses on using as many local ingredients as possible. While some ingredients like batuan fruit (a rare sour fruit) and a specific type of wild garlic can only be found in the Philippines, Kultura’s produce is sourced from Lowcountry farmers as much as possible.
“We use local farms, like Fire Ant Farms, for tomatoes and radishes, Dogpatch Farm for sungold tomatoes, lemon verbena and eggplant, and Marvin Ross and Peculiar Pig Farm for pork,” he said.
Some of the basic ingredients found in Filipino cooking, like soy, cane vinegar and banana ketchup, can be found at local grocers such as H&L Asian Market in North Charleston.
Sometimes he runs across special ingredients here in Charleston such as kalamansi (a small fruit that tastes like a mix between lemon, passionfruit and tangerine), which he gets from a local friend who has a tree that produces the citrus fruit almost year-round.
Kultura opened on July 14 at 73 Spring St. and it’s been booked every day since. Cagalanan pulled in a familiar friend and force in the kitchen, Joel Carnright from Workshop, as his sous chef. The Kultura team is small but mighty: There is no dishwasher, so everyone jumps in to help when they can to get through the collective chaos.
Both back-of-house and front-of-house are cross-trained, and even Cagalanan is learning how to run the front-of-house, acting as host, server or anything else as needed.
“I love learning everything, but this way, everyone can step up if and when the team needs them,” he said. “We are a small team, but we all love what we’re trying to create. And the food we’re making is from the heart.”
Later this year, Kultura will briefly close for a few weeks to do renovations and give its staff a break during the busy holiday season. He plans to build a covered patio, finish building out the kitchen and redecorate the inside of the space.
“The vibe is going to be easy. It’s a place to have fun and be laid back. I want lots of plants, rattan furniture and pictures of Filipino street culture. It’ll be casual, but I want you to feel like you’re in the Philippines,” he said.
He plans to continue highlighting different cuisines outside of his own with other chefs, as well as showcasing variations of regional dishes from across the Philippines that aren’t as well known here in the U.S. His top three must-try menu items: pancit, seesig (Anthony Bourdain’s favorite dish turned into a vegetarian option) and the Halo Halo cocktail. The pancit is made with rice noodles and coated with kalamansi sauce but also features local blue crab from Crosby’s Seafood and fresh vegetables to tie the terrier of the Lowcountry in with Filipino flavors.
Cagalanan’s story is one that almost feels like a fever dream. A nurse-turned-chef took a Southern city known for its food culture by storm, won one of the most popular television cooking shows and opened a restaurant — all in only five years.
Funnily enough, Cagalanan didn’t cook much in the Philippines, but he would watch his grandma cook three or four times a day.
“I was never the one cooking, just always the one eating,” he said. “My family is so surprised but very proud.”
His story goes to show that with talent, dedication and food that speaks for itself, anything is possible, and shows Charleston’s diners are truly embracing his culture.
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