by Amanda Ong
When Chef Melissa Miranda was younger and working as a sous-chef at French and Italian restaurants, she never thought an upscale Filipino restaurant would be a possibility. Miranda studied sociology; attended culinary school in Florence, Italy; and worked in restaurants in New York City before coming back home to Seattle, where she had the opportunity she never imagined: She founded Musang, an upscale Filipino restaurant that began as a pop-up in 2016 before becoming a full-fledged restaurant in Beacon Hill in 2020. Today, Musang’s success has earned Miranda major notoriety: She’s a James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef, Northwest and Pacific.
“I think a lot of young Filipino Americans never saw representation of our food, so they never thought that they could actually create our food on a broader scale,” Miranda said in an interview with the Emerald.
Miranda’s father immigrated from the Philippines to the United States in the early ’70s and worked at canneries in Alaska. He then moved to Beacon Hill, where he met Miranda’s mother. Miranda was raised there until the family moved to Maple Valley.
Musang has thus been a twofold homecoming for Miranda, both to Seattle itself and to Filipino cooking. Now, she works within her own community to share the food she grew up with.
“We’re cooking food to nourish people, but more than that, we are telling and sharing a part of who we are,” Miranda said. She told the story of one of Musang’s chefs, who lost his grandmother in the first year after opening. “But now he can carry on her recipes and her stories through [Musang]. So I think a lot of it is [about] healing, a lot of it is creating something new and beautiful. It’s [about] restoring that pride of who we are and what our food is meant to be.”
Miranda’s ethos shows through Musang’s commitment to its community beyond the average restaurant. It offers take-home kits and Filipino cooking classes for kids. Musang also works directly with community partners, like the Seattle SouthEast Senior Center, Real Change, Wasat, and Food Intentions, to provide meals to those in need. For Miranda, these offerings make Musang a community-driven, rather than a chef-driven, restaurant.
“I truly feel that without the people that surround you every day, these places can’t exist. When I say community-driven, I’m honoring my team, I’m honoring the folks that come here and eat and support us, I’m honoring the community kitchen program that we have,” Miranda said. “The vision isn’t just mine, it’s everyone else. Everyone else that is a part of this has contributed to what this space is — it’s a space for people to heal, it’s a space for people to celebrate, it’s a space for people to reconnect. And it’s beautiful to see it firsthand.”
But Miranda’s journey to finding her voice as a chef was not without its turns. As a student at the University of Washington, she often felt lost and unprepared in such a large school as a daughter of immigrants without many resources.
“It’s so interesting when you have immigrant parents that sacrifice everything, so that you can have a better future than they had,” Miranda said. “I think especially when it comes to Filipino Americans or Filipino immigrants in the states, like, the idea to assimilate is far greater than it is to retain your culture … so it was difficult to have a sense of pride.”
Despite initially struggling to find her place in college, the University of Washington was also where Miranda found her first job in a restaurant and fell in love with the industry. Soon after college, she went to Florence and attended culinary school. Still, there, she faced new challenges as an Asian American woman in the historically male-driven restaurant world.
“The hierarchy still exists very much, but I worked really hard and I did my best to gain respect by my work ethic,” Miranda said. “It’s just tough, because you have these new folks coming into this potentially incredible industry that are then exposed to such sexism and machismo, this competition that’s very unhealthy.”
In recent years, the restaurant industry has been criticized for its male-driven culture and seen rising accusations of sexual harrassment and assault behind kitchen doors. But Miranda finds that owning her own restaurant is an opportunity to change this culture.
“I’ve taken those moments in my career and have said, ‘I’m not going to have kitchens that way. I’m not going to personally act that way,’” Miranda said. “The vision here is rooted in intention, gratitude, kindness. So yeah, [Musang] might be one of very few that are like this, but I’m proud to say that we are, because I have experienced really bad [discrimination] in the past.”
Musang was born after a series of pop-ups Miranda did in New York and then Seattle at other Filipino restaurants, where she served Filipino brunches while DJs played music. Miranda says some of the folks who went to those pop-ups are now regulars at Musang.
Miranda hopes Musang is a way to explore and show others the richness and diversity of Filipino food, beyond just adobo — especially when French and Italian cuisines have long been heralded as the epitome of fine dining, and “ethnic” and Asian foods have been marginalized as cheap food for takeout.
“It’s been a journey of me also going back home — food for me, and Filipino food, has always been something that I love,” Miranda said. “It’s funny how sadly people have been shamed into thinking otherwise, making jokes — this work is important for me to undo that.”
For Miranda, this ethic is vital to how we see representation change, especially for the next generation. She feels pride when her nieces, for instance, get to see someone who looks like them on a magazine cover. “That is why I do the work here. That is why my team does the work. It’s for the next generations. … The work is making sure that we’re representing our culture and our stories and our families as best as we can.”
At the end of the day, Miranda hopes the community will continue to support the small businesses they love so Musang can continue providing. Miranda says she speaks often with other small-business owners, and even when business looks good, it is common for them to be struggling behind the scenes.
“So much is changing in Seattle, and I think especially in South Seattle,” Miranda said. “And it’s scary, you know, and a lot of the original Seattleites here are having to move out.” But she says Musang wants to stick around. “It is magical. We just want to see everyone’s faces come through our doors.”
Visit Musang at 2524 Beacon Ave. S. Musang accepts donations for its community pantry of nonperishable food items and pantry staples, as well as monetary donations, which can be made through its website or in the restaurant.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 03/31/2022 to clarify that Musang began as a pop-up in 2016 before opening as a full-fledged restaurant in 2020.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Left — Exterior of Musang. (Photo: Jordan Nicholson); right — Chef Melissa Miranda. (Photo: Andrew Imanaka)
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