Exuberant cries erupt from the kitchen and chef/owner Cristina Quackenbush does a vigorous happy dance, waving a piece of paper in her hand. “We just got our health inspection approved, so it’s a definite go for tomorrow! I am really … so excited. I can’t believe it’s happening!” she exclaimed, an ecstatic grin painted across her face. Quackenbush’s first restaurant Milkfish, and the first Filipino restaurant in New Orleans, opened last month.
Born in the Philippines and raised in Indiana farm country, Quackenbush found her way home to New Orleans in 1999. Although she’s lived all over the country from North Carolina to California, she kept coming back. “I’ve tried to live other places, but nothing compares to New Orleans. I always have to come back home,” she said.
From early childhood, Quackenbush learned farm-to-table cooking because that’s all there was. “My grandmother provided the produce for the entire family.” she related, “We never went to the store for stuff like that.” Her mother and grandmother taught her how to grow vegetables, can them and make everything from scratch. “It made me really want to learn how to be a cook.” With determination, passion and a whole lot of hard work, Quackenbush spent the next 25 years discovering all there was to know about the restaurant business. “ I’ve worked every single position from dishwasher to general manager, to chef. I’ve cut meat, I’ve bartended … you name it.” she said.
Throughout her long career, from eateries like Panda Express in San Diego to Rio Mar here in New Orleans, Quackenbush prepared home style Filipino cuisine to share with fellow employees. “They [her co-workers] were always like ‘Oh, you should open your own restaurant!’” Although the idea always appealed to her, she just didn’t know whether or not a concept, like the first Filipino restaurant in the Crescent City, would actually work, at least, not until she talked with her employer, Adolfo Garcia.
Successful local chef and restaurateur Adolfo Garcia, who was part owner of Rio Mar at the time, was impressed by Quackenbush’s Filipino cooking. When he learned of her desire to have a restaurant of her own, he encouraged her to attempt a pop-up. With no idea what a pop-up restaurant entailed, Quackenbush did some research about the pop-up phenomenon in New York and with Garcia’s help, Milkfish popped for the first time inside Rio Mar in 2011. “Adolfo Garcia is definitely my mentor.” Quackenbush said. “I wouldn’t be right here, right now, if it wasn’t for him.”
Three years later, Quackenbush has taken Milkfish to the next level with its own brick and mortar location on Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City. Over the years, not only has she perfected the recipes and techniques she’s known all of her life, Quackenbush has made a concentrated effort to familiarize herself with dishes from other regions of the Philippines. “The Filipinos who come in and try my cuisine have attested to its authenticity and ask, surprised, ‘You taught yourself this?’” she said, grinning widely.
Since Milkfish is the first of its kind in the Greater New Orleans Area, Quackenbush has been adamant about offering authentic Filipino cuisine on her menu. “It’s all authentic, the way it’s supposed to be done, but with a modern edge.” She takes great pride in sourcing locally when possible, purchasing ingredients from places like Hollygrove Market and the popular Hong Kong Market on the Westbank. “They have everything there that everyone else doesn’t, especially a lot of the more exotic ingredients.” she said.
Milkfish is now open everyday, except Wednesdays when Quackenbush “gives back to her roots” by hosting other local pop-ups. The first will be Splendid Pig on May 14th. “I know how hard it was for me to find a spot and there’s a lot of chefs out there right now that want to cook.” she said. “They’re like me, they have this dream but have no kind of catalyst to make it happen.”
*Article originally published in May 2014 on NolaWoman.com
**Milkfish closed in March of 2016