By Mike Baños
A Kagay-anon chef based in New Orleans, USA has elevated the humble singkamas (turnip) to a sleeper hit in a city renowned worldwide for its Creole cuisine.
In an article published in the 19 April 2023 issue of The New York Times Magazine, cooking writer and columnist Eric Kim raved about Nicole “Nikki” Cabrera-Mills Citrus-Glazed Turnips.
Sautéed shrimp, laing and atchara
Kim, who writes for the Food Section and NYT Cooking, admits to a penchant for adventure in trying items on a menu which are not mainstream.
“Sometimes the oddity on a menu might be the chef’s passion project, which is reason enough to order it. Newcomers to the New Orleans favorite Pêche Seafood Grill might not know that the restaurant goes heavy on the vegetables, but you have to know to order them,” wrote Kim in his article “The Secret to Ordering the Best Thing on the Menu.”
When he noted the citrus-glazed turnips on the resto’s star studded menu, he was immediately intrigued. “Who knew that the star of my seafood lunch would be a side dish of turnips?”
Royal reds with crab roe and Nikki’s version of Alavar sauce.
Since the turnip season coincided with the citrus season, Mills combined them in a tangy-sweet and bitter-mellow glaze through a simple reduction of satsuma juice, gochugaru and butter, which tempered the quick-roasted turnips and gave them an almost an iridescent mother-of-pearl shine, Kim noted.
Citrus Glazed Turnips by Chef Nilkki Cabrera-Mills
After previous attempts with turnip purée, turnip cakes, turnip gratin which were all delicious but did not elicit eureka moments from Pêche’s diners, Kim believes Mills has finally hit a homerun with her citrus-glazed turnips which is fast becoming one it its sleeper hits. What makes it even more heartening to hear is how a side dish of a lowly root vegetable has now been exalted to a lofty pantheon by discerning diners, thanks to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Chef Nikki.
Chef Nikki also served as an ambassador of Philippine cuisine when she was featured on the pilot episode of Take Out with Lisa Ling which started streaming on HBO Max on January 27, 2022.
Chef Nikki, Andrew Marin and Lisa Ling on Take Out with Lisa Ling. Streams on HBO Max,
Filipino food blogger Andrew Marin and host Lisa Ling discussed the importance of keeping Asian cuisine and culture alive in America on its first episode Mix Mix .
“The series explored different AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) cultures through food, specifically the ones a lot of people don’t know about,” Chef Nikki said in an online correspondence with this writer. “For New Orleans, Louisiana, they talked about Filipinos here and how Jean Lafitte was the first known Asian settlement in the country, when Filipinos came through with the Spanish Galleon.”
Bagoong rice pilaf with peas and chanterelles, farm egg
Chef Nikki was filmed in the Pêche segment of the episode while the hosts commented on how she put Filipino flavors in their dishes, and later served them Filipino-inspired dishes from their menu including whole red snapper (maya-maya), kinilaw, tomato cucumber salad and fried okra.
Long Road to The Big Easy
Born and raised in the Philippines, Nikki grew up in the fast growing city of Cagayan de Oro, which is expected to become the country’s fourth metropolitan center by 2025. She finished her elementary and high school education with Corpus Christi School.
Her grandparents owned the Little Town Bakery in Malaybalay, Bukidnon where she grew up watching the production of fresh baked bread in an old fashioned wood burning stone oven. Farm to table has always been part of the Filipino culture.
Tomato and cucumber salad with cured egg yolk.
Nicole’s family was known for growing and producing some of the sweetest corn in the area along with farm raised sheep, cattle, chickens and horses. Her mom Ella specialized in making and selling siomai and siopao at the family’s Shao Mai Dimsum stalls in Cagayan de Oro and Cebu.
After graduating from Ateneo de Manila University, Nikki moved to New York in 2001 to attend the French Culinary Institute in Soho upon the suggestion of her father Bobby.
“She was always fond of cooking and once prepare a Valentine’s Day meal at our house for her brother, where she took care of everything from the menu to the table setting,” her dad Bobby recalls.
Her culinary career began with Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group cooking at both Eleven Madison Park and Gabriele Kreuther’s the Modern at MOMA. She worked as a tournant for Chef Alain Allegretti at Atelier in the Ritz Carlton Central Park and later with Chef Dan Kluger at The Core Club.
Crispy okra with chili vinegar
Also known as a floating or relief chef, a chef tournant is a member of the culinary hierarchy whose job involves stepping in when needed to complete a variety of culinary duties.
After New York, Nikki moved to Los Angeles to work at the Thompson Beverly Hills with Chef Brian Redzikowski.
She moved back to Cagayan de Oro after L.A. to open Bourbon Street, a Creole concept restaurant which was the first of its kind at the Rosario Arcade of Limketkai Center. After a few years, she and her husband Drew relocated to New Orleans for Drew’s new assignment in a chain of hotels. She later joined the Link Restaurant Group to be part of the opening team at Pêche Seafood Grill in 2013, and became its Chef de Cuisine in 2019.
Peche Seafood Grill, one of the most famous restaurants in New Orleans.
The Head Chef or Chef de Cuisine remains at the top of the hierarchy in restaurant kitchens without an executive chef. Like an executive chef, she controls all aspects of the kitchen, including creating menus, controlling kitchen costs, and managing the kitchen staff.
NIkki Cabrera-MIlls is the Chef de Cuisine of Peche in New Orleans, Louisana.
To put her present assignment in a better context, Pêche won a James Beard award for Best New Restaurant in America in 2014. One of its founders, Chef Ryan Prewitt, was honored with a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South that same year. Pêche is continuously named one of the Top 10 Best Restaurants in New Orleans annually by Brett Anderson, Times Picayune.
Peche Seafod Grill
Inspired by the cooking of South America, Spain, and the Gulf Coast, Chefs Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt designed Pêche Seafood Grill.
Focused on working with local fishermen and farmers who harvest sustainably, Pêche serves simply prepared contemporary dishes, rustic creations cooked on an open hearth, as well as fresh oysters and Gulf fish.