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Former Food Network ‘Chopped’ champion opens Filipino restaurant in Charleston

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger //December 4, 2023//

Former Food Network ‘Chopped’ champion opens Filipino restaurant in Charleston

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger //December 4, 2023//

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Nikko Cagalanan’s foray into the food business has served him well. The entrepreneur, who introduced the Charleston area to Filipino food via popups in 2019 and famously made a name for himself after appearing on Food Network’s “Chopped” and winning the championship in 2022, more recently opened a gem of a boîte this summer called Kultura located on Spring Street in Charleston.

Cagalanan’s circuitous route from nurse to restaurateur is an inspirational one. The chef, who grew up in the Philippines and emigrated to the United States in 2011, began his career working in a nursing home in Boston before moving to Miami and later returning to New England in 2014. That’s when he landed his first restaurant job working at Little Donkey in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At this time, he found himself working at the home from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the restaurant. Eventually, something had to give and restaurant work won out.

By 2018, Cagalanan had moved again, this time to Charleston, where he became enamored with the food culture, although he noticed one thing missing — his beloved Filipino food. With years of restaurant experience now under his belt, the hardworking Cagalanan began contemplating introducing his native fare to the area. By this time, he was making, what the industry calls “family meals” for the staff at a fine dining restaurant in Charleston known as Zero George. “When I made the staff meals, my chef said he really liked the food, so it gave me a boost,” he said.

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This led to pop ups under the moniker Mansueta’s Filipino Food, named for his grandmother. The popularity of the pop ups ended up inspiring Cagalanan to branch out with Kultura.

Cagalanan has partnered with Paula Kramer, whom some might know as the owner of Baguette Magic located on James Island in West Ashley. Today, the couple serves brunch on weekends and dinner Thursday through Monday at Kultura.

Kultura is located on Spring Street in Charleston. (Photo/Provided)The small space, plentiful with plants and photos from the Philippines, has been sold out since opening this summer and the couple gives credit to their respective grandmothers for inspiring them to create the restaurant. “They are important people in both of our lives and were hospitality role models who brought people together,” said Kramer.

The Lineup

When Cagalanan opened Kultura, his goal was to serve Filipino food with his own, unique twist. A simple internet search brings one to the conclusion that plating is a priority for Cagalanan. Dish upon dish is praiseworthy for its beauty, which translates well on social media, especially Instagram.

The manageable menu features several gluten and dairy-free dishes like Pininyahang Pato–duck leg braised in coconut milk, pineapple and herb salsa and served with a sticky rice. Menudo is made with tomato-caramel sauce, pork loin, roasted carrots, potatoes, green olives, mini peppers and a rice cake, while baked salmon with a red curry sauce is served with a crispy rice salad, brussels sprouts, butternut squash and tomatoes and rice. Cagalanan also offers vegetarian dishes like mushroom toast—served with Kramer’s sourdough and crafted at her shop Baguette Magic. One of the more popular dishes, according to Kramer, is Arroz Caldo. It is listed on the menu as rice porridge topped with smoked trout roe, xo sauce, chili crisp, soft egg and fried garlic.

Desserts from Baguette Magic showcase Kramer’s baking talent and include a variety of items, many containing ube, otherwise known as purple yam, which gives the desserts an appealing purple hue.

As for libations, Kultura offers soda, beer, wine and creative mocktails, along with tea and coffee in several iterations using ingredients like ube, coconut milk, cinnamon and jasmine.

The couple also sets themselves apart from other establishments by inviting guest chefs to cook at the restaurant on a monthly basis. According to Kramer, recent guests were Bintou N’daw of Bintu Atelier and Modou Jaiteh from Farm in Bluffton.

The couple said that they are buoyed by the popularity of the restaurant.

“This is a great food city and is known for having wonderful restaurants and talented chefs, so we’re glad to be part of it,” said Kramer. Cagalanan also weighs in: “I think for me it’s also about representing my Filipino culture and that alone makes a big difference in what Paula and I are trying to do,” he said.

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger is a contributing writer for SC Biz News.