Reina Montenegro’s Journey

Chef Reina Montenegro Filipino cuisine
A sampling of Chef Montenegro’s cuisine (Photo by Mogli Maureal)

Chef Transforms Traditional Filipino Meat Dishes into Delectable Vegan Creations

In an interview with CNN, the celebrity Filipino-American vegan chef and restaurateur, Reina Montenegro, surprised audiences by revealing her past as a passionate meat enthusiast.

As a fellow Filipino-American who relishes the traditional pork, chicken, and beef dishes of our native country, I found myself irresistibly drawn to Chef Reina’s culinary transformation.

This article uncovers the remarkable story of how Chef Reina Montenegro is not only reinventing classic Filipino dishes into delectable vegan versions, but also achieving her mission of introducing vegan Filipino comfort food to a wider audience.

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With Total Food Service’s March issue featuring influential women in the industry, Chef Reina’s success serves as an inspiring story.

Her journey, from her bustling brick-and-mortar shop to her exciting collaboration with Mama Go’s at San Francisco International Airport, showcases her unwavering passion, creative flair, and culinary mastery.

Join me in my conversation with Chef Reina about her passion and innovation to deliver a memorable vegan Filipino culinary experience.


You describe yourself as a self-taught chef.  Tell us about your self-education process.

The core of the Filipino household revolves around food – it’s not just food but our life, passion, and a language of its own. I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by exceptional cooks, like my Lola (grandma) and my father. Discovering my love for cooking happened at the age of 9 when I began baking.

Living on an isolated island in a tumultuous household provided me with an escape into my own world. In this realm, I felt untouchable, creative, and most importantly, true to myself.

Cooking became my personal escape, whether I was navigating through tough times or simply seeking comfort for my mind. I embarked on a self-taught culinary journey at a young age, getting information from books, videos, and, most significantly, through trial and error.

Over the years, I’ve encountered numerous challenges, each serving as a stepping stone in my culinary evolution.

Chef Reina Montenegro Filipino cuisine
Chef Reina Montenegro

The transition to a vegan lifestyle introduced an entirely new set of obstacles. At that time, information on plant-based alternatives was scarce. This challenge fueled my commitment to mastering the art of transforming plants into realistic meat alternatives.

My motivation wasn’t to impress others but rather a personal endeavor to ensure I wouldn’t miss out on the flavors that defined my childhood and essentially became a lifeline for me. 

I understand that you first worked as a personal chef and caterer, which led to opening a restaurant serving traditional Filipino food. Then you decided to change the concept to be vegan and opened three Filipino vegan restaurants. What factors led to you becoming a strictly vegan chef?

I initially embraced a vegan lifestyle for health reasons. My daughter was experiencing persistent skin issues while following a vegetarian diet. Curious about potential connections, I removed dairy from her diet for a week.

To my surprise, all her rashes vanished within that timeframe. This led me to delve into online resources, discovering numerous articles linking dairy to skin problems.

As I continued my research and stumbled upon documentaries about the meat and dairy industry, I made the decision to go vegan that very night in 2016. Since then, I haven’t looked back.

The transformation has been remarkable, and at my current age, my doctor describes me as the epitome of perfect health. It’s not just a business for me – I live by the principles I advocate.

Every aspect of my life aligns with my belief system, and I genuinely feel amazing.

What made you decide to close your restaurants and open Chef Reina’s storefront and studio space in Brisbane, CA? Describe your concept for the storefront and studio.

I had a tough time with those restaurants because they didn’t truly reflect who I am. The restaurants’ name came from the previous owner, and I was sort of hiding behind the scenes, creating all the dishes and concepts.

When the pandemic hit, it gave me a chance to start fresh and step into the spotlight as myself. I was also dealing with personal issues that made it clear I had a chance for a new beginning.

So, I left the old life behind, opened a restaurant with my own name, and finally broke out of my shell. It was a really freeing moment in my life.

First, congratulations on your partnership with Mama Go’s and getting your vegan Filipino creations in one of San Francisco International airport’s best restaurants.  Please share insightful details on the strategic efforts that paved the way for this remarkable collaboration.

I appreciate it, but I have to give all the credit to Iva Chen, the genius behind this partnership. She’s dedicated to supporting local women in business, like herself, and giving them a chance to shine. Iva, I love you!

Could you share specifics on how you transform meat-rich traditional Filipino favorites, such as Lumpia Shanghai, Chicken and Pork adobo, and Sisig into delectable vegan versions?

Earlier, I discovered that mimicking taste is pretty straightforward, but replicating texture is the real challenge. Take Sisig, for instance – I use tofu and mushrooms and manipulate them to recreate the texture of pork snout and ears.

We go through a process of cooking the tofu three times (fry, grill, sauté) and mincing it, along with the mushrooms, to make it taste just like the authentic dish.

Looking ahead, what’s your vision for Chef Reina? What significant milestones do you hope to achieve in the next five years?

I envision giving talks worldwide about the restaurant industry and vegan cooking. I also dream of writing a book that shares my journey as an immigrant, a single mother, and an entrepreneur.

I have an abundance of experiences to share. If someone like me had entered my life 20 years ago and offered guidance, I might not have faced the struggles I did.

Nevertheless, my life has been wonderful, and I have no regrets. I am grateful for everything – it’s truly beautiful.

Discover more about Chef Reina at Chef Reina’s website.

  • RATIONAL USA
  • DAVO by Avalara
  • Cuisine Solutions
  • Imperial Dade
  • Red Gold Sacramento
  • McKee Foods
  • AyrKing Mixstir
  • BelGioioso Burrata
  • Day & Nite
  • RAK Porcelain
  • Atosa USA
  • Simplot Frozen Avocado
  • Inline Plastics
Cherry Dumaual
Cherry Dumaual is a seasoned contributing writer for Total Food Service, bringing years of experience in culinary communications to her role. As the former Partnerships Director at The Monday Campaigns/Meatless Monday, she was responsible for spearheading the PR and partnership development for Monday initiatives, including Meatless Monday. During her tenure, she successfully forged partnerships with renowned organizations, such as C-CAP (Careers for Culinary Arts Program), the American Institute of Cancer Research, and New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative. Prior to joining TMC, Cherry held the position of Senior Vice President at leading PR agencies, where she worked with major food and healthcare clients. Her passion for learning and cooking international cuisines has led her and her husband to explore local food markets and restaurants in over 50 countries. This firsthand experience has allowed her to gain a deep understanding of different cultures and cuisines, which she brings to her work in the food industry. Cherry earned her Communications degree cum laude from Hunter College, CUNY.

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