Chef Diana Manalang On Embracing Her Filipina Heritage & Pivoting During COVID

Little Chef Little Cafe Owner Diana Manalang | photo by Jaclyn Altieri

March may have been Women’s History Month, a time when media goes into overdrive with inspiring stories about women. But as far as we’re concerned, women’s history is our agenda every day, every month! When it comes to having an inspiring story to share, look no further than Diana Manalang – chef, founder and businesswoman who knows how to thrive amidst barriers and struggles.

The NYC-based chef is the owner of the Little Chef Little Kitchen catering company, which she opened in Long Island City just three months before the pandemic hit in 2020! While the initial menu was created to meet the dietary needs of busy New Yorkers with vegan, vegetarian, Paleo and Whole 30 options, plus coffee and pastries, pandemic eating called for more comfort foods and the Filipino-American chef found herself inspired more by her Filipino heritage.

With her catering business gone due to COVID and just a small outdoor space left, Diana launched Filipino Tacos and Taco Kits to go, great for both solo diners and families, cookie decorating kits, a weekly prepared meal service for adults and kids and Soup-er Sunday, which offers a weekly changing selection of soups by the quart to stock up on for the week. She also hosted sold-out events like a special Filipino Brunch and a two-day outdoor Filipino Street Food BBQ pop-up. Diana has found creative ways to grow Little Chef Little Café while being active in her community and has helped raise funds for local organizations, contributed meals for frontline and healthcare workers, as well as those in need.

We spoke to Diana about pivoting her business, embracing her Filipina heritage, and what it takes to thrive in an industry that is still largely male-dominated.

Little Chef Little Cafe Exterior with Chef/Owner Diana Manalang | photo by Lily Brown MST Creative PR

Tell us first how Little Chef Little Café was launched and what made you want to open your own restaurant after seeing success with your catering company? 

I wanted to have a place the community could embrace and enjoy – I live in the neighborhood and it was missing healthy food options, coffee and pastries – and also have a place where I could show potential clients my cooking.

When COVID-19 hit, you pivoted. Can you talk us through that pivot process, and any feelings you had to process knowing what was happening in the world? 

It’s still an ongoing process each and every day with the ever-changing guidelines and updates. There are feelings of gratitude for being able to weather this storm, but it is also frustrating and disheartening at times. We reconfigured our space to be a production space inside, which has made us 100% reliant on takeout and delivery. We have our seating set up outside thanks to the Open Streets initiative but during poor weather, our business drops drastically. Thankfully we have set ourselves apart with the different menus we offer and our loyal clients have kept us going with ordering meal prep and referring us for business.  

How have you embraced your Filipino heritage through your food and business? 

Being a Filipina, I have been able to draw on my heritage to inspire many of the dishes and snacks we offer. In our area of Long Island City, we do not have any Filipino restaurants, so I took the opportunity to introduce the community to Filipino flavors through our “Taco Stand,” which offers Filipino-style tacos.  I’ve also created special menu items and popup events such as for our Filipino Street BBQ popup, Filipino Brunch, Ube whoopie pies, pandesal and Filipino soups.  

Little Chef Little Cafe Empanadas | Photo by by Lily Brown MST Creative PR

Can you tell us about some of the work you have been doing to support frontline workers and other people in your community during the Pandemic? 

We did our best to provide for our community and my team and I worked with LIC Relief through the first 12 weeks of the pandemic to produce meals for anyone who needed them. We also took in donations and sent food to frontline workers at various hospitals. We turned the café into a pantry collection and took in all types of food donations and distributed them to pantries. Anything perishable we prepared into meals and donated as well. 

As a woman of color in a very male-dominated industry, what are some of the hurdles you’ve faced throughout your career so far? 

Being a petite woman of color, it’s always a question of “can you handle that?” or “how are you going to manage?” or “who is going to help you” – the implied message being – there is no way you can do this all since you’re such a small, tiny woman. Powerhouses do not have to be big or male in order to exert power and get things done. My favorite is also being asked: “you have a partner, right?” as if it is so hard to believe that I could not build a successful business on my own. Little Chef Little Kitchen (my catering and private chef service) is my own company and the cafe was born from that. My husband is my business partner in the cafe because I invited him to be, not because I needed him to be.  It’s funny that people need to justify my success with associating my husband with it.  

Little Chef Little Café Delivery Waffle Sandwich, Salad, Adobo Rice Bowl & Lentil Soup | photo by Lily Brown/MST Creative PR

How can food be used as a tool to break down barriers, racist stereotypes and encourage more empathy toward others who are different to us? 

I discuss this all of the time with colleagues and friends: Food is something that can be and is frequently used to bring everyone together. Everyone needs to eat to live so why not enjoy it and learn more about the foods we love? Every culture has their own version of dumplings, ravioli, pierogi. Every culture has their own version of bread. Every culture has a known soup.  Every culture has a sauce/condiment that is necessary. It’s great to learn about these things and understand that at the end of the day, food unites us in the same way that it is a basic need like air and water – it’s just a way more fun and interesting one.  

How would you encourage other female restaurateurs right now who are dealing with COVID-related issues and looking for a way forward with their business? 

I would say to just keep doing what you believe in because it’s going to be worth it and it is going to get better. It’s not easy and everyday isn’t a pleasant one – but this too, shall pass.

We just celebrated Women’s History Month and we want to know: who are the women who inspire you? 

Every single woman I know has helped me to become the woman that I am. Every woman I know is strong, resilient, talented, and intelligent. Without them – I would not be able to persevere. They are my cheerleaders, mentors, partners in crime, voice of reason, and everything good that happens.  

Little Chef Little Cafe Staff | photo by Lily Brown MST Creative PR