At their new Rockwell location, the Made Nice chefs have grown up
Maturing as a brand means no longer creating dishes to impress people but thinking more about what the customers want
The Made Nice team is used to hype, the new barometer of success in the age of social media that’s often as illusive as it is elusive. When Made Nice first came onto the scene in 2016 in Legaspi Village, it opened to much fanfare. Here was a new restaurant by New York- and LA-trained chefs, all under 30 (at the time, Gabbi Ramos-Flores, the youngest on the team, was 22), who were creating new, experimental cuisine and were constantly trying to outdo themselves with a concept that wouldn’t be out of place abroad.
Truth be told, it had the air of kids who had something to prove, young chefs who wanted to show all they could with imaginative dishes—accessibility be damned.
This year, the team shifted gears (now made up of Ramos-Flores, her husband Jack Flores, Raul Fores, and his father Oye Fores) and moved to Rockwell with a newfound attention to their diners. We dropped by the new location one afternoon to talk to Ramos-Flores, Flores, and the younger Fores to talk about these changes, and about the growing up they’ve done in the past three years. The traditional Italian way of serving cavatelli noodles is by just adding cream, peas, and ham—Made Nice changes this formula up by using edamame beans, which makes the pasta sauce taste almost cheesy“We still wanted to stay true to ourselves by being very unique, but at the same time, when we moved to Rockwell, we wanted to create a brand that could be trusted… We wanted to be more approachable,” says Ramos-Flores.
For one, the current menu is now more lunch-centric. “We wanted people to know that our food isn't just for dinner or for the weekend,” she continues. But more than that, the team’s point of view had changed.
“The food’s a little less experimental, more of what’s familiar to people,” says Fores. “Less out there,” agrees Ramos-Flores. “We’re now the more familiar Made Nice,” says Ramos-Flores
Familiar is a word that came up a lot when we talked to the team. (In fact, when I later checked my transcription app, “familiar” was the top keyword after “people,” “restaurant,” and “brand.”) “We’re in the process of reformatting ourselves to cater to what’s familiar first,” Fores says, with Ramos-Flores using it to describe their new brand: “We’re now the more familiar Made Nice.”
It’s something that betrays their new attitude to dining, a maturity that comes after earning your stripes and learning that what diners want isn’t so much creativity as much as something they can depend on. “At the old Made Nice, we literally served whatever the hell we wanted,” Ramos-Flores says, with the team collectively bringing up a retired dish—foie gras with Japanese kewpie mayonnaise, rice, and furikake (Japanese rice seasoning)—and simultaneously laughing and cringing at the thought of it. “Everyone was like ‘what the fuck.’”
“It didn’t really translate,” says Flores about their old dishes. “To be honest, there was a lot more ego in the last one.” Carbonara is usually not a noteworthy dish, but the use of the Cordilleran cured pork etag adds in a piquant saltiness to the pastaAfter the hype-filled start, the team is now focused on creating their own legacy. “When we opened the first Made Nice, there were a lot of things that we didn't know. We didn't have enough plates or glasses. We’re starting to be more aware of all these details, from the decor to the service. Before, our main focus kasi was the food. That was really what we wanted to push, and we kept pushing to the point that our food was so out-of-the-box. But now we're trying to make the restaurant a lot more balanced. We want the service to be on the same level as the food. We want the drinks, the wines to be on the same level as the food. We're actually building on our brand,” says Ramos-Flores.
“It took us three years to say, ‘Okay, you know what, we’re going to do lunch, we’re not going to do food that’s like a fricking Picasso, you don’t know what it is,’” says Fores.
Part of the maturation came from the guidance of Fores’ father, who became a partner when Made Nice made the move. “We learned from tito that people won’t trust you right away. You need to earn it, you need to build your brand for people to trust you,” says Ramos-Flores.
Chicken is a first for Made Nice: in the old branch in Legazpi, there were no dishes that featured chicken. "There was one chicken dish in the menu but we decided not to put it on the day we opened," says Fores“We’re searching for crowd favorites and reimagining them and making them Made Nice,” Ramos-Flores says. I can see it: to me, Made Nice still spells out “not typical” and “something radical,” albeit now with a more grounded and pleasing bent; instead of a youthful f-bomb to the conventions of the Philippine dining scene that, a play towards its more comforting parts, letting the crowd enjoy the experimentation as much as they do. It may not be as “avant garde” as it used to be, but it still has its distinct DNA.
There’s a cavatelli pasta cooked the “traditional, Italian way” (at least, according to Fores) with cream, peas, and ham but introduced with edamame almost disguising itself as cheese. The simple carbonara uses etag, a traditional Ifugao slab of pork cured in salt that’s either air-dried or smoked for days, even months. (Flores says they’re planning on using more local items on their menu in the coming months.) And the things that need no reinvention, like the katsudon and the fried chicken, are still dressed up.
The fried chicken comes with a gravy that tastes eerily similar to the gravy of a famous fast food chain. “This really paints a picture of who we are now compared to who we were then,” says Fores about the accidental resemblance. “Back then, we’d say it tastes too fast foody, it’s not us, it’s not sophisticated enough.”
“Now it's like, ‘Oh, that's so approachable. I like it,’” says Ramos-Flores.
“Why will we shy away from something that works just to be different?” asks Flores. Part of maturing as restauranteurs means that Ramos-Flores, Flores, and Fores have also been training their own staff to grow, as their own mentors did for them. "Working for other people, getting mentors [is important]," says Fores. "All of us started from the bottom," Ramos-Flores points out.When it comes to their change in mindset, Flores says, “What we realized in opening in Rockwell is that, at the end of the day, this is a business, and that it needs to make money. For us to be able to do this for a long time, it needs to be feasible. Hype slows down. What we want is longevity more than anything.
We are lucky enough to have an opportunity to do something again. And most people don’t." Words by Zofiya Acosta. Photography by Pat Mateo.