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Craving Filipino food, COVID-19 front-line nurses open restaurant in NYC

The three hard-working friends didn't let the pandemic crush their restaurateur dreams.
/ Source: TODAY

Taking care of sick COVID-19 patients is undeniably grueling work. Opening and running a restaurant is, too, especially during a worldwide pandemic. But for nurses Joan Calanog, Jude Canela and Maricris Dinopol, it’s all in a (very) long day’s work and, more importantly, it’s a dream come true.

The three Filipino health care workers and close friends teamed up to bring Bilao to life in August, all without giving up their full-time jobs. The restaurant, located in New York City’s Upper East Side neighborhood, specializes in Filipino cuisine and brings the flavors of home-cooked meals to the area's residents, visitors and even to other health care workers. In fact, Bilao is strategically situated just blocks from several of the Big Apple's major hospitals, including the one all three work in — Mount Sinai Hospital.

Maricris Dinopol, Jude Canela and Joan Calanog decided to open up a Filipino restaurant in New York City, despite the challenges posed by the global coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy of Joan Calanog, Jude Canela and Maricris Dinopol

On the 3rd Hour of TODAY, Calanog said that she and her friends work nights at the hospital between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. Canela added, "We work three 12's. So we're all night shifters and we work sometimes three nights or four nights in a week."

So why would three young and busy nurses want to break into the restaurant industry? Canela explained to Sheinelle Jones, "It was actually a random joke one day. Maybe we should start a restaurant because we were like, really craving for Filipino food getting off from work."

After the idea took hold, Canela recalled, "We started conceptualizing, planning it day by day. We were supposed to open early this year and then COVID happens."

Calanog, Canela and Dinopol had to press pause on their Filipino restaurant dream temporarily to respond to the growing public health crisis.

"It was pretty much overwhelming. I would say nerve-racking at first," Canela recollected. "We were all stressed out. We're afraid of going home with our family. Our anxiety from that alone is pretty much overwhelming."

The idea for Bilao began as a simple joke.Courtesy of Joan Calanog, Jude Canela and Maricris Dinopol.

But as restaurants throughout the city and the country started winding down operations or shutting down completely, the three friends never gave up their goal. Dinopol said one of the main reasons they didn't abandon their plan was because of their fellow front-line colleagues.

"I think it's because our target customers are frontliner," she explained. "So regardless of the pandemic, our jobs really don't stop." Plus, she added, "There's a lot of Filipino nurses."

Canela agreed: "It's based on experience because we're nurses. As soon as we get off from our shift, we know that we're hungry."

Bilao opened in New York City's Upper East Side neighborhood in August.Courtesy of Joan Calanog, Jude Canela and Maricris Dinopol.

Bilao currently offers about 40 dishes all day long, including a five-item savory breakfast menu. The best-selling dishes at the restaurant, whose name refers to a woven tool used to winnow rice and grains, include kare-kare (stewed oxtail with peanut sauce), lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly), crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckles) and sizzling sisig (pork hash).

Now that their restaurant dream has been realized, Dinopol said, "It's very fulfilling for me to serve my own countrymen. You know, I take so much pride for bringing Filipino food in this country."

Calanog added, "New Yorkers, they support our food, our culture, and it's very heartwarming."

Canela echoed their sentiments: "I'm very proud. And for us to cater our own authentic dishes to the world, it's already an achievement."

And it's not just locals who have been singing Bilao's praises: The restaurant has since been reviewed by the New York Times' Pete Wells and named as a critic's pick; Eater NY's Robert Sietsema called Bilao "one of the best overviews of the collective national cuisine that NYC has yet seen"; and Gothamist described the restaurant as "fantastic" and a "win for the Upper East Side."