While standing in line at a coffee shop on a breezy October afternoon in Long Island City, Monique Cadavona, 27, suggested it might be Filipino-owned. Her assumption was correct. The greenery and plant-filled wallpaper were a dead giveaway, she said, taking pride in sensing “home” in even the most minor details. Cadavona, born and raised in Kalihi, Hawaii, describes herself as “full Filipino.” And she’s done all she can to bring home with her on a journey that landed her in Brooklyn five years ago and now in Astoria, Queens. Cadavona is a chef, but her work doesn’t stop in the kitchen. She’s been cooking professionally for over a decade and has worked in all environments, from mom-and-pop shops to bars and clubs to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Cadavona comes from a big family. She only has one older brother, but her mom is one out of ten, so she has a heap of uncles, aunts and cousins who she says are “basically like my siblings.” Growing up, and even still to this day, her house has served as the meeting spot where the family and others from the community gather for meals.
Her mother has a side business making Filipino desserts and has “been doing that since before I can remember,” says Cadavona. “I ended up having to work for [my mom] at the age of 10 when she was like, ‘all right, pick it up,’” recalls Cadavona. “So every single weekend was devoted to making banana lumpia. Saturday, Sunday, from morning until late afternoon.” It wasn’t easy, especially for a middle schooler whose peers were hanging out with classmates on weekends. “Imagine being 12, 13, 14, and working 12-hour shifts,” she says. But her mom’s tough training grounds were only preparing Cadavona for what was on the way down the line, and exposing her to how food can bridge cultures and bring people together.
In 2020, Cadavona founded Mama Guava, a food business that includes consulting, menu development, catering, organizing events and more. The name is a tribute to her mother and Hawaiian and Filipino cultures. “Mama Guava came during the pandemic because I was missing my mom’s food,” she says. “There was no good Filipino food out here; there was no good Hawaiian food out here.”
Cadavona cooks all types of food but is always influenced by her Filipino and Hawaiian cultures. “If I really wanted to, I could cook whatever,” she says. “But because I mostly operate under Mama Guava, it has some relation to Hawaii (not Hawaiian) food, which is easy for me to do because it covers a large range of Asian food.” She says Hawaiian food is its own thing, but “Hawaii” food is more distinctive and reflective of the history of the varying Asian immigration population.
As the pandemic came to an end, Cadavona turned all her attention to her business. She started freelancing as a chef and did pop-ups anywhere she could, whether that was in New York or places like Washington and Oregon. She wasn’t profitable early on; it was all about making people aware of her talents. And she didn’t have much help getting started either. She was a one-woman army and still operates that way today. “I have to prep it, then I have to execute the event, and I have to come back and clean up after,” she says.
Freelancing in NYC is complex, and the cooking industry is no different. The ebbs and flows that Cadavona has experienced range from sleepless nights preparing for profitless events to working with celebrities and celebrity chefs on special occasions. Her life is filled with unpredictability, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s given herself no other option but to build a life centered around doing what she loves.
Food was her family’s love language, and she grew to adopt the same fluency. “[My family] is like OG Filipino; they’re not really affectionate,” she says. “The way they show feelings is [saying things] like, ‘did you eat? I made your favorite food, let’s bring everybody to eat.’”
Shannon Johnson, 29, one of Cadavona’s former roommates and a regular Mama Guava patron, attests to Cadavona’s passion for what she does. While living with Cadavona, Johnson got a behind-the-scenes look at what went into Mama Guava. “Monique’s passion isn’t just for cooking but for food itself,” says Johnson. “Food and cooking is a chemistry, it’s a science, it’s a technique. [Cadavona] exemplifies that when she’s doing her pop-up events, when she’s working at different restaurants, or when she’s doing catering services.”
“Even when she made me many, many, many late-night meals, they were always filling,” says Johnson. “That’s her biggest goal. That’s what lights up her face – when there’s a room full of people and anybody she’s feeding is satisfied and full. You could really feel that the food is made with love, down to how she plates things.”
Johnson says she’s never had a bad meal prepared by Cadavona but recalls one in particular that’s her favorite. “I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and our specialty is crab,” she says. “Monique introduced me to crab curry, and I had never eaten it prepared that way, but it was amazing.”
Cadavona has been able to cultivate a growing community that supports her fully. The people are what keep her going. She thrives off being able to build meaningful connections with people through food. “She’s never hidden away when the meals are being served,” says Johnson. “She’s always on the floor, walking around making sure everybody’s satisfied. She wants you to know that the food was made with love and that if you need something extra or remixed, she’s available. It’s always a very personal experience when Monique is feeding you.”
Cadavona is a striver and gives everything she has. Whether she’s cooking, consulting, or leading an event, she hasn’t taken any shortcuts to get to this point. “The more I discover what I love within Mama Guava and what I hate about this cooking business,” she says. “My favorite part is just discovering myself and my purpose.”