Carrot masala yogurt with naan at Lola’s. Photo: Hugo Yu

Even among the culinarily inclined, Suzanne “Suzy” Cupps stays under the radar. Mention her to industry folks and they will offer an admiring nod plus the highest praise a chef can muster: “Yeah, she can cook.” She is best known as the executive chef of Untitled at the Whitney, Danny Meyer’s arty eatery, and the short-lived 232 Bleecker, a sit-down concept from the lunch chain Dig that closed during the pandemic. To fund her new restaurant, Lola’s, she turned to former regulars. “We raised $1 million in $20,000 increments,” she says. “No one wants to be telling me what to put on the menu. They’re just super-excited to support us.”

Lola is the Tagalog word for “grandmother,” and the name is an homage to Cupps’s own grandmother, Annunciasion “Noning” Rocamora Paraiso, who fled the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and died after Cupps’s father was born. From her, Cupps has inherited only a single jade bead and a solitary photograph. Despite the name and the lustrous green of the open kitchen, Lola’s is not, as one might guess, Filipino home cooking: “The name is about honoring a brave, amazing woman who allowed me to be here right now,” Cupps says, “but I don’t cook a ton of Filipino food.”

Cupps grew up in Aiken, South Carolina, and spent the early years of her New York career cooking under Anita Lo at Annisa and Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern. At Lola’s, her menu is filled with southern and Pan-Asian influences: sesame milk bread with pimento cheese, carrot masala yogurt with naan, a beef-and-barley tartare with gochujang and sunchokes, vaguely adobo-y fried chicken, marinated rib skewers with Carolina BBQ sauce, and a bento box with an ever-changing cargo of seasonal vegetables. The Asian influence, Cupps says, isn’t due to personal biography: “It’s because the first chef I ever worked with was Chinese American, my first sous-chef was Japanese, my second sous-chef was Taiwanese, and I worked next to a Filipino.”

Lola’s is a bet that it’s still possible to open a modest restaurant in Manhattan without a menu of TikTok-baiting gimmicks or the backing of a well-financed restaurant “group.” There are just 70 seats because, Cupps explains, “my food doesn’t translate on a large scale.” She is a Greenmarket devotee who brines, roasts, and cures with the intention not of using ingredients but enhancing them. Even pork ribs are brightened with a broth of spring garlic and greens. “I don’t want you leaving here feeling like you need a nap,” she says.

Less obviously, Lola’s is also a gentle challenge to the narrative that white chefs are afforded the privilege to cook whatever they want while chefs of color are bound to their biographies. Cupps, with her years of experience, light touch, and steady hand, is leading a kitchen predicated not on where she’s from but on what she wants.

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