Florence Mae Magnaloc

Florence Mae Magnaloc

Florence Mae Magnaloc

Florence Mae Magnaloc was at university when she opened her Filipino ice cream parlour Mamasons. Today, she also heads up bakery Panadera and restaurant Donia, where she cooks her take on Filipino classics.

As a child, Florence Mae Magnaloc – or Mae – rarely enjoyed a lazy Saturday morning. Instead, she was up early helping her mum prepare a batch of the family’s favourite: pandesal. ‘There’s five of us, and I think she was tricking me by saying it was good for me to have a tradition, but really she just didn’t want to make a bunch of pandesal for her five children,’ Mae laughs. ‘I helped her every Saturday instead of lying in bed. Saturdays were early for me, and we’d be making bread for three, four hours.’ Pandesal – a sweetened Filipino bread roll – is one of Mae’s most formative and earliest food memories, and a dish that has remained equally as important throughout her career, with versions featuring on all her menus. ‘It’s such well-rounded bread that you can eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner – it’s one of those things that you don’t realise how lucky you are to have it everywhere,’ she says. ‘For me as a chef, it was the first thing I learned how to make from my mum.’

Born in the Philippines but growing up between London and Belfast, the food Mae loves has long been a blend of FIlipino and British flavours. ‘I love Filipino food but I also love English and Irish food,’ she says. ‘When my friends came over, it would be sausages or pie with mash, but I’d also have a Filipino stew cooking in the background too.’ By the time she was a teenager, Mae was a keen cook, but wanted to explore something new, so went to university to study branding and design. She expected to find work in publishing or writing, but found herself drawn to cooking. ‘I wasn’t a very normal teenager or twenty-year-old,’ she smiles. ‘My friends wanted to go to festivals but I wanted to go to Michelin-starred restaurants.’ 

While studying, Mae met Filipino restaurateur Omar Shah through a sibling. At the time, Omar ran Bintang, a Filipino and pan-Asian restaurant which has been run in Camden by his family since 1987, and Guanabana, a Caribbean restaurant. Mae began juggling studies with learning the ropes of hospitality, and when Omar looked to open a new concept in 2017, he asked her to be his business partner. The idea was Mamasons, a Filipino ice cream and dessert parlour serving dirty ice cream, inspired by the kind sold on the streets of Manila. They started out with sixteen flavours from around Asia, including six from the Philippines – and no strawberry or vanilla to be seen. ‘We were told ‘everyone’s going to complain’ and they did when we first opened,’ Mae laughs,’ but my thought was that if you wanted vanilla or strawberry you’d get it from somewhere else. This was going to be a destination ice cream parlour.’ Things were set and ready to go but Mae had a last minute change of heart, deciding that Mamasons should focus solely on Filipino flavours like ube and black coconut. Today, Mamasons – also known for its Halo-Halo, a traditional layered shaved ice dessert, and bilogs, toasted pandesal filled with ice cream – has expanded from its Camden start to three sites. 

Four years later, Mae opened her second concept in the Magnihawa Group (today, Mae is its chief executive, overseeing its seven brands, which also include Ramo Ramen and Moi Moi Island) – Panadera, a Filipino bakery with a menu of coffees, including its trademark ube latte, and sandwiches. Pulled together on a budget of just £6,000 in a shop front next to Moi Moi Island, Panadera was in part an extension of Mamasons, a home for products Mae knew were popular, but which hadn’t settled in at the dessert parlour. A slow first day saw Mae panic, but she needn’t have worried; the next day, food writer Jonathan Nunn visited, trying her corned beef hash sando and declaring it a perfect sandwich. It caught the capital’s attention. ‘We sold out everyday for a year,’ Mae says. ‘I had to make two more sandwiches so that we wouldn’t run out of the beef sandwich.’

Mae’s latest concept is Donia, a restaurant in central London, where the menu harks back to her childhood and classic Filipino dishes are given her own, often British, interpretation. With only six weeks between the idea and opening in late 2023, it’s fair to say Donia came about quickly, partly because it felt like it had always been ready. ‘I wanted to use all the recipes I’ve tried before – over the years it’s like I've been collecting things,’ Mae says. ‘I think a lot of chefs do that. They go into a kitchen, pick up skills, pick up recipes and keep it for a later date.’ Donia’s ethos is shown best through its signature lamb caldereta pie, with a liver sauce, developed with head chef Guillermo Bitanga. ‘It’s a Filipino stew, with tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beef broth, and my mum would sometimes go for beef but sometimes we’d use lamb,’ Mae says, ‘It would be this great stew and we’d eat it with rice, but once the sauce had reduced and become thicker, I’d also put that on mashed potatoes.’

Now looking after seven brands, it’s fair to say Mae and Omar have plenty on their plate; while their pace might fluctuate, their ambition certainly won’t. Panadera is due to have a second home, expansion plans are afoot for Mamasons and conversation is ongoing around international projects. The pair are fast building an empire of Filipino food in London, built on a teamwork founded in their different strengths; Mae praises Omar’s skills as a chef and businessman, describing their relationship as one of a mentor and mentee, though her understanding of branding, aesthetics and social media at times flips those roles. Whatever comes next, Mae can take pride in playing  a pivotal role in introducing more of us to Filipino cuisine. ‘A lot of people now are more adventurous, or they know more about Filipino food,’ Mae says. ‘So it’s really nice to see Filipinos and non-Filipinos give it a go. If they are a Filipino they resonate with the flavours; our caldereta pie, for example, is reminiscent of a stew they would have had growing up but also very different and served in a way they wouldn’t have had it before.’