Melanie Diamond-Manlusoc wasn’t trying to coordinate her desserts with her ’do. But the second she pulled her handiwork out of the oven, she had to admit the resemblance was uncanny.
For years, the pastry chef has rocked the same coiffure: close-cropped on the sides, with the much longer, violet-tinted mop up top swept up and back in a ’40s pinup loopty-loop. The moment she emerged from the small kitchen of Flow State CoffeeBar (2413 Frankford Ave., www.flowstatecoffeebar.com) brandishing a batch of purple yam cinnamon buns, her business partners — Melanie’s wife, Liz Diamond-Manlusoc, and longtime friend Maggie Lee — stated the obvious. “You just made your hair.”
They quickly landed on a name for this new snack: the “victory roll,” a double entendre nodding to both Melanie’s scratch-made dough spirals and her favorite follicular flourish. But there’s another factor in play here, one that’s less obvious but far more intimate: the ube, or purple yam, that gives the treats their Instagrammable hue. It’s a popular ingredient found in the desserts of the Philippines, one that many non-Asian bakers are just beginning to discover. In spite of her own Filipino heritage, Melanie has always felt like an outsider, too. Flow State is her chance to change that — at her own pace, on her own terms, and in a language that anyone with a sweet tooth already speaks. To join the conversation, all one needs to do is swing by on a “Filipino Friday.” That’s the one day a week she sets aside to find out who she is, in a way that makes sense to her.
“I’m a 40-year-old woman, and I’m just coming out as Filipino now,” the native Michigander joked as she knifed the kernels off local corn she’d purchased at Riverwards Produce, a few blocks away from Flow State’s year-old Kensington storefront. “I’ve been telling people I’m Italian forever.”
The product of a Filipino multigenerational family that first emigrated to America in the 1960s, Melanie grew up in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, her Midwestern lilt an outlier in the Kenzo-ese chorus that soundtracks her adopted neighborhood. A classical saxophonist, she earned a degree in music education from Michigan State University, where she and Liz, a percussionist, first met.
Both women would go on to teach band in schools all over Liz’s native Chicago, but the seed for Melanie’s gestating pivot was planted in her undergrad years. Traveling to the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna in 2001 to attend a music workshop, she fell hard for real-deal gelato, and began experimenting with her own using a $50 Cuisinart ice cream maker.
Melanie went back to school, this time earning patisserie and baking accreditation from Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, and logged time at decorated restaurants like Blackbird, Avec, and Spiaggia.
Though Melanie did launch a well-received pop-up series showcasing her formidable gelataia abilities, the Windy City’s oversaturated food scene just wasn’t right for a permanent location. Philadelphia entered the equation thanks to Lee, a Guangzhou-born graduate of Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls and La Salle who grew up between Chinatown and the Northeast.
Lee met the Diamond-Manlusocs at a Chicago Pride event, they stayed in close touch, and the trio’s chats soon turned to collaboration. While building a showcase for Melanie’s desserts was the splashiest goal, they also wanted to establish a flexible, inclusive space friendly to people like them — the LGBTQ and remote professional communities. (Both Liz and Maggie still hold full-time jobs, designing online courses for Altierus Career College.)
“We talked a lot about what we look for in a coffee shop — what would make it interesting and attractive to all sorts of people,” said Lee. After several years of planning and fund-raising, Melanie and Liz moved to Kensington in 2016, opening Flow State on Frankford Avenue in August 2018.
Long dormant, Philly’s Filipino restaurant community is rapidly expanding, powered by young entrepreneurs of Filipino and Fil-Am descent — Perla and Sarvida, from chef-owner Lou Boquila; Lalo, in the newfangled Bourse Food Hall; burgeoning mobile/pop-up concepts like Tabachoy and Tita Emmie’s. After finding her feet at Flow State, Melanie decided it was her duty to contribute to this momentum — but she is the first to admit she didn’t know where to start.
Growing up, Melanie’s parents “wanted us to be as American as possible,” and this push to assimilate manifested itself in many ways. Family customs, native cuisine, and the Tagalog language were confined to the house, and even then, there was a concerted effort on the part of older folks to establish a buffer between their kids and their homeland.
It’s a dynamic familiar to many culturally American children of immigrants — a practice well-intentioned and born of protection, but one that puts a serious strain on the individual pursuit of identity. “I don’t know how to feel Filipino,” said Melanie. “You have your feet in both worlds, but you never feel like you belong to either one. I don’t know where I fit.”
After years of struggling, the chef has found her conduit in the kitchen, allowing her talents to guide a slow-but-steady march toward understanding. Synthesizing her high-end pastry skills with comforting flavors from childhood has sparked a meaningful dialogue, both with herself and with her customers.
“Filipino Friday” is the opposite of traditional. Melanie will fold that vibrant purple ube into a cinna-roll filling or cake batter, or manipulate raw corn into a pale yellow gelato that reminds her of maja blanca, a corn-and-coconut custard. She combines buko, tender young coconut flesh, with the unique, nearly vanilla-like profile of kelly green pandan leaves for another delicate gelato, as well as chewy, subtly sweet mochi-style bake sale squares. Fans of the sweet breakfast breads born from centuries of Spanish colonial rule can try a hybridized version, moister than a Mexican concha thanks to well-hydrated dough, with a heartier crumb than Philippine pandesal or ensaymada.
These specials are the fruits of a personal project that’s far from finished. But positive feedback from Flow State’s visitors, especially Filipinos, has encouraged Melanie. “I honestly didn’t think about others — I did this for myself,” she said. Realizing that there are many out there like her, in search of a comfort that’s near-impossible to define, is heartening — but it’s still very much a work in progress.
“It’s a way to figure it all out,” she said. “Every week, I think, ‘Is this Filipino enough?’ I’m not sure. But it’s Filipino to me."