This Filipino Bakery and Restaurant Is an Unlikely Chicago Pandemic Success Story

They sold out of food on opening day.

Photo by Garrett Sweet
Photo by Garrett Sweet
Photo by Garrett Sweet

Genie Kwon, one-half of the husband-and-wife duo behind the modern Filipino cafe Kasama, didn’t plan on opening her dream restaurant smack-dab in the middle of a global pandemic. Yet, as it happened, the timing was strangely ideal.

“We closed on the building at the end of February and passed inspection the day before the first citywide shutdown,” says Kwon, recalling those bizarre few weeks last spring when she and fellow chef-owner Tim Flores found themselves in a uniquely precarious position. “If we had opened sooner it would have been pre-pandemic and we would have to totally redo everything we just put in place. And if we took longer to open, I don’t think we would have gotten any funding, let alone a bank trusting us to buy a restaurant.”

The industry darlings-both Kwon and Flores spent time working as chefs at GT Fish & Oyster before signing onto Oriole’s opening roster-scrambled to overhaul their rollout plan. In an effort to downshift from their original concept of a bustling cafe by day and high-end date night destination by night, the pair converted their sleek handmade ceramic plates into an equally eye-catching glazed tile backsplash, ditched the dining room furniture, doubled down on patio construction, and, most importantly, shifted their culinary focus from evening refinement to all-day grab-and-go.

“Making everything to-go friendly, that was a huge thing,” Kwon explains. “Coming from fine dining, everybody eats everything immediately-half the deliciousness is in the temperature. Now, every time we put a new dish on the menu we’ll literally let it sit for an hour or two to see what happens. It was hard but it allowed us to be a little more creative, forced us to troubleshoot differently and adapt. In the end, it was kind of a silver lining.”

Kwon’s lemonade-out-of-lemons mentality dates all the way back to the Korean-American chef’s unlikely foray into professional cooking. She grew up on the East Coast and entered Boston University as a biochemistry major before realizing a life of lab work wasn’t for her. Kwon subsequently dropped out of school and paid the bills by working at a law firm, unsure as to what lay ahead. Then on a whim she applied to the culinary program at Newbury college-Kwon had always loved cooking but didn’t see it as a realistic career-and was surprised to receive a scholarship.

Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores

“It was like, if I’m going to turn my life upside down, at least it’s not going to cost as much as college,” she says. “I haven’t looked back, really.”

As a student Kwon sharpened her pastry skills, going on to work at a handful of esteemed outposts in Boston and New York before making her home in the Windy City. And while she excelled in each of her positions, the aspiration to helm an establishment of her own design only grew. Kwon found a kindred spirit in the similarly driven Flores, a born-and-bred Chicagoan who hails from a tight-knit Filipino family.

“As a pastry chef, I knew I wanted to do breakfast,” she explains. “My husband is a savoury chef. He wanted to do dishes that people who might not have had Filipino food before could later recognize on a menu at any mom and pop place. That’s where Kasama came from-in Tagalog, it means ‘together’ or ‘including.’ It was fitting because we were fusing these two different concepts.”

The hunt to find a property that could satisfy a confection-fueled daytime cafe and a destination dinner spot spanned more than two years. Finding a space large enough to fit the equipment for both purposes alone was a challenge. When the Ukrainian Village neighbourhood joint the Winchester vacated its corner plot in late 2018 after a rocky four years in business, the stars aligned yet again.

“We actually drove past every day during that time because we lived nearby,” says Kwon. “Tim would always say, ‘I’d love to open our restaurant in there, it would be so amazing.’ Then everything came full circle and we were able to purchase it.”

Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores

As they say in real estate, “location, location, location.” The adage proved true for Kwon and Flores from day one. Not only were they able to make good use of their investment by moving into a newly installed studio apartment above the restaurant, but increased COVID mandates transformed the largely residential strip into a hotbed of hungry work-from-homers in desperate need for daily sustenance. They sold out of food on opening day.

“Before we opened, people would see us out front working on the patio and they would stop and say, ‘We’re so excited something is coming in here,'” Kwon says. “The neighbourhood has carried us this whole time. There are so many people we know by name, we know their families and we see them growing up. I don’t think we would’ve made it this far if it weren’t for them coming in every single day for coffee and pastries.”

The sheer number of sweet and savoury pastries on display is reason enough to visit and keep visiting. It’s all delicious, from decadent ube and huckleberry Basque cakes to buttery cranberry-orange brioche, plump Kouign-Amann laced with fragrant cardamom, and flaky hand pies stuffed with velvety fruit compote. But it’s the ham and cheese danish that steals the show. Shaped like an eclair to facilitate on-the-go snacking, the oblong indulgence cradles a river of creamy raclette fondue topped with a generous mound of freshly-shaved Serrano ham and finished with a delicate black pepper caramel.

“It’s what I always wished a ham and cheese croissant would be,” notes Kwon.

Flores runs the show on the far side of the long, low service counter, whipping up an ever-changing menu of approachable yet precise homestyle enticements prepared with top-of-the-line ingredients. Soulful mains like grilled chicken thigh adobo and Paksiw na Pata, a succulent braised pork shank glazed in a mustard sauce spiked with a liver-based Filipino condiment called Mang Tomas, accompany lighter options like lumpia Shanghai doused in sweet chilli sauce and a game-changing egg sandwich layered with housemade Longanisa sausage to keep the streamlined open kitchen buzzing from dawn until dusk. Each thoughtful component acts as a tasty introduction to Flores’ cultural heritage.

Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores
Photo by Tim Flores

“Tim has been doing versions of dishes that he grew up with, but if there’s an ingredient that he likes or wants to experiment with, he’ll definitely incorporate other things,” says Kwon. “He’s trying to make it a little more mainstream, a little more elevated so it can be paired with wine and things like that, but without offending tradition.”

Despite Kasama’s storybook success, the fractured state of her beloved industry looms heavy in Kwon’s mind.

“For us, it’s been hard to celebrate because when we were opening, all of our friends were losing their jobs or their restaurants were closing or they were in disputes with landlords and didn’t know if they were going to stay open,” she says. “And even with all that, everyone has been so supportive. It’s been a bit overwhelming because you just want everybody to be able to get through it, especially when the people closest to you are struggling so much.”

The circumstances of the past year have understandably pushed thoughts of the future onto the backburner for Kwon and Flores. Like so many restaurateurs, they’re fixated on the here and now, finding joy in every detail that propels them from simply surviving to thriving against ample odds.

“Our goal this entire time has been to keep everybody healthy and employed and, knock on wood, nobody has gotten sick and we managed to keep everybody on. We know how fortunate we are and the fact that we’re still open is beyond anything for us,” she says. “In terms of the big picture, it would be amazing if a year from now, everybody who came in knew what lumpia was and what longanisa. We’re definitely making progress.”

Meredith Heil is a former freelancer, former-former Staff Writer, and current Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. When she comes back like Jordan, wearin’ the 4-5, it ain’t to play games with you.


Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or…

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions…I think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book, Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book, Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.


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