They’re a match made in food heaven—Filipino chef Tim Flores and the Korean pastry chef Genie Kwon. They are the couple behind the acclaimed Filipino restaurant in Chicago called Kasama which recently earned the coveted Michelin star.
Tim and Genie’s rise to culinary stardom has been pretty remarkable, considering that their first business venture together took off at the height of the pandemic. It’s only been less than two years since Kasama opened, and yet it’s already landed on a number of “best (new) restaurant” lists—the New York Times, Eater, Esquire, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago magazine.
The latest badge of honor, of course, is the Michelin star rating, one of the most prestigious recognitions a restaurant can receive. According to the Michelin guide, the duo “have taken traditional Filipino cooking and given it a creative, contemporary spin.” The review spotlighted their “maitake mushroom adobo sauced with mussel emulsion; ‘pancit’ reflecting Spanish influence with thin squid ink noodles, scallop conserva, and shaved Serrano ham; and Chef Kwon's elegant take on ‘halo-halo’ combining Asian pear granita, pandan ice cream.”
The name of the restaurant is no doubt inspired by the partnership behind it, which is the foundation on which the business stands. “We decided to call it Kasama because it’s pretty much our concepts combined together,” explains Tim. [Genie] takes care of the pastries, while I take care of the savories.” As simple as that.
Tim was born and raised in the US. His father is Capampangan while his mother is Caviteña. Trivia: Back in the ‘70s, his parents used to live in the same neighborhood where Kasama is currently located, in East Ukrainian Village in Chicago. Tim speaks with an American accent but his Pinoyness comes out the moment he starts talking about Filipino food. Genie, meanwhile, was born in New Orleans and grew up mainly in Boston and Upstate New York.
The two have been married four years. They started dating in 2014 and tied the knot in Las Vegas in 2018. What makes their partnership work? We sat down recently with the couple—via Zoom—to find out and get to know more about this talented couple.
To hear them say it, they’re always busy and always running around, but in conversation, they’re both quite laidback. They also seem very down-to-earth. They complete each other’s sentences, and sometimes answer in unison. They look at each other lovingly, and listen intently when the other person speaks. They think highly of each other. They may be from different backgrounds but have clearly found their common ground in food.
When and how did you discover your knack for cooking?
Tim: I grew up with good food. My mom, who’s from Cavite, has been the best cook in the family. At family parties, everybody looks forward to her food. They’d go, “Is your mom bringing her arroz caldo?”
I found myself in a restaurant back in college in 2011 when a friend asked if I’d like to polish dishes at a restaurant. I started working in the dishwashing area, then moved to bussing tables, then running food, and eventually cooking in the kitchen.
Before that, I didn’t know what I’d get into. I was into sports in college—I wrestled and pole vaulted. When I worked at a restaurant, that’s when I realized that I like cooking.
Genie: My mom would cook a lot. Family gatherings always happened around food. I’ve always loved watching cooking shows as a kid. It was so mesmerizing. My mom would let me test recipes and cook. She was always supportive of that. That fostered a positive environment to actually try it and experiment with it.
How did you two meet?
Genie: I was working as a pastry chef at GT Fish and Oyster in Chicago. That’s where I met Tim. He was finishing as I was starting. We only overlapped for a couple of weeks. We reconnected a year later when he was working at a restaurant called Senza. A mutual friend of ours asked me to go out to dinner so we went to Senza and I had one of the best meals I ever had. Tim actually wasn’t there, so we were messaging each other. Then we started hanging out, dating and eventually working together.
Where did you have your first date and what did you eat?
Tim and Genie: We ate at a ramen bar.
Tim: We sat on the bar. She sat on the left side, and I’m left-handed. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m gonna bump elbows when we’re eating.’ Then I found out that she’s left-handed too. (Laughs)
Our dates are always at late-night spots because we finish work at 12AM or 1AM, so we’d go to a ramen place or a diner.
You studied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology before you ventured in culinary arts. Those are two different worlds. What made you decide to make the switch?
Genie: In school, I’d be doing experimentation for 20+ hours a week. I felt that I could do the same thing with food. I’d just experiment. I’ve always loved doing it, but I never thought it could be a realistic career to go into. Then I realized that it was one of those things I think I’m gonna regret if I didn’t try. I got a scholarship at Newbury College Massachusetts for a culinary management program. I figured I can’t lose if I try this. And I never looked back since. That was over 15 years ago.
Your relationship with each other developed and deepened because of your love for food.
Genie: Everything that entertains us, everything that we do in our spare time, pretty much everything that we talk about revolves around food and where we’re gonna eat.
Tim, it was you who introduced Filipino food to Genie?
Tim: I don’t really remember other than she meeting my family for the first time and coming over to eat. One thing about Filipino food is—I don’t know anybody who has tried it for the first time and doesn’t like it.
What were the first Filipino foods that you’ve tried and what were your first impressions?
Genie: Pancit by Tim’s mom. Lumpia, which is always a staple at family parties. Tim’s mom is always cooking on the weekends. I love her nilaga—just things that are so comforting. It reminds me of things that I ate when I was growing up. Seeing a different cuisine in a different light has been pretty awesome.
Your training is in pastry making. Do you also make savory dishes?
Genie: Yes. I learned a lot of things working with Tim. I appreciate how he works. We work very differently. Before, I was kind of restricted in my mentality of having to follow recipes. To me, it was always about being exact. There’s a lot to take away from a savory cook. Understanding the foundation of a cuisine freed me a lot, because I wasn’t necessarily looking towards creating a recipe. I was looking to create something according to my palate and creating a recipe based on that.
What are the foods that you both love?
Tim: We love going to these Mexican restaurants cafeteria style. Kind of like turo-turo style, with little dishes, stews and guisados. We probably eat that once a week, one hearty meal a week. Because during the week, we eat half of a sandwich, put it down and run around. We’re busy working. So on our day off, our biggest thing is eating a hearty meal. It’s also one thing that reminds me of Filipino food—rice and hearty stew. It’s very satisfying.
Are there foods that you can’t stand?
Genie: This also goes with our philosophy in cooking—when the technique gets so complicated and it doesn’t make a discernable difference to the flavor. First and foremost, we want to serve food that’s delicious. Then we think about how it can be unique and what technique we can use towards that. But more than anything, we want to create tasty food that people crave. That’s also something that we appreciate when we’re eating out.
You opened a restaurant during the pandemic in July 2020. What was that like?
Tim: For us, we just have to get it done. We probably weren’t ready when we opened. There were no tables in the restaurant, we got no chairs because we’re just doing takeout. So rather than spending on plates, chairs, decorations, we opted to be as conservative as possible [in our spending]. We just started doing takeout.
Then we opened up our patio for outdoor seating because indoor dining wasn’t allowed at that time. That was the only choice we had. We were fortunate to know what we’re getting into versus having to open before the pandemic and having to change our business plan. We knew that we had to do takeout and delivery. We set ourselves up that way.
Genie: When we purchased the building, there was no turning back. We had to move forward no matter what. We purchased it in February of 2020. We passed the inspections by middle of March, the day before the first citywide shutdown for Covid. That definitely changed the trajectory of our plans. We made some significant pivots so we could open the business.
You could opt for another type of restaurant. Why did you decide to put up a Filipino restaurant?
Genie: Everybody has a family friend or knew a Filipino and that’s the only exposure that they had with Filipino food. We want to change that, bring Filipino food into the mainstream.
Tim: Here in the States, there’s not a lot of options. In Chicago there are some newer places that are doing cool things, small mom-and-pop restaurant that do stuff that I grew up eating. But they’re not that accessible to people who never had it. So that’s one of the reasons I decided to do Filipino cuisine, to show people the food that I grew up eating, show them that it’s delicious.
Tell us about your menu offerings
Tim: We have 6 or 7 items in our breakfast and lunch menu. We stuck to a small menu mostly for efficiency. Our Filipino breakfast has the house-made longganisa, tocino, chicken adobo. The mushroom adobo, which is our vegetarian option, ended up becoming a popular choice.
For sandwiches, we have longganisa, egg and cheese. You can get hashbrowns with that. We have our take on the local Chicago sandwich. That one has shaved Italian beef with spices, then Italian sausage. Our version has shaved pork adobo with longganisa.
How about with the pastries?
Genie: I do mainly French-American style pastries like croissants and danishes. We make thousands of pastries a week! Our bestseller is the ube pastry, which is our version of the basque cake. It’s a buttery pound cake filled with ube pastry cream and huckleberries.
What do you think made you earn the Michelin star?
Tim: We offered dinner when we opened. But it’s more of a casual takeout and delivery dinner. But we stopped doing that because of the staffing. We started offering dinner as a tasting menu last November 2021. We’re doing our prix fixe menu, it’s 13 courses and it’s fine dining. We’ve got caviar and Japanese wagyu, truffles and stuff like that. I think that was a big factor in us getting a Michelin rate. We’ve been classified as a really good restaurant with great value. I think another factor is that our dishes are all based on things I grew up eating. We have lumpia, pancit, bistek, adobo. Genie’s doing halo-halo and banana cue dessert.
Sounds like Filipino food has been well-received.
Tim: Yes, it’s definitely been well-received. We have a good following in Chicago. Majority of our customers are non-Filipinos. I spoke with someone who drove from Indiana and from North Dakota. He drove 14 hours to come see us for breakfast. Filipinos who’ve heard about us come over and even get emotional. They’re really proud to hear that Filipino food is recognized on a different level.
Do you have bigger plans for Kasama?
Genie: It’s hard. (Smiles) The reason we formatted it this way was to have control in a time where we didn’t have control—during the pandemic. It’s hard for us to step away. We see about 95% of the food that goes out [of the kitchen]. We try to stay consistent. I feel that the bigger you get, the harder it is to control that. I think we’re going to be very strategic in our next plans and how we’ll grow. We have an amazing team that needs room to grow as well.
Tim: We definitely want to grow. But for now, we’re sticking to Kasama. To be new and popular is great. But we want to make sure that people will still be enjoying it in the years to come. That’s our focus.