Kasama, the acclaimed French cafe and Filipino restaurant, will finally open its doors for indoor service on Wednesday, but not quite in the way owners Genie Kwon and Tim Flores expected. This is the first time that the mighty Ukrainian Village restaurant, open since July 2020, has welcomed diners to sit and eat indoors. Despite COVID-19’s challenges, Kwon and Flores have managed to build a strong customer base with their 40-seat patio and carry out operations.
Last month, with COVID-19 numbers on the decline, the wife-and-husband team saw a glimmer of hope and closed the restaurant for a bit in preparation of opening their 50 to 55-seat dining room to officially debut dinner service with some of the modern Filipino dishes Flores has been yearning to serve. Kasama’s business is too reliant on good weather, and that prompted the decision to open up the dining room.
But after seeing the increases in infections and hospitalizations from the delta variant, Kasama is again shifting gears. Though indoor service starts Wednesday, the restaurant will remain open only in the mornings and late afternoons: “We have to close for dinner,” Flores says. “There’s not enough staff to cover service.”
“It’s strange because this is just not what we were planning, and we’ve kept going back and forth a million times,” Kwon adds.
Kwon handles the baking operations and has turned Kasama into an Instagram darling with pastries like her special danishes (there’s even a Chicago-style hot dog version). Flores has kept it casual with the lunch and dinner offerings, serving takeout-friendly items like lumpia, pancit, and chicken adobo. The morning pastries and savory afternoon dishes will remain.
Beyond the start of indoor service, Kwon and Flores have bigger news: When they do debut dinner, they’ll unveil a 10- to 12-course tasting menu. This is a departure from what the couple imagined. They wanted to keep Kasama as accessible as possible, a philosophy Flores envisioned as a place ideal for customers to drop in for a great cocktail and lumpia. But the delta variant changed their plans. Tasting menus are easier to portion, and they reduce the need for servers to hover. Potentially, that should limit interactions with customers and the potential to spread the disease. The restaurant also won’t have to hire as many servers.
The labor landscape is changing, Flores notes, with workers insistent on transparency with job descriptions — they want to see salaries listed in advertisements and competitive benefits. While some, like Kwon and Flores are ready to adapt, other owners call workers lazy and blame federal coronavirus relief packages for keeping potential employees away from the workplace.
Tasting menus are, for the most part, more expensive than a la carte menus. The hope is that this will give Kasama the means to keep its workers happier. The duo has fine dining experience, including at Michelin-starred Oriole in West Loop. Flores always intended to serve dishes that were more composed than the restaurant’s current takeout-friendly lineup, but he wasn’t eyeing plating coursed-out meals. As a Filipino American, Flores quietly hoped to cook from his heritage, but he never thought he would get the opportunity working at mainly European-centric restaurants: “Instead of a French name for a dish you have no idea what it is, it’d be cool if it’s a Filipino name,” he says.
Opening Kasama gives him that opportunity. But at the same time, Ukrainian Village is full of families. It’s not like West Loop or River North where fine dining makes more sense.
“We love cooking that way, but it wasn’t the idea we had for this restaurant in this neighborhood,” Kwon says.
Kasama will be the only tasting menu entry featuring Filipino food in Chicago, and one of a select few across the country. Other entries include Tanam in suburban Boston and Archipelago in Seattle. Kwon calls Kasama’s upcoming “Tim- and Filipino-forward,” and mentions how this is another opportunity to demonstrate the value in international cuisine. Some diners reveal biases in lumping in Latin, African, and Asian cuisines aside from sushi as budget eats, devaluing the labor and technique that goes into making dishes.
Flores is still working out the menu but says Filipino staples like longaniza, pancit, and chicken adobo will find their way to the table. He and Kwon are also toying with ideas for a tart that would include a tableside presentation. And, of course, lumpia: “It’s so good,” says Kwon, interrupting her husband with her appreciation for the iconic item.
The introduction of the tasting menu is dependent on COVID-19 numbers, so Flores and Kwon hope Chicagoans take the disease seriously. For now, they’re hoping opening indoors is their own bridge phase as they inch closer to fully opening as they intended. Stay tuned for updates.
Kasama, 1001 N. Winchester, open from 9 p.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday for indoor and patio service.