Tim Flores and Genie Kwon did not anticipate opening a fine dining restaurant when they debuted Kasama in July 2020. Their original idea was for a cafe with morning pastries baked by Kwon and a casual menu with sandwiches and lumpia from Flores in the afternoons. Now, nearing two years later, the couple owns the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in America and Kasama’s 13-course tasting menu — one that includes lumpia — has brought joy to diners, especially within the Filipino community. That wasn’t Flores’s intention, but he’ll take it.
“So many people have teared up at dinner,” Flores says. “It was never my goal, The goal was just to make good food I grew up eating, not to help Filipino Americans get in touch with their roots.”
Before Michelin delivered the news to him on Tuesday, Flores was resigned that Kasama and its $185 tasting menu would be the “most expensive Bib Gourmand” in the country. The Bib Gourmand list is mostly reserved for restaurants that provide a good value, but also occasionally serves as a consolation prize for those deemed unworthy of a star. But Kasama has been racking up acclaim. It’s one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America. And when Tribune critic Louisa Chu reviewed Kasama in December, she hailed it as one of the best restaurants in the world. Michelin apparently agrees.
Kasama began serving its tasting menu five months ago as a way to sustain the restaurant through the hardships of the COVID pandemic. Flores and Kwon reasoned that they could serve fewer guests more expensive meals with fewer servers in order to combat the restaurant industry’s labor situation.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Kwon says. “This is something that came out of our response to the COVID surge, but at the same time we wanted to provide the best experience we could, and it was a deliberate choice we made.”
Michelin hosted a celebratory party later on Tuesday at Oriole, the Michelin-starred restaurant where Flores and Kwon worked before opening Kasama.
“I had never been to a Michelin event,” Flores says. “I was always the person who stayed back at the restaurant.”
Esme’s Jenner Tomaska and Katrina Bravo received the Michelin news while tending to their crying baby. “It kind of keeps you humble,” Bravo says.
Esme opened as an ambitious tasting menu restaurant that sought to blend art with food. But the delta variant that hit in late summer posed a new challenge that hurt staff morale. The award could help restore that, and give workers something tangible to put on their resumes: the experience of working at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
For years, Tomaska toiled at Next Restaurant, where the menu and decor would rotate seasonally. This confused Michelin inspectors, who were unsure how to rate a restaurant that presented a totally different experience every few months. So Michelin ignored Next until 2019 when it became a one-star fixture.
“Everyone likes to be rewarded for their hard work,” Tomaska says “If it drives revenue, it’s fantastic, and I’m thankful for that. But you know I spent almost a decade at Next and every year we were like the Cubs, what is it? ‘We’ll get them next year?’”
Bravo complimented fellow first-time star winners Galit and Claudia. The two chefs, Zach Engel and Trevor Teich, provided Bravo and Tomaska with support and hospitality while they were opening Esme. The couple recalls a memorable Galit meal during a particularly challenging time when Engel sent over the check with words “no bill, suckas.” Tomaska was so moved that he kept the bill in his wallet as a reminder of Engel’s kindness and his determination to eventually repay the favor.
Engel found out about Galit’s star via a phone call while he was interviewing a potential employee. The news left him less than focused for the remainder of the interview: “I didn’t really expect that phone call,” Engel says. “Everyone’s kind of in disbelief, we’re really happy… it just feels good.”
For Teich, the star provides vindication. He hosted pop-ups for years waiting for a chance to open a restaurant. When plans stalled, he moved to Las Vegas but returned more determined to find a home for Claudia’s playful tasting menu, based on his memories of his North Shore childhood.
While the winners rejoiced, there were a few omissions on both the star and Bib Gourmand lists. Here’s a breakdown of a few more restaurants that deserved recognition.
This Ravenswood spot isn’t a fusion restaurant. Instead, it takes cues from Filipino and Cuban fare to deliver a unique menu that satisfies on each visit. Selections include Cubano sandwiches, adobo chicken wings, and delicious pancit. There really isn’t another place like Bayan Ko in America, and the tiny dining room is routinely packed, making the owners wish they had a larger space to serve their loyal customers. Bayan Ko is deserving of inclusion on the Bib Gourmand list.
Michelin continues to recognize Schwa, the experimental tasting menu restaurant in West Town, which currently has one star. One of its alums, Norman Fenton, has moved to Uptown where he’s helming the kitchen at Brass Heart, an intimate tasting menu restaurant that continues to break new ground. The platings are gorgeous and the meals, described as “post-modern American” are exciting. Brass Heart is worthy of a star.
Much in the same way Kasama has showcased Filipino cuisine in a modern and elegant setting, Dave Park and Jennifer Tran have changed perceptions surrounding Korean food with Jeong in West Town. But Michelin continues to ignore this powerhouse. Sure, Bib Gourmand selections Perilla and Mott St represent different types of Korean flavors in their own ways, but Jeong’s precision and creativity would make it stand out in any city and worthy of a star.
Otto Phan may have alienated some locals before he opened his omakase sushi restaurant in Logan Square by criticizing the Midwest’s sushi scene, but was he wrong? Phan didn’t open Chicago’s first sushi restaurant, but now four years later, Kyoten’s approach is unmatched. Phan funnels most of his resources into securing the best fish from Japan, wonderful rice grains, and other premium ingredients. The dining room may be spartan compared to other fancy spaces around the city, but Phan’s fish stands out. Kyoten is star-worthy.
The name Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream is silly, but there’s something refreshing about knowing exactly what to expect. Far too few folks outside of Chicago have heard of the city’s signature thin-crust tavern-style pizza. And lately, no pizzeria has been consistently baking quality pie after pie like PFIC in Bridgeport. Add in chef Won Kim’s fried chicken and Dana Salls Cree’s ice cream bars, and this is a Chicago classic.
An argument could be made for chef Kim at his other project, Kimski. Beyond the Michelin-star bait from fine dining brewpubs Band of Bohemia and Moody Tongue, inspectors don’t quite understand how Chicago’s breweries integrate with its food scene. Kimski’s Polish-Korean fare is not only is a love letter to two of Chicago’s proudest immigrant groups, but the food is also a prime example of how pub fare can excel, especially with a quality beer from Maria’s Community Bar’s tap list. Both PFIC and Kimski are worthy of Bib Gourmand selections.
While the Bib Gourmand list features 10 Chicago’s Mexican restaurants out of the 55, taquerias don’t get as much attention. Taqueria Chingon is one of a few worthy spots the inspectors snubbed. Chefs Sotero Gallegos, Oliver Poilevey, and Marcos Ascencio show wonderful discipline with staples like pork al pastor. But they also display willingness to try new things with rotating specials like a Greek-style taco with merguez sausage and a tempura shrimp version. Michelin missed the boat here.