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.”
Beyond Kasama, the tire guide added three Chicago restaurants, including Esme and Galit, both in Lincoln Park. Claudia in Bucktown also joins the one-star club.
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.