EAST UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — Owning a neighborhood restaurant has been the lifelong dream of award-winning Chicago chefs Genie Kwon and Tim Flores.
On Wednesday, that dream will be realized as the couple opens Kasama, a Filipino restaurant inside the old Winchester building.
Kasama, 1001 N. Winchester Ave., will open for takeout and delivery.
Opening during a pandemic is “bittersweet,” Kwon said — nothing like what she or her husband imagined.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t an element of hospitality,” Kwon said. “This has been our dream our whole lives. We wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant. … We still hope [customers] feel that.”
Kwon and Flores initially planned to bring elements of their fine dining backgrounds to the neighborhood though “accessible” Filipino plates, pastries and wine pairings.
That’s still the plan for the long term, once it’s safe to offer full service indoors. But for the time being, they’ll offer an abridged “street food” menu with wine and beer takeout options.
While the abridged “street food” menu won’t include the finer dinner service Flores planned to curate, he is looking forward to cooking Filipino classics like lumpia, barbecue pork skewers and fried rice.
Kwon will put a Filipino spin on pastries, which will be shown in a display case.
“I want to make Filipino food accessible,” Flores said. “We’re going a little more casual. … Hopefully they can come multiple times a week.”
‘A Conflict Of Emotions’
Kwon and Flores met in the early 2010s while working together at River North’s GT Fish & Oyster.
Flores’ parents immigrated to America from the Philippines in December 1975 and met in Chicago. His father moved to Humboldt Park while his mother moved to Ukrainian Village by the corner of Oakley and Augusta.
This family history makes opening the first kitchen of his own in the area all the more special, Flores has said.
The couple introduced themselves to neighbors and shared their idea during a February community meeting. Coronavirus may have slowed their opening, but the pandemic did not halt their business altogether.
During the shutdown, they painted the building dark gray and built out the patio along Winchester, which will represent their takeout waiting area.
They hoped to hire 18-22 people and offer company-wide health insurance. Instead, Kasama will initially open with six to seven staffers; in an effort to provide health insurance, Kwon and Flores are tacking a 4 percent service charge onto guests’ bills.
Opening a restaurant from scratch during the coronavirus pandemic has brought at least one unique twist: Instead of investing overhead costs in place settings and silverware, the couple bought disposable carryout containers.
Ceramics artist David Kim, initially hired to make Kasama’s plate-ware, pivoted to create the restaurant’s handmade blueish-green tiling.
While they’re excited to finally open, marketing themselves has admittedly felt “tone deaf,” given how many family-owned restaurants have closed in recent months, Kwon said.
Industry experts have predicted more than a thousand independently-owned Chicago restaurants could close due to the pandemic.
“It’s been a conflict of emotions,” Kwon said. “Guilt, excitement, fear. All of those things.”
Thus far, neighbors have been nothing but supportive, Kwon said.
“We’ve been working outside, building benches. … Every 15 minutes, people are coming out, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,'” she said. “We believe we really have a perfect spot for what we’re doing.”
Neighbors can help the new restaurant — and all struggling businesses — succeed by being kind toward each other, Flores said.
“Respecting people’s space, wearing masks,” he said. “We’re opening to fill a gap. … The last thing we want is another shutdown.”
Seeing Chicago’s rising coronavirus case rate — and taking note of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s threat to tighten restrictions — has given Flores and Kwon pause about when or if to open their patio.
Ultimately, neighbors can help Kasama by showing up, Kwon said.
“We don’t really have an identity yet. We don’t know how many people are gonna come,” Kwon said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”
Hours of operation are initially 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, but they could change depending on customer demand.
Takeout orders can be placed online via Kasama’s website, which is coming soon. Customers can also order carryout in person.
Kasama will offer delivery via Uber Eats for at least the first month of business, Kwon said. Through Sunday the restaurant will participate in the app’s ongoing celebrity chicken wing promotion.
The restaurant can be reached at 773-697-3790; however, the business will not initially accept orders via phone.
The Winchester closed in 2018 after four years in the neighborhood. While owners said it would reopen under a new concept, they ultimately stepped away from the venture.
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