But two weeks after Flores and Kwon bought the space for Kasama, coronavirus shut down the city. With the pandemic upending plans, Pang’s film, “No Place Like Kasama,” shifted to chronicle how the first-time restaurateurs persevered to start their dream as the service industry struggled to stay afloat.
Pang’s 37-minute film debuted at DOC NYC earlier this month. It’s streaming on CoVideos until Thursday, and more festival releases are planned.
“It became a totally unpredictable story for me that I just knew I had to follow because we just didn’t know what the ending was,” Pang said.
Pang read about Flores and Kwon’s plan to open Kasama, 1001 N. Winchester Ave., in a story. The couple helped found Oriole in West Loop, with Kwon serving as pastry chef and Flores as chef de cuisine under chef and owner Noah Sandoval. The restaurant earned two Michelin stars after just seven months in operation.
Flores and Kwon left Oriole in 2018.
“The first question that came to mind was, ‘What dream was so worth leaving this Michelin star world?’” Pang said.
The filmmaker also wanted to “disrupt a lot of the food media scene that’s very much dominated by a certain kind of person — white, straight male — and just wanted to diversify who we see on screen as chefs.”
Pang’s pitch was a 10-minute film about Flores and Kwon getting the restaurant ready to open for lunch and dinner service. The couple pitched neighbors about their plan in February 2020, bought the building shortly after and eyed May 2020 for their launch.
Mere days after their inspection, restaurants were closed to indoor service — and then a stay at home order was launched.
Pang filmed the couple forging ahead — as Kwon says, “There’s no going back for us; this is it” — setting up equipment, discussing the challenges of getting protective equipment for workers, brainstorming how they’d make money with limited indoor dining and changing focus to daytime service with their bakery and offering takeout.
“It’s terrifying,” Flores said in the film. “All those normal challenges of opening a restaurant, I wish we just had to worry about, ‘Are we putting out good food? Is the service good?'”
Pang imagined the film would end with a shot of a crowded dining room, signaling the end of COVID-19.
But as the pandemic wore on and another indoor dining ban was implemented last year, she said the end of COVID-19 was not the story, “but about how they journey through that process and whether it was worth it.”
Flores and Kwon watched the film last week and said it reminded them of challenges they’d forgotten. To prep for opening day, they had been up for 48 hours, the air conditioning was not working and the tables had not been set up.
The film helps people see what they went through to open the restaurant in a sustainable way during COVID-19, they said.
“It was a little bit strange to have somebody filming and asking us questions, just because I think the both of us are not very good at all that,” Flores said. “That’s kind of why we found ourselves in the kitchen.”
The film ends just before the state relaxed its restrictions on indoor dining in May. Flores and Kwon still plan to launch full-service dinner service with a tasting menu.
Pang said she wants viewers to see the story of two people who fought to achieve their goals despite the biggest roadblock to the industry and still find joy. At one point in the film, Kwon said, “I’m not afraid of failure. I am more afraid of the regret of not trying to pursue a dream.”
“I want folks to watch this and all walk away feeling less afraid of pursuing your dreams,” Pang said.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: