The ultimate hallmark of culinary excellence, the Michelin star, was bestowed on a Filipino restaurant in the U.S. for the first time in 2022. Chicago-based café, bakery and modern Filipino fine dining restaurant, Kasama was launched during the global pandemic. The husband-wife duo of talented chefs, Tim Flores and Genie Kwon, who each had done fine dining tours working at other acclaimed restaurants, forged on with their dream, despite the significant challenges the pandemic posed. Their hard work paid off, garnishing accolades like landing on The New York Times 2021 top 50 restaurants list within the restaurant’s first year of existence. A documentary film chronicled the couple’s fraught but fruitful journey.

Filipino food is sometimes described as a cuisine in which east meets west (the Southeast Asian archipelago was a former Spanish colony). Chef Flores’s fusion dishes, like the maitake mushroom adobo, sauced with mussel emulsion, and Chef Kwon’s ube and huckleberry Basque cakes further blend and contemporize Eastern and Western cooking traditions.

Filipino cuisine is not as widely known as others from Asia, despite the Filipino diaspora being one of the largest in the world. A massive population of Filipinos overseas send remittances to relatives remaining in the Philippines, elevating the living standards of millions of people in the developing nation. As more Filipino chefs gain recognition abroad, the popularity of the cuisine is rising. In 2016, the Washington, D.C. restaurant by James Beard award-winning Filipino-American chef Tom Cunanan, Bad Saint, was named the second best restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appetit magazine.

In the East Ukrainian Village neighborhood of Chicago, a large number of Filipinos join the daily line that snakes outside the door of Kasama (Tagalog for “companion,” “friend,” or “to be together”). The restaurant is housed in an unassuming dark brick building with a surprisingly bright, light wood interior. Chefs Flores and Kwon met while working in another Chicago fine dining, award-winning restaurant, Oriole, and together pursued their vision of a bakery/café during the day and a sit-down restaurant at night. Kasama continues to evolve as its patronage grows.

Unassuming Chef Flores skillfully presides over the open kitchen, never missing a beat, as the servers and occasional diners pepper him with requests. His calm energy permeates the space, enhancing the nearby diners’ experience, who enjoy the symphony he seemingly conducts with ease. The restaurant is often filled with Asian patrons, though people of all colors from a wide swath of Chicago’s environs and beyond seek out the first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in America.

Kasama began as a pick-up-only operation during the pandemic and sold out of everything by mid-afternoon on the first day. They since have opened a pleasant patio space and an indoor dining area, featuring small tables and bar seating, as well as a bakery counter. Online ordering and pick-up, including Chef Kwon’s acclaimed cookie dough, is still available.

Brunch items are served on the patio in enamel white camp-style bowls rimmed with cobalt blue. The “Filipino breakfast” consists of a choice of longanisa Filipino sausage, akin to chorizo, and/or sweet cured pork tocino that tastes as if it has been marinated overnight and slow roasted, with fried egg atop garlic fried rice. The “oh, hot yam!” ube latte with coconut sap is a flavorful accompaniment to brunch selections.

The pastry offerings are not to be missed and often continue to sell out. We were lucky to snag the last few black sesame coconut macaroons, some of which we procured to go and battled over later that day. The chocolate and salted caramel tart, covered with milk chocolate ganache caramel- and white chocolate-coloued pearls, make a celebratory presentation. Pastry chef Kwon’s repertoire includes savory items displayed, when not sold out, behind an inviting glass bakery case. The artistically assembled salmon danish, with salmon confit, salmon roe and herbed cream cheese, was especially alluring. One Filipina patron from Bulacan, Philippines, noted on a visit in June 2022 that she appreciated what she considered to be the Filipina method of embedding discernible sugar crystals into the apple pastry dough.

The much-hailed 13-course tasting menu includes lumpia spring rolls and a modern Asian pear granita version of the unofficial national dessert of the Philippines, halo-halo. Halo-Halo, from the Tagalog word for “to mix,” is a popular shaved ice dessert to which fruit, coconut milk, flan, ice cream and even sweetened beans are added in the homeland. Kasama’s version is more sophisticated, especially in its careful presentation, befitting an upscale dining experience.

Proprietor Kwon was humbled by the support the Chicago Asian community offered the restaurant the couple built together, including sharing local ingredient sourcing. Kwon and Flores did not apply for available government loans during the pandemic because they believed other small restaurants were more in need of funding. Kasama also covers their employees’ health insurance by adding a four percent service charge to diners’ checks. The karma created by these acts of kindness appears to be inured to Kasama’s benefit. Even Chef Flores’s parents visit the restaurant daily, donating their time to take care of tasks for the restaurant. It has become, to a certain extent, their grandchild.

As a Filipina, dining at the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in America, with contemporary takes on the food my mother and grandmother used to prepare for me, brought a tear to my eye. I saw that I was not alone in my emotions. As I left my table, I passed four senior Filipina patrons with walkers and canes. They met my smile with grins and moistened eyes.