The Kinamot Experience
by Bill Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse
Gathering on Zoom, the Bailliage of Greater Washington, DC, embarked on a unique culinary journey to the Philippines with Javier Fernandez, chef/owner of Kuya Ja’s in Rockville, Maryland, on January 11, 2021.
Chef Fernandez is a native of the island of Cebu and came to the United States in the late 1980s. After graduating from l’Académie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland, he followed a traditional French culinary path, including cooking at La Chaumière, a classic French restaurant in Georgetown, and working for Michel Richard to open his restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in DC.
Although he’d been eating Filipino food all his life, Chef Fernandez didn’t start cooking it until about five years ago. He says he had an epiphany at a party at which his father was making traditional Filipino roasted pork belly that inspired him to open his own restaurant. He started Kuya Ja’s as a pop-up at his sister’s bakery, Gwenie’s Pastries, which specializes in Filipino sweets. In 2018, he opened Kuya Ja’s at a separate location and it rapidly received acclaim. Tom Sietsema immediately named it one of the Top 10 Restaurants in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide and the following year the chef was a finalist for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s (RAMW) Rising Culinary Star of the Year award. Since then, the chef and restaurant continue to receive numerous accolades, including from DC Eater, Best of Bethesda, Washingtonian Magazine, and RAMW.
The chef explained the name of his restaurant – “Kuya” is an honorific in Tagalog meaning “big brother,” which his younger cousins used to call him. “Ja” is short for Javier – hence Kuya Ja’s. He brings his passion for authentic Filipino food to everything at Kuya Ja’s, especially the lechon belly for which it is best known. Lechon is an entire pig spit-roasted over charcoal. With this as inspiration, Chef Fernandez specializes in roasting boneless pork belly in the best Cebuano style at his restaurant.
In addition to the food, the chef has introduced the Washington region to a wonderful Filipino dining experience, the Kinamot. The chef explains:
Kinamot in Cebuano/Bisaya [Chef Fernandez’ native tongue] means to eat with your hands. Also commonly known as a “Kamayan” or “Boodle Fight,” Kinamot is a hands on Filipino feast and eating experience typically shared to build comradery.
Originating with the Philippine military, soldiers, regardless of rank, would stand shoulder to shoulder around the table to enjoy this grand Filipino feast together.
Pre-pandemic, we would host this event once a month at the restaurant for parties of 20 to 25 to welcome and introduce the community to our tradition. With every feast a new friendship is made as you dine with unfamiliar faces. Now, during the pandemic, we offer this feast to go so you may enjoy this experience in the comfort of your own home.
Kaon Na Ta! (Let’s eat!)
A shared feast to build comradery and make new friends – could anything be more appropriate for the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs?
To kick off the evening, Bailli Judy Mazza welcomed members and guests from around the region to the bailliage’s first event of 2021. Bailli Délégué des États-Unis Bertrand de Boutray connected from his home in Seattle to meet the chef and send his regards to the attendees. He joined Judy in presenting a Chaîne wine coaster to the chef as a token of the bailliage’s appreciation for creating this unique, delivered, at-home culinary adventure.
Unlike a typical Chaîne dinner served in sequential courses, a Kinamot is eaten as a single, elaborate feast with all components – proteins, vegetables, sides, and sauces – presented together, traditionally on a base of banana leaves. Chef Fernandez led participants through reheating each element and demonstrated the construction of his Kinamot, while assuring participants that there is “no one right way to do it.”
The feast included:
• Rice – The foundation of the Kinamot. The chef offered two versions, steamed white and garlic fried, to complement the range of flavors and spices of the other ingredients.
• Lechon Belly – The chef’s signature pork belly stuffed with aromatics that include lemon zest, green onion, garlic, and a house spice blend. Traditionally cooked over charcoal on a spit, the chef noted it took him over a year to perfect the technique in a restaurant convection oven to obtain the all-important crispy skin.
• Chicken Inasal – Leg and thigh marinated in coconut, vinegar, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, and annatto (which gives it its orange color), then grilled.
• Red snapper – the whole fish, fried and served with a spicy crab fat peanut curry sauce that included shrimp paste, onions, garlic, and coconut milk. The fish reheated beautifully – moist with crispy skin – and was as delicious as it was visually impressive. The chef noted that the curry influence is from the Mindanao region of the Philippines in the south.
• Sweet Chorizo Longanisa – a house-made pork sausage. This robustly flavorful sausage is traditionally eaten throughout the day, including for breakfast with garlic rice and a fried egg.
• Ribeye Tuhog – skewers of tender grilled beef accented with lightly sweet banana ketchup BBQ sauce.
• Pork and shrimp lumpia – crispy, thin egg rolls that included napa cabbage, onion, carrots, and garlic.
• Wok seared bok choy – seasoned with garlic, shrimp paste, onion, and shrimp stock. Cooked nicely al dente, it lent a pop of color to the Kinamot.
• Mango jicama salad – tropical and refreshing.
• Atsara salad – pickled green papaya, bell peppers, pineapple, raisins, and carrots infused with ginger and apple cider vinegar.
The chef included a trio of sauces: Toyomansi, a mix of Philippine soy sauce and calamansi (a small, tart citrus fruit akin to limes that is popular in the Philippines); house-made spicy vinegar; and lechon sauce, a blend of bell pepper, onion, and garlic. With each sauce bringing a different flavor profile, level of acidity, and spice to the culinary party, diners enjoyed sampling them all to discover which sauces they found paired best with the various elements of the dinner.
Rounding out the Kinamot were shrimp chips to add an element of savory crunch whereas dragon fruit added a note of exotic sweetness.
Gwenie’s Pastries, owned by Chef Fernandez’ sister and located just two blocks from his restaurant, provided the desserts to complete the culinary journey to the Philippines. A decadent cheesecake was made with ube, a purple sweet potato. Common in the Philippines, it has a sweeter and mellower flavor than the more familiar orange sweet potato, resulting in a dessert that was spectacular in flavor and color. The “Sans Rival” cake, layered with cashew meringue and buttercream and topped with crispy cashews, was simply delicious.
The evening was a wonderful opportunity for members and guests to experience authentic, superbly-executed Filipino food and to learn about the unique tradition of the Kinamot. Chef Fernandez remarked that the cuisine of his native country is up and coming, but still not widely known in the United States. With him at the helm of Kuya Ja’s, it is sure to become a favorite in the Washington area.