Jul 20, 2024

Bicol Express by Kusinera.

Since October 2020, Keanu Francisco has been running a once-a-month pop-up restaurant at Sara, a dining establishment in Toronto, where the Canadian Filipino works as a chef.

As Canadian Filipino Net went live for its March 1-15, 2021 edition, Francisco was to mark the second day of his February 28-March 1 event.

The 23-year-old chef has been getting a lot of attention from media for his flash restaurant called Kusinera, which is the Tagalog word for female cook.

“Feminine energy is such a vital aspect of Filipino culture,” Francisco said in a report by the online blogTO.

“Literally every Filipino will have a story about how hospitable a Filipino mom or aunt or family friend is when you get invited over or have dinner with them," said the Quezon City-born chef who moved to Canada with his family when he was three years old.

Francisco’s influences include his own mother as well as Maria Orosa, a Filipino heroine during World War 11 and the one who introduced banana ketchup to the world.

Francisco is active on the social media platform Instagram, where he talks about the dishes he serves at Kusinera, which were inspired by childhood memories.

One example is the quintessential Filipino dish kare-kare, a peanut-based stew.

Francisco’s version uses short rib instead of the traditional oxtail, sitaw (long beans), talong (eggplant), and bok choy.

“My favourite thing about kare kare when I was young was picking the oxtail up with my left hand and straight up going for it, while I was armed with my spoon in my right hand attacking my large mound of rice,” Francisco wrote on Instagra.

“All while having to fight my older sisters for the best pieces of oxtail. My idea for this dish in an ideal POST-covid era, is to pick up the short rib by the bone and share it together with your fam, real family style,” he added.

Another dish is stone crab alavar. In the Philippines, alavar sauce made of coconut cream, curry and spices is used to cook spanner crabs or curacha.

“I always say Kusinera is about the memories I had growing up/ memories I missed out on because I grew up in Canada & not back home like my sisters did and my interpretation of those memories/losses,” Francisco wrote on Instagram.

“My sisters have all these memories of food they ate back home that someone made for them, but I don’t have that, and it honestly sucks. In fact, I’ve only remembered a handful of things: Isaw, Arroz Caldo, and this. Separate from my sisters, I can confidently say that this is a memory & experience I alone had that my sisters didn’t.

“When I last went home 13ish years ago (I know, I should go back soon), my sisters stayed in Cavite with family while I stayed in Manila with my uncle & parents. I’ve asked my uncle & parents about this but they don’t even remember this memory either so somehow this is something solely I know. Anyways, when I was in Manila I fondly remember eating at (now closed) Zamboanga Restaurant and having this dish. It was actually Curacha Alavar, Curacha being Spanner Crabs native to Zamboangan waters, whatever,” Francisco recalled.

Another dish is Bicol Express, made with pork belly, coconut, and chillies.

“This one took me a while to figure out; about 10 years to be exact. Reason why is because I never knew what this dish actually was, I only have one memory of it…this was one dish she made literally ONCE (in my memory at least) that I thought was delicious,” Francisco related.

Francisco’s Kusinera also serves kaldereta, which he makes with chicken thighs, peppers, and peas.

For this dish, he draws inspiration from his father.

“YET ANOTHER banger from my childhood. But this time, not actually inspired by momma! She did in fact make a pretty solid beef kaldereta, which was one of the few dishes she made that I actually did like. But whenever there was chicken kaldereta, I knew my dad had cooked it and I knew I was about to eat three or four bowls.

“Maaaan, my dad very rarely cooked, or at least in my mind he did. But I always knew when he was cooking that the food was going to be solid,” Francisco wrote.

The online blogTO also reported that Francisco partners with Shannon Nocos, a Toronto-based Filipina baker who makes cakes under the brand Make Kwento.

In creating dishes from childhood memories, Francisco is serving up new ones only for his clientele, but for himself as well.

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