ORLANDO, Fla. – Ever wonder how you say “capable” in Filipino?
Well look no further than Colonial Drive, where the answer will be found in the name of Orlando’s newest fine dining Filipino restaurant, Kaya.
“Kaya natin,” which means “we can,” is a philosophy the restaurant’s co-owners hope to imbue in the food and culture of their business, which opens late summer of this year, taking over the abandoned space left by Dandelion Community Cafe.
“It’s kind of like our way of saying, like, we can all do this together. We can all think differently. We can all participate in this community together,” said Lordfer Lalicon, Kaya’s chef who has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in New York and serves as co-owner of Kadence, Winter Park’s sushi and sake bar.
Lalicon, alongside his friend Jamilyn Bailey, co-owns Kaya, their brainchild born out of years of conversations bonding over their roots, which started when they first met at the University of Florida in the Filipino Student Union.
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Now, they’re making their dream a reality in Orlando’s historical Mills 50 district, home to many other AAPI-owned businesses.
“It’s super cool to be doing it here in the Mills 50 area, which has such a strong history of Asian Americans really showcasing and making (things) happen ... that’s not lost on us. We’re so thankful for the folks who have paved the way,” Bailey said.
They are bringing that Filipino flourish into the mix, grateful to add their voices to the stories already stamped on the streets of this vibrant and diverse community. To Bailey, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and the dynamic duo is excited to champion and complement, rather than compete with, their neighboring businesses.
While Bailey said people usually call pork and other meats and fried foods to mind when they think Filipino food, she and Lalicon want to focus on two other culinary essentials: vegetables and seafood.
“It’s going to be Filipino fine dining, so also a different take than many of the restaurants that you see locally ... We want to also take advantage of what’s here. We’re using local produce. We always say there’s nothing more Filipino than using what’s in your backyard,” Bailey said.
But at Kaya, it’s not just about the flavor. It’s about learning as you eat and getting a glimpse into the history behind the first Asian American group to come to this country, Bailey said.
“Oftentimes when people learn about a new cuisine, our tendency is to try to like nail it down into something very easy to describe and I think at Kaya, what we want to do is make it bigger, expansive, really explore the Philippines’ 7,000+ islands,” Bailey said. “Lots of regions, different languages, lots of different immigration stories ... that influences how we cook and the way that that shows up, you know, in our homes. And so we want to invite people into our home at Kaya.”
Part of that atmosphere is being built with the help of local designers, vendors and business partners, who they are collaborating with to bolster their community even more.
“We’re really like a hub more than anything — a meeting place where people can discuss, eat and have a good time,” Lalicon said.
Lalicon added it’s a tenet of the Filipino culture and a way to share culture with the younger generations.
“I felt like a lot of us don’t speak our parents’ languages. (So we thought) what are the ways that we can help the next generation really understand their culture as Filipinos? And cooking and eating and being together was a big part of that,” Bailey said.
Growing up as Filipino Americans, they said there’s a lot of pressure from their elders to assimilate, speak English and live out the American Dream, which Bailey said comes from a place of love but leaves the younger generations wanting to learn more about the culture they came from.
“A lot of my friends, they would say like ... they didn’t want to have smelly food or they didn’t want to be seen as different because they knew that they would be treated differently,” Bailey said. “But I think we’re at a place now, you know, with the diversity in Orlando and the next generation, you know, they’re looking for ways to reconnect. They want to know more about where they come from.”
Kaya is an effort to fill that gap in knowledge and to bring together people who previously lacked the opportunity to connect.
“We want to be that bridge and allow anybody — half Filipino, quarter Filipino, not Filipino — you know like to feel (there’s) a place where I can learn about Filipino culture comfortably and have good food and drinks at the same time,” Lalicon said.
To learn more about Kaya and stay up-to-date on its official opening date, visit the restaurant’s Instagram page.