ORLANDO, Fla. – Casual fine dining may sound like an oxymoron, but the minds behind the new Filipino restaurant Kaya don’t see it that way.
“It just means that we want folks to come as they are. You know, there’s no pretension or having to feel intimidated by the restaurant experience. There’s not a white tablecloth, but it’s fine dining because of the attention to detail and the intention in our sourcing and our ingredients and in our service that is at the level of fine dining,” said Jamilyn Salonga Bailey, the co-owner of the restaurant.
Kaya is getting ready to open up at 601 N. Thornton Ave. in Orlando’s Mills 50 District. The name Kaya means capable in Filipino.
“Our rallying cry is ‘kaya natin,’ which means ‘we can,’” Bailey said. “We can showcase Filipino food that’s made really nicely with that attention to detail. And that is presented beautifully.”
Bailey said that Kaya is working closely with Central Florida farmers and purveyors to source as many of their ingredients as possible locally.
“I think that there’s nothing more Filipino than using what’s in your backyard,” she said. “We’re super resourceful people, Filipinos all over the world — working and raising their families — and I think that part of the Filipino experience is kind of taking advantage of what you have.”
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She added that the “kaya natin” mantra extends beyond the food.
“We can change the restaurant industry, make it more equitable, make a better culture for our workers,” Bailey said.
The restaurant is set up inside the former home of the Dandelion Cafe, which closed in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
“A couple months actually after Dandelion had closed a friend of ours let us know it was still available and it just is a perfect place to build our home and to welcome the community,” Bailey said.
Bailey and her business partner, chef Lordfer Lalicon, have been working to renovate the space or more than a year.
“We pretty much had to replace everything to get it up to date up to code and ready for its next evolution,” she said.
Kaya will also be going through a bit of an evolution as it opens its doors to the public. Bailey said the restaurant will start out as a reservation-only location, offering up a tasting menu for $95 per person.
“We serve five waves of food,” she said. “We call it a wave because it’s not just one dish in each wave. Sometimes it’s one dish, sometimes it’s three, sometimes it’s four. So it’s kind of like the food just keeps coming to highlight different elements of Filipino food.”
Bailey added that some of the dishes will be served family-style in a large portion where guests will have to share.
“We eat as Filipinos together and sharing,” she said. “I also like to negotiate a little bit like ‘Who’s going to get that last piece of shrimp or pork?’ It adds to the familial feel.”
Bailey added that the cost per person would also include a service fee and gratuity, so that the restaurant could provide a better wage for its employees.
“We basically pay all of our staff well above minimum wage to ensure that there’s equitable pay across front and back of house,” she said.
Eventually, Kaya will offer an a-la-cart bar menu and there will be an outdoor dining area with its own separate menu.
“We’re trying to take it one step at a time make sure that we can really deliver the best possible experience for our guests,” Bailey said. “We want to be as much special occasion restaurant as well as a neighborhood restaurant where folks can just stop in grab, grab a great cocktail or some wine, have a bite and hang out.”
Right now, Kaya is only opening the restaurant to friends and family, as well as people who are on their newsletter list. Bailey and Lalicon plan to open the restaurant to the wider public in mid-December.
“We love Orlando,” Bailey said. “We love being in Orlando. We want to represent Orlando.”