THE CATERER by Emma Lake
The Romulo group has welcomed a new little sister into its Filipino restaurant family. Emma Lake visits Kasa and Kin, the three-in-one eatery in the heart of London’s Soho for some comfort food
Avibrant mural of the mythical )bong Adama bird spreads i.ts wings across the wall of Kasa and Kin in London’s
Soho.Said toembody thequalities of careand healing, the bird was a particularly pertinent symbol when Lhe reslauranl opened as the countryemerged from theCovid-19 pandemic in an area of the capital where hospitalityhad beendecimated.
The Filipino restaurant, bakery and patis serie is the second opening from Rowena Romulo and Chris Joseph. It joins Romulo Cafe &Restaurant, which the pairopenedin Kensington in 2016 as the fust international outpostof the Romulo group, which is run by Rowena’s sist-er and brother-in-lawin Manila. Family lies at the heartofboth restaurants. Kasa means home and Kin means family, while the Romulo family historyhas inspired the menu ofFilipino comfort food,the invit ing interiors and a brand of hospitality that stems from the question that Chris says is asked whenever yo1.1 enter ahomein the Phil-ippines: “Have youeaten?”
“Chris andI were born in thePhilippines. It’s aboutthosememories and the nostalgiaofour childhood,• Rowena says. “The Romulo res taurants are dedicated to my grandmother and mygrandfather. Wcalll.ived together in a com pound with onekitchen and onedining room. Mygrandfather wasadiplomat-hehada mul ti.faceted careerand entertained alotat home.• Thefirst Romulo siteopenedin Manilaafter Rowena’s sister discovered tbeJr gr.u1dmoth er’s recipe bookcontainingdetails ofdishesshe would prepare toentertain visitingdiplomats. “My grandmothcrwasalready aheadof her time in termsof Filipino cuisine because she had to make sure certain dishes were palat able to foreigners,” Rowena says. ‘•She cre• ated twists on very traditional family recipes, and even in the1940s and 1950s she was verv conscious that food had Lo look presentable, because people eat with their eyes.
“When yougo toour reslaurants you see all thesepictures of the historyof the Philippines and the family. We’ve always believed thatfood bridgesculturesand whenweopenedour Little spotin Kensington wewanted to showcase Fil ipinoculture and most ofall our hospitality.”
A taste of home
Beforeopeningthel..Dndon outpostofRomulo, Rowena hada 32-year careerin banking, which tookher from Manila to Milan and latterly l..Dn don. ln 2015 she decided it was time to leave the industry and do something for herself .
Inspiration struck while at a fundraiser fol lowingTyphoon Kabayan, which had brought widespread flooding to the Philippines.
Chris, who had spent 2S years in fast-food li-anchising, says: “We were al this event, and people kept coming up to Rowena and saying ‘oh you’re a Romulo, why don’t you opena Romulo restaurant in London?’ This continued all night. with people from the embassy wanting somewhere to entertain people and saying ‘we want a place to bring our non-Filipino friends to’.
Atthe time Cruissays therewere just three Filipino restaurants in the entirecountry, all of which limited themselves to no more than a cafe-style service. It was, in fact. more of a crater than a gap in the market, given that there were then300,000 Filipinos in the UK. Bycomparison the UKThaipopulation num-
beredjust7S,000,yetThai cuisine wasserved in more than 2,000 restaurants in the UK.
Back in the Philippines, the Romulo res taurant had opened in a house rather than a commercial property, with the bedrooms turned into dining areas, reinforcing the familial brand of hospitality. The Kensing ton sitewould continue this ethos, despite its highstreet location, bo1rowingdesign touches in the shapeof the wallpaper, the limegreen detailing and, ofcourse, the family pictures.
Chrissays:”When weopened the Kensing ton restaurant we imagined the space to be as if the Romulo family were going toinvite you toour d.iningroom. Itcouldn’tlook exactly like therestaurants in the Philippines because they are influenced by the tropical weather, whereas over here it had to be more homely
and suitable for Kensington.”
Whenit came to themenu,Rowena’s grand r:notberbadlaid thegroundwork70-odd years ago. Rowena’s sister shares developments in food at the Manila restatrrants as well as emergingtrends and tastesin thePhilippines, but for the london outpost it is essentia1 to retainthetraditionalFilipinoflavoursthat sati ated many guests’ desire for a tasle ofbome. Adaptationshavebeen madefor theKensing tonmarket, though.For example, theporkhas
been swapped out for other proteins in cer tain dishes, and the team bas worked to an absoluteminimum toreduce the amount of produce thatneeds tobeimported (seepand). Traditional dishes includea sinigangsoup, which is a tamarind-flavoured sour broth served with salmon or vegetablesratherthan theconventional pork or millcfish.A sizzling
chicken inasalsisigis oneof Romulo’smost popular starters.1t sees chicken thighsmari natedin annatto,ginger, greenchilliandlem ongrass. but would traditionally have been made withdicedpork cheek and ears.
TI1e signature Filipino dish of adobo is served as both a chicken and pork dish ‘Romulo-style’, with the addition of truffle. Adobo comes from the Spanish word lo stew (the Philippines were a Spanish colony for more Lhan three centmies until 1898, when they became a US colony). Meat, seafood or vegetables aremarinated in soy and vinegar, although Chris say therearemany variations across the 7,000-plus islands of the Philip pines. For example, in some areas soy will be replaced with3.Jll’latto, in coconut regions a coconut vinegar willbeused, whilein rice regionsarice vinegar takes itsplace.
Rowena explains: “We stayed home for about two months. That gave us the oppor tunityto tal ea stepback,look at the business and think aboutwherewewanted to be in five years. The concept changed withthe newliv ing conditions at the time-we thought maybe we should havea grab-and-go element orbe more fast-casual. We went through several iterations and the feeling was thatweneeded to havea multi-concept business to be more resilient to the new realities of the market.
“That’s where Kasa and Kin was born. It is really three in one in the sense that wehave the restaurant, bakery and patisserie. At lunch it’smorefast-casual, and at dinner we dim the lights, have the robata grill and cocktail bar, changethe uniforms and change the music.” ThemenuatKasaand Kinhas gonethrough several refinements, with a substantial grab and-go offeringreduced as it becameapparent thatcustomerspreferred to sit and orderfrom the grillmenu.Themostpopularlunchoption has become the trademarked £20 Imbento box, developed by Rowena to offer guests the chance to try several itemsfrom the menu. It includes a lumpia roll, a hot broth and a base of rice, noodles or salad topped with a choice of main meals including beefkare-kare, bar becueporkbelly,lemongrass chicken inasaal or smoked aubergine.
The boxes-similar toa Japanese bentobox – were specially made to allow the items to be served together at the table, with the wow factor delivered as the lid is removed.
The bakery offers a vaiiety of pandesal (a Filipino bread roll), Spanish bread as well as ensaymada (a sweet pastry) and a range of patisserie,suchassansrival ayersofmeringue and buttercreamcoatedin roastedcashewnuts) and signature tsunami cheesecakes.
Kasa and Kin is divided so thatguests wall< past the bakery and patisserieon their wayin and out of the restaurant, making it easy to pick up a quick breakfast or afternoon snack or, as has proved very popular, to grab some sweettreats on the way home. The format offers multiple opportunities for expansion and franchise, which will be the couple's focusfor 2023. Chris says:"Ifyou justwanted thebakeryelement youcould just takethatandwecouldtransfer the knowledge or supply the product. If you wanted the grill element, that'sveryreplicable.As longasyou usethemarinade and followthe steps,youcan replicatethe Filipinoflavours." Rowena adds: "We've had parties who wanted to invest in the franchise model out sidethecountry-in Spainand the MiddleEast - and my sisteris lookingto see if thisis some thingweshould bringbackhome." Since Kasa and Kinopened its doors, Soho has once again become a vibrant, bustling neighbourhood, and a site that at one point appeared to be a gamble is paying off. The mural that begins at one of the restaurant withthe healing powers of the Ibong Adarna becomes a colourful riotoffiestaand feasting as it windsits wayacross the space.The party is certainly in fullswing now.