Filipino Food In Los Angeles With Chef Lord Maynard Llera
It was a little after 11 in the morning Manila time when I received a message on Facebook from US-based Filipino chef Lord Maynard Llera: “I’m free to talk now.” I am not sure about the time difference, but it would be safe to assume that he and his wife, Regina, were just wrapping things up at Kuya Lord— the Filipino food pop-up that they are currently operating from their garage in La Cañada Flintridge, California. A respected figure in the Filipino-American food and beverage community, Los Angeles Times food critic Bill Addison describes Kuya Lord’s “Filipino feast as food of power, finesse, and delight.” While the accolades stateside are steady and generous, it seems that very little is known of him in the homeland.
Kuya Lord is chef Maynard’s nickname amongst his peers—“kuya” being the Tagalog word for “older brother.” His pop-up is a celebration of Southern Tagalog food, a cuisine he knows well growing up in Lucena City, Quezon Province. He makes his own Lucban longganisa which goes over a tray of java rice, served with fried eggs and a tub of pickled green papaya. Pancit chami— thick egg wheat noodles cooked in a sweet and spicy braise which he tops with fishcakes and vegetables— is not something you would easily find in Metro Manila, but the noodle dish is a Quezonian staple and a justifiable mainstay in Kuya Lord’s menu. He calls his Filipino-style porchetta "Lucenachon" because, as chef Maynard simply explains it, “I’m from Lucena and I’m making it.”
While we chat, I hear the rambunctious chatter of children, most probably between his seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. “They taste all of my food before I decide to put them on the menu,” chef Maynard admits. “Children are more picky when it comes to food. So, if they like it then most probably the grown-ups will like it.” Besides, the shrewd entrepreneur has picked up on the marketing strategy of a Filipino capitalism icon." Isn’t that how Jollibee does it?” he cheekily asks. “They make their food attractive to children so that the kids will drag their parents to their restaurant.”
However, this off-the-cuff parallelism does not mean the dishes from the fast-food chain can even compare to what comes out of chef Maynard’s kitchen. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the then twenty-something-year-old was focused and determined to land a job and earn his green card. He hit the ground running as a working student since he knew he had to be “more aggressive,” wanting to learn as much as he can to develop the edge he felt he needed over the competition. Fresh out of culinary school, he could have worked in legendary LA eatery Spago, but they needed a month before they could sponsor his green card petition. Another celebrity chef was willing to do so off the bat, and chef Maynard started work for Neal Fraser at his now-defunct yet critically-acclaimed Grace restaurant.
From there, chef Maynard made the rounds working for many other celebrity chefs in Los Angeles, but he is most known for his stint as the opening sous chef for Bestia and heading the h.wood group as its culinary director. But, the goal has always been crystal clear—he wanted to open a restaurant. Not the turo-turo (which literally means “point-point,” since food is displayed for customers to pick from) style many casual Filipino joints offer overseas to homesick immigrants, but the kind where he plans to apply his classical training to flavours he knows and loves.
This mission was formed back in culinary school when he noticed how Filipino food was reductively hitched to Thai food when they were studying the cuisines of the world. “The school felt that Filipino food was more of a melting pot,” chef Maynard explains, “that it was merely a combination of different cuisines, or just something that is similar to Thai or Indonesian food. So I felt that it was up to me and other Filipino chefs to prove them wrong.”
Times have changed since culinary school, and chef Maynard recognizes the huge leaps and bounds Filipino cuisine has taken these past years. “Yes, people know about it, they like it,” he says, “but many still consider Filipino food as exotic. Us Filipino chefs just want to change that perception and make it less scary.” This takes some innovative thinking, of course, and chef Maynard feels that a fine-dining concept can give him the creative freedom it would require.
Take his interpretation of dinuguan, for instance. Using Italian techniques, he makes a dinuguan salami that presents the pork blood stew in a familiar, non-threatening way. For chef Maynard, his technique and flavour are prioritised over authenticity. Addison asked him why he prepares his kare-kare differently from the ones in the casual Filipino eateries, and the chef confessed, “it’s because I never liked kare-kare. At least the way we used to make it back home.” He thought the stew itself was bland and relied heavily on the condiment of shrimp paste that it usually comes with. “I feel that a dish should be well-seasoned and flavourful on its own,” he explains, “everything that I serve, it needs to be flavourful.”
Therefore, even if this deviates from how the classic peanut sauce stew is prepared, chef Maynard is comfortable with his interpretation. “Besides, it was never my intention to copy my Lola’s recipe,” he explains. “But, still, when you eat it, I want it to take you back to your childhood.”
The Kuya Lord pop-up continues to provide well for the Lleras as the pandemic rages on in the US, but in typical chef Maynard fashion, his Filipino concepts are already in the works. There is a fast-casual panciteria lined up, where he will offer chami, pancit habhab, and rotisserie-style chicken and pork belly. The longganisa sandwiches he offers at his pop-ups in breweries will also find their own home with grilled skewers, the chef’s homage to Filipino street food. These are pandemic-proof concepts ready to launch with dishes that travel well, but the fine-dining Filipino restaurant of his dreams will have to wait.
When the world finally opens up again, though, you can be sure that Lord Maynard Llera will be ready.