Kuya Lord pop-up series: Chef Maynard Llera ventures off to present Filipino food his way

PART II in series on Love-Infused LA Fil-Am Small Businesses

In the  Asian Journal’s previous Southern California midweek issue, I wrote about Max & Lucy’s  ensaymadas,  co-owned by Don Sagarbarria and Mike Zuñiga, which had exponential growth during the pandemic, entitled: “Love-Leavened Small Business.”

Another business that fits the bill is Kuya Lord’s Pop-Up series, established by Lord Maynard Llera in 2020.

Kuya Lord plating Lucban longganisa | Photo courtesy of Maynard Llera

Tall, bearded, and with a ready smile, Llera grew up in Lucena, Quezon, the resident colony of artisans in the Philippines. Among those from the region, I have come across four of them who are now here in Los Angeles, pursuing their personal brands of artistry in photography, composing music, pastel painting, and culinary arts, whom I wrote features for the Asian Journal. Llera is one of those four artists.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from San Sebastian College, Llera felt his life had no direction, compared to his peers who had already forged their own paths.

He looked up to his parents and their work ethic of traveling to each festival to sell their wares, and realized that they grew their business from carrying winnowing baskets, called  bilao, to a  cariton  (wagon on wheels), to eight storefronts and a resort. He knew from their examples that success is largely built on hard work and diligence. But, he was not content on living off the fruits of their labor and wanted to design his own way.

Llera’s passion project has features of technique, years of patience to hone his skills, the humility of learning from his mentors, accepting failures, yet steadfast in his belief that “mediocrity does not exist, and if it’s only good, it’s not enough. If you do it, do it all the way, no half-builds.”

Andrew Marvell described time as a mode of transport, “But at my back I always hear, Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” quoted by Mark Forsyth in “The Elements of Eloquence.”

Time feels blurry this 2020, given the world’s statistics of 63,098,003 Coronavirus cases and 1,465,111 deaths in 191 countries/regions, with the U.S. leading with 13,500,315 cases and 267,635 deaths, tracked by Johns Hopkins’ dashboard. The latter is greater than American casualties of three wars: World War I, Vietnam, and the Korean wars.

California has 1,222,303 new cases and 19,152 deaths, with outdoor dining and a night curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., to reduce the surge of the pandemic. It is estimated that 1 in 145 will be infected in California. All we could do is wear a mask, stay socially distant, while dreams still come alive: a novel, a book, poetry, a gig, a CD, an app, and even a new business.

Llera, former sous chef of Bestia, has a new role as owner/executive chef of Kuya Lord’s Pop-up Series.

It is akin to Peter Kaminsky’s descriptor of Romy Dorotan’s cooking, “clean tasting, the mark of a chef who could assemble a panoply of tastes without confusing them in a saucy jumble.”

Dorotan is my gold standard for a chef, who innovates by sourcing local fresh produce, preserving seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables into jams, pickles, and preserves; fresh abalone and seafood, heritage meats, and with a clear vision for the final dish.

My recalled memories of his delicately engineered black seafood  paella  served in a clay pot,  bibingka, and  palabok  make me wish this pandemic is over, so I can travel to Purple Yam in Brooklyn. Dorotan is often mentioned by NYTimes’ food critics who write about emerging chefs of Filipino descent.

Kuya Lord’s Inihaw na Apahap | Photo courtesy of Maynard Llera

Love-infused details
Almond wood for smoking imparts a sweet, nutty flavor. The raw green wood needs seasoning for two years, and after, gives a steady hot flame, with very little ash residue.
A fit metaphor perhaps for Kuya Lord’s skills development, a strong hot flame moving about to working alongside the best chefs?

Llera graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, then began a career at The Green Room, a Forbes 4-star French fine dining restaurant. He moved to Los Angeles and worked with Chef Neal Fraser of Grace and Redbird and then, as Bestia’s sous chef, where he worked for nearly four years with Ori Menashe, an Israeli chef.

He credits Bestia’s Menashe for giving him incredible latitude to develop his skills. Llera recalls a valuable lesson learned when the kitchen crew burnt the truffle dish. The consequence: the entire dish was thrown away. From Menashe, he learned uncompromising excellence, one dish at a time. Bestia and Bavel, both owned by Menashe, continue to be at the top of the list of LA’s operating restaurants, now shifting with the times to curbside pickup and delivery.

In 2017, as Culinary Director of The h.wood Group, Llera was instrumental in opening seven restaurants in ten months: Mason Chicago, Mason Santa Monica, 40 Love, Slab, Alice Kitchen, Harriet’s, and Petite Taqueria. Llera conceptualized the menus, hired the crew, and developed a culture of teamwork, where each member cares for the other, as a family and with that, special regard for their future.

As each crew member was trained, he allowed them to also introduce their menu offerings to gain ownership of the restaurant, as he gradually receded in presence, to open up another restaurant.

In Voyage LA, he was quoted: “I oversaw all culinary consultations on food creations and development at The h.wood’s Group’s premier signature establishments – The NICE GUY and Delilah.”

That success was not without consequences as he lost time to be with his young children.

In 2016, he floated Cubiertos (silverware), a pop-up event in Unit #120 in Chinatown, oversold 60 slots to become 80 diners, served with a five-course meal for $68. Our favorites were  dinuguan longanisa  served with a light salad of scarlet frill, pickled fennel, frisee, mint, dill, and pine nuts. The dressing was made from red wine vinegar and fish sauce, a kitchen staple in Filipino and Thai homes, called patis. There was not a single pine nut left on our salad plate.

It was midnight then, when Llera got to sit down with us, to discuss his vision: ”What I have done is cook what I like to eat; others recreate their childhood, their own food. For all of us, we do pop-ups to invite others to know about us, to test the waters, for publicity, and also, to invite investors to help in getting my dream of opening up my own restaurant: casual, relaxing, where family, friends are enjoying the food, not too stiff, where everyone is enjoying food, drinks, and company.”

In May of this year, he acquired a commercial kitchen, with fully screened doors, and started cooking family packages.

Married to Gigi Llera, she became his sous chef and handler of the food packages. Petite, with a ready smile, she is efficient in handling curbside packages. Lord credits his wife’s trained palate in developing new entrees, like goto, a Batangas delicacy of tripe, beef, and a tasty soup of noodles.

Kuya Lord’s Pancit Chami | Photo courtesy of Maynard Llera

Kuya Lord’s value packages are shareable: grilled barramundi fish,  lechon kawali,  and gem salad. The fish was grilled to perfection over almond wood, clean, flavorful, infused with tomatoes and herbs, and plated over banana leaf, a half-grilled lemon, with pickled vegetables.

It was paired with  lechon kawali, not greasy, crunchy skin, with a tender meaty texture. It was sourced fresh, as the meat was odorless. I ended eating up a few even before being served.

I love the gem salad, that I could not get enough of, with an herb dressing that eludes me for duplication. He paired it with his own creation of  kesong puti, made from sheep’s milk, cane vinegar, salt, and lemon juice, a recipe in the Philippines, and topped it with anchovies. Without revealing his aged cheese recipe, just order it with fresh salads.

He works 17 hour-long working days with his family in mind — staying motivated to provide for a roof over their heads and for their upkeep. He is already mentoring his daughter, Guiliana, to enjoy her high brow palate by shaving truffles onto her Sunday’s scrambled eggs.

And it is families that rave about his value offerings:

“That barramundi is d’bomb (perfect match with that chili oil). And I don’t even like fish but I can make an exception for this.”

“I have to tell you – the pork belly was AMAZING. I can’t stop thinking about it. It was supposed to be the appetizer but it was the star of the show. Now I just need to figure out another excuse for ordering more food from you.”

“It was a hit, with so many people in my nuclear and extended family that doesn’t like pancit mostly the kids and the adult kids. Your pancit was [a] super success.”

“I just wanted to let you know your food is delicious. My Pinoy mom was hesitant about the pancit because her sister always used to make it and she didn’t really like it, but my mom said your pancit is the best she ever had! Thank you for making such amazing food and looking forward to doing another order in the future.”

Kuya Lord’s LucenaChon, a Filipino version of porchetta | Photo courtesy of Maynard Llera

Llera grew his culinary passion to include not just his wife and since October, Chef David Timoteo, executive chef at Netflix/LA Live Commissary by Wolfgang Puck Catering, has collaborated with Llera on chicken  inasal, as part of his value offerings.

I still remember how Llera served Pandan  Panna Cotta with mango puree with peanut-coconut snap, lovingly topped with a spoon, wrapped in green leaf, over a cup of dessert. It was a lovely way of presenting his dessert, mimicking a gift, and presumably his message, ”from the heart of my home to yours.”

As we continue to see food businesses like Llera’s grow, I am reminded of this quote: “To cook for oneself is always boring in the end; to cook for others, or better still for one other, is certainly an act of faith and love. Believe me, there is no cuisine without love,” M. Oliver, La Cuisine, 1969.

* * *
Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJPress for 12 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the U.S., in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.
Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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