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Chef JP Anglo opens 'Kooya' in Dubai: ‘Our food is always evolving and inclusive’

By BEA TRINIDAD, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 20, 2022 5:00 am

Saying “Kuya, extra rice, please?” in a restaurant is a sign of being kind and polite when extremely hungry.

You want that extra carb on your plate because the food is that delicious that you can’t stop eating. Serving good food is Chef JP Anglo’s North Star.

He chose “Kooya” as the name of his first global restaurant in Dubai as a playful and quirky twist to the Tagalog word, “kuya,” which means older brother.

I just want to feed our kabayans. And for the non-kabayans, to show them that Filipino food is good, beyond adobo and sinigang.

Kooya is an homage to the many kabayans who welcome him in his travels. He loves serving them and wants to comfort them. He said, “I get a kick out of it. They really just miss home.”

There are no photos of Chef JP on the walls. Instead, there are artworks that represent what Filipino culture and food are all about.

To address someone as kuya is a sign of respect, and sometimes endearment, to a relative or non-relative. It’s a sign of the malambing or nurturing nature of Filipinos.

Nurturing one’s cuisine takes a community; it’s not just a solo undertaking.

In the span of his career, from being a student at Center for Culinary Arts, Manila to owning Sarsa to traveling across the world to represent Filipino food, Chef JP has always nurtured his cuisine.

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Opening his first restaurant outside of the Philippines is also a humbling experience. He admitted that it’d become more than just about him as a chef: “Who am I, really? When that dish gives them that warm hug or nostalgic feeling, it's done by a Filipino-driven kitchen. So then it's not a singular thing."

Global Pinoy restaurant

In our interview, we chatted about his influences, team, wife, and the community that makes Kooya Filipino Eatery a welcoming community.

A global Pinoy restaurant is about showcasing homegrown talent and influence.

When Chef JP and his wife Camille started considering a restaurant in Dubai, they had already been shuttling back and forth from UAE to Manila for a few months.

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It was their mentor, Joel Binamira of Market Manila and Zubuchon, that advised them, ”How about you go back again and do another pop-up and make it longer? Test the waters.” They did a second pop-up for seven days, and during that time, they found a location below Jannah Place Dubai Marina hotel apartment.

Gabby Lichauco, who designed the chef’s apartment, also planned the restaurant. A greenhouse inspired the restaurant look.

Chef JP and Camille enjoy welcoming kabayans, one of whom is their friend Ikoy, who shoots some of JP's food videos and is in Dubai for work.

Chef JP said, “It had to be him who could showcase Global Pinoy while sharing our (Camille and I) lifestyles and personalities. It’s tropical, beachy, and chill like a tropical lanai.” He continued, “It will still evolve. I want to put a skateboard rack, a surfboard and, of course, the artwork. It’s no longer about the photo of the chef.”

A blank canvas

Behind every artist, a partner is helping with the brushstrokes. In a way, the restaurant is a blank canvas. And Chef JP is still applying brushstrokes.

Camille said, “You know, JP is an artist. There are times he cannot work or talk about work. And then there are times he is so on. Ako, I’m stable. I’m a 9-to-5 person.”

When asked about how it’s been like for the two of them, he said, “It’s been fun. We've learned to be business partners, friends, and a couple.” He added, “Camille has been solid during this operational stage. Without her by my side, I don’t know how we would do it.”

Kooya serves good Filipino food that suits the environment. Here's their take on sisig using chicken three ways: grilled, smoked, and fried.

Camille said that it’s about “understanding your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t expect the other to do what they cannot do.”

Chef JP joked, “Don’t expect me to make cheesecake,” as he points out that he’s not inclined to make desserts.

From finishing each other’s sentences to the friendly banter, there is an apparent solid partnership between the married couple. It is one of the reasons why their staff enjoys working for them. Chef JP said, “They are so proud. It’s the first Filipino-driven kitchen they’ve worked for in Dubai, from the dishwasher to the chefs to the manager to the owners.”

The way forward

The way for Filipino food to move forward is to make it inclusive.

For much of the interview, Chef JP doesn’t talk much about himself but the community around Kooya, especially those that helped him make it the restaurant that he dreams it to be. “I don’t want it to be a flash in the pan,” he says. “I want it to have longevity. I want it to be a movement that should be inclusive. It’s not just one person. It’s not just one restaurant.”

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This philosophy is why he is taking his time with Kooya’s menu. For the last two weeks, they have had a set menu of dishes, including Crispy Pineapple Dilis, Saté Manok, Pancit Molo, Kare Kare, Chicken Inasal, Tortang Talong, Garlic Rice, and Piaya.

During service, Chef JP observes how the customers react. He watches them take their first bite, from a Filipino family to those of other nationalities like Russian or British. And after service, he talks to them about what they think about the food. All their reactions and feedback serve as mental notes as the menu evolves.

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A post shared by JP Anglo (@chefjayps)

“I just want to feed our kabayans,” he says. “And for the non-kabayans, to show them that Filipino food is good, beyond adobo and sinigang.” Although he is not sure what the final menu will be, he knows that it will have about 15 dishes and that “it will always be family-style or sharing, except breakfast because you always want your plate in the morning.”

In touch with the times

Chef JP has big dreams and ideas, but he is also in touch with the times. He said, “I know that for some people, food is pampatawid. That’s common because we budget everything, and we try to save as much as we can. But I know that Filipino food can evolve and improve.”

With his team and wife, the opening of Kooya is just the beginning. A community thrives when it is diverse, connected, and inspired. And given the flow of people in the last two weeks, Kooya will be such a place.

He says, “I get goosebumps because I see skater dudes, artsy people, and these are Pinoys that have lived here for so many years. So, we're beyond the stereotype. There are so many talented people here.”