The 26-year-old Kevin Uy may be young, but his skill and food knowledge is undeniable. He is the owner and chef of Viajé, a new food concept that is a culmination of everything he knows.
For many food industry workers, 1PM is a glorious time of day. The lunch rush would have just ended, and it is finally time to relax for just a little bit. It might be a good moment to eat a meal or catch a breath, right before the hectic dinner service resumes in the afternoon. Owning and operating a food business myself, I treasure this little break hour. It’s where I gather my thoughts and try to regain back a little strength from a busy morning. One rainy, not-so-special December day, as I was sitting on the couch, anticipating my return to the hot kitchen, the doorbell rang. Inside my house came boxes upon boxes of food from a new food concept called Viajé by Kev. It smelled heavenly, and I was excited to pop open every container and begin a food tasting. Suddenly, I forgot I was even tired at all.
The sight of a table filled with glorious food is enough to put a smile on anybody’s face! But Viajé’s selection was so opulent, that the entire house went buzzing with anticipation. The star that everyone kept looking at: a perfectly crisp whole cochinillo. However, for me, it was the succulent looking chicken dish (The Pollo a la brasa set) that truly captured my eyes and my nose. The perfectly roasted bird was accompanied by aromatic chorizo rice, boniatos (a side dish similar to croquetas, but made out of sweet potatoes), and two beautifully bright-colored sauces (the brilliant green and orange tones looked extremely appetizing). I carved the chicken immediately, put every component of the dish onto my plate, had “the perfect bite”, and instantly went to culinary heaven. Accompanying the delivery was a short letter addressed to me from Viajé’s chef and proprietor Kevin Uy. “Who is this guy?” I asked my family as I devoured his magnificent chicken dish. “He’s really good!” They all nodded in approval. Soon, I would meet Kevin and discover why each of his dishes radiates with flair and passion.
The Culmination of a Career
“We have to talk about that chicken, man,” was the first thing I said when Kevin and I finally had a Zoom meeting a few days later. “The chicken set is a representation of my time in Peru,” he began. “There’s something about that dish that just resonates with me. It brings me a lot of memories. After a long day of work, my friends and I would go to a bar or restaurant that stays open late. We’d have a beer, have some chicken, and share a laugh. Those are some of the very best moments I’ve had there.” That fond memory reflects right into the dish that Kevin now recreates for Viajé. It’s as if the chicken was cooked in a small canteen on the streets of Lima, ready to be consumed by tipsy yuppies after a long day’s work.
Kevin, a professional cook, had actually been living in Peru for the past few years, honing his talent under the esteemed Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz. Unfortunately, because of the current pandemic, he was forced to come back home to the Philippines. Instead of lazily killing time and waiting for the coronavirus to go away, he decided to stay productive and open Viajé by Kev instead. Viajé is a culmination of his culinary career thus far. The menu features items that reflect parts of the world in which he had worked or visited. There is callos (inspired by his time studying/working in Spain), Japanese rice burgers, and of course, food from Peru, where he had just previously resided.
“The concept of Viajé is based on the countries I worked or traveled in, and [is a tribute] to those who taught and influenced the way I cook and do things,” he shared. “Essentially, the concept is about being able to travel the world in the comfort of your own home. Even though we can’t travel now, we can provide you with a food experience that can bring you to these places. The pandemic in itself is the reason why Viajé exists. We wanted to recreate an experience that is very hard to access right now. It’s an “adventure on a plate”, letting you “travel” even if you’re just at home.”
His Way, or the Highway!
Despite finding inspiration from various sources, Kevin finds a way to make the dishes completely his own. He never rips anything off from the restaurants or great mentors he has had along the way. For instance, the Pollo a la brasa (the chicken dish I cannot stop raving about), cleverly incorporates chorizo rice as a side dish. Though this is not commonly served in Peru, Kevin thought that the rice (which he and his mother invented and has cooked for years) would perfectly complement the chicken. He decided to develop it further, making the family recipe good enough for Viajé’s menu. It paid off, because it is delicious.
Another highlight from the menu is the Barley Risotto. As a child, Kevin was obsessed with the idea of moving to Italy, and would often randomly go down to the kitchen to whip up a plate of pasta. Today, as a young man with a distinguished palette, he has created one of the most inventive “twists” of an Italian dish I have ever had the pleasure of eating from an online food store. His risotto replaces the Arborio rice with barley, elevating the texture to a whole new level. The dish is served with a medley of complementary flavors such as mushrooms, leeks, bacon, and a generous amount of cheese. The dish travels very well, and did not become mushy like many other risottos that you might find in the market.
The other dishes I was able to taste were aces. The callos, made in a very traditional way, hits the right spots. The ingredients did not overpower one another, resulting in a stunning combination of hearty flavors. Finally, the Cochinillo, the mammoth dish that had all my IG followers salivating, was very tasty. Kevin was prepared, smartly attaching reheating instructions to the box so that diners would be able to eat it as he desired them to. I wasn’t able to try the Black Rice Burger and the Yakinuku Burger, but it’s on my list of food to order next. I love the idea of those, especially because I ate them a lot as a child (remember that restaurant beside Starbucks in Rockwell?). Now knowing what Kevin can do in the kitchen, I look forward to that day.
The Spanish Connection
Having grown up in a family of foodies, great dining experiences were always something Kevin was used to. He says family vacations truly helped sharpen his palette. “We’re very much a foodie family. My parents showed us and immersed us into different cultures growing up. Traveling [with them] made me fall in love with the industry and the artistry that comes with cooking. Seeing how the food was prepared really interested me,” he shares.
Kevin’s father is also in the industry, providing fast-food chains with their supply of ingredients. The young chef says he feels very lucky, as his dad never pressured him into joining the family business. Instead, when he told his parents that he wanted to be a chef, they were nothing but encouraging. The support started with his education. He first studied in Enderun, before enrolling into the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, where he took a master’s course in Gastronomical Sciences. He continued to hone his skills, working in the food industry in Barcelona for 6 months.
While in Spain, the young man (who turned 26 just last October) truly connected with the culinary heritage of the region. “I like the fact that Spanish food is very homey. When I was in Barcelona, I went to this dingy little restaurant, and it was the best experience I’ve ever had in a Spanish restaurant. I think that place represents me and my style of cooking a lot. It’s simple but flavorful, straightforward, and it represents the ingredients that I use. You could tell the amount of detail they put in each and every bite of their dishes. It was incredible.”
After his stint in Europe, Kevin was finally able to live out his dream to work under the celebrated chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz in Peru. Since hearing him talk in Madrid Fusion Manila a few years back, Kevin was inspired and made it a point to work for the revolutionary chef one day. “I got sent to his restaurant in the Andes Mountains,” he says with a reminiscent smile. “It was really incredible working with local ingredients and local farmers. From there, I really wanted to stay, and they seemed to have liked my work, so Virgilio brought me back to work in his restaurant in Central.” Up until the pandemic struck, Kevin remained in Peru, working day in and day out with one of his culinary idols, accumulating skills and knowledge someone his age couldn’t even dream of acquiring.
A Pandemic Cook with a Master’s Degree
Like most pandemic cooks starting a new business, Kevin works straight of his home kitchen. His advantage over others: his culinary degree and years of expert experience. Trained by one of South America’s great chefs, Kevin likes to make sure that Viajéby Kev is running like a well-oiled machine. He manages the kitchen and operations with a strict eye, but is never afraid to ask for help from his business-minded father. Every day, the young man promptly wakes up at 7AM and devotes the entire day to getting high-quality, restaurant-grade dishes out of the kitchen and onto the tables of his discerning clients. Despite his firm hand, Kevin still tries to have fun in the kitchen. He says he constantly experiments on new dishes throughout the day, and he loves to listen to Latin music while cooking to help him get into a working rhythm.
Kevin likes to be very involved with his clients. He finds that handling the Instagram account (where people usually send in their orders and inquiries) himself, really helps him connect with his diners. Viajé is strictly for pickup only, so when a client comes to claim their food at his house, he makes it a point to come out and say hello. This way, his customers are able to meet the chef, making the experience a little bit more personal.
Despite the early success of the food concept, Kevin knows there’s room for improvement. He sees Viajé going far, but for that to happen, he would like to travel more and accumulate more culinary experiences. He would bring his learnings home and put them into Viajé as a way of making it grow authentically. Admittedly, Kevin is saddened by the food culture of the pandemic. Although he sees the necessity of it for survival, he hopes that one day, dining out be the norm again. “Don’t get me wrong, I love what we do and what we serve. But I want the dining experience back—like a good tasting menu or something more intimate. Maybe when the pandemic is over, but for now we have to work with what we got and what we are dealt with. I need to emphasize, even if I want something intimate, I love what we do and what we serve.”
At the Beginning
Personally, I cannot wait for more people to discover Viajé by Kev. In my humble opinion, it is a food concept that I now consider a hidden gem in Manila’s culinary industry. I’m excited to see what Kevin adds to his menu next because I’ll be watching closely. When I asked him what we could expect from Viajé in the next few months, Kevin just threw out a cheeky grin. And then he said: “We have some exciting things coming up, so keep an eye on us. We have a lot of Latin flavors coming up.” He didn’t want to share further, but I could tell by the look on his face, that this was a man with a plan.
After talking to him for a solid hour, I was finally able to understand the kind of chef Kevin is. He may be young, but he is very determined. He lives for food. In fact, he breaths for it. He strives for success, and is eager to achieve it on his terms. Most importantly, and above all: the food he serves is excellent. Despite his enormous talent and professional experience, he kept insisting that he is “still learning and growing”. That may be Kevin’s greatest trait as a chef—his humility and willingness to grow into a true gastronomic artist.
“You need to continue to grow as a chef. It’s very important that you should never stop learning after culinary school,” he says. “We always need to learn new techniques, other cultures, and about other people. We need to open yourselves up to the world to be able to build our identity as a cook. The food I cook is a reflection of who I am. That’s something I find very important. It doesn’t end after culinary school. In fact, it’s only the beginning.” After he said that, I thought to myself: If this is only the beginning, I can only imagine the highs Viajé will reach in the future.
Chino Hernandez is a former editor at Lifestyle Asia, who left publishing to start his dream of owning a food business. His brand Delicachino serves Spanish-Filipino favorites inspired by Pinoy family meals. He is a foodie who enjoys sinful, decadent eats. Chino’s other hobbies include collecting physical home media, and recently, working out and staying healthy.
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