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Woldy Kusina — Woldy Reyes

Woldy Reyes | Photo by Kartik Das

Woldy Reyes is everywhere. You might have seen him on Tik-Tok dropping fabulous dance moves, attended one of his many private dinners in the Hudson Valley, or tasted his food at Hungry House in Brooklyn. Vibrant, vegetable-forward, vivacious, the chef/owner of Woldy Kusina, a Modern Filipino catering company in New York City, takes traditional Filipino cuisine with its bold flavors and meat-heavy dishes and overlays his desire to eat light, healthy, and with the seasons. The end product is a feast for the eyes, the cultured mind, and the body.

Becoming unapologetically Woldy has been a journey. Growing up in Walnut, California, as one of three boys in a suburban Filipino family, Woldy was different. Not just from the neighbors but from his brothers. Born partially deaf, Woldy had a sign language interpreter through school and used him as a crutch to avoid talking to people.

“To me, I sounded gay, which at the time was embarrassing given how the media portrayed gay people. Ironic now, but viscerally true when I was a child.”

He understood that he was different. While his brothers took to Mortal Kombat and WWF (now WWE), he gravitated towards the kitchen, where he could spend time with his mother and his Lola. Lola (or Lolly as he used to call her) was his maternal grandmother. She adored him, and he idolized her. She felt like a safe space for him, accepting him for who he was — even if she never knew all the identities he struggled with as a child. Lola was there from the day Woldy was born and practically raised him and his twin brother. He always wanted to be alongside her as she made traditional Filipino dishes like chicken adobo furnished with herbs and vegetables from her garden.

While he relished Filipino food at home, taking his chicken adobo to school made him different in yet another way.

“All I wanted to bring to school was Lunchables. I was already different. I didn’t need one more reason to be made fun of. I knew I felt different; I just didn’t know the term. Whoever I was, I felt ‘other-ed’ in the media, which stuck for a while.”

Growing up suppressing his differences felt ugly. For years, he refused to accept his differences — being partially deaf, queer, and Filipino-American. Yearning for acceptance from those around him, he used every mechanism to shield or suppress his core identities. However, when he left high school for college, without his sign language interpreter to hide behind, Woldy began interacting with the non-deaf community and slowly began understanding himself. He met others who were also different, people who accepted and celebrated him for who he was. After coming out to a friend who worked alongside him at a restaurant in college, Woldy felt liberated; there was hope that he would be ok.

Woldy’s journey to being unequivocally himself has taken time | Photo by Kartik Das

With newfound self-acceptance of who he was, Woldy sought out a community where he would feel like he belonged. He left the suburbs of Walnut for the bustle of West Hollywood, embarking on an adventure to love himself while simultaneously exploring his interest in the world of fashion. Being in clothes was and continues to be a way for Woldy to express himself. When he was trying to figure out who he was, his time in luxury retail helped him embrace his true self through the image he chose to present to the world.

Woldy moved to New York to advance his fashion career. While he was challenged and enjoyed elements of his job, he found himself chasing a sense of purpose. With support from those close to him, he started sharing the food he regularly ate with a broader audience, and they enjoyed it. More importantly, Woldy enjoyed cooking for people and sharing his authentic self with others. Here was that sense of purpose he was searching for.

After a brief period of balancing his fashion career with his budding catering company, Woldy decided to fully immerse himself in dressing plates instead of dressing models, and Woldy Kusina was born. While his early days involved plenty of crudites and small plates with a Filipino lean, Woldy’s signature dishes evolved as his culinary experience grew. The first dish that truly reflected his philosophy on seasonal, modern Filipino cuisine was his take on Kalderetang Kambing which he prepared for a Pride Table dinner in 2019.

The dish was an homage to the memory of his father and a childhood experience that resonated with Woldy. Growing up, his father would take Woldy and his brothers to a goat farm to buy meat instead of heading to the supermarket like everyone else. His father would cook the dish in what resembled a cauldron over a wood fire in the backyard. The pungent smell of sizzling garlic, smoke, and gamey meat would perfume the air. What sounds like a fond memory was quite the opposite. At the time, Woldy was embarrassed by how unequivocally loud and proud the entire process was. Having dealt with the embarrassment of being different at school, Woldy didn’t want to feel that way at home too.

Today Woldy is mostly embarrassed by how he felt then. He recalls the memory as his father’s way of showing his love for his children. So when he had a chance to tell his queer story through a dish, naturally, the Kalderetang Kambing came to mind. Instead of the bone-in pieces of goat cooked with jalapenos, Woldy chose to shred braised goat and infuse flavors he enjoyed like gojuchang and fire-roasted ginger. In an admittedly “cheffy” move, he served the stew under fried rice paper, symbolizing the barrier he had to break through to become comfortable with who he truly was — queer, hearing impaired, Filipino-American.

Unsurprisingly, in the buildup to the dinner, Woldy met opposition to the dish. Goat was a foreign protein to both the organizers and potentially the guests, so Woldy was encouraged to choose a different protein to tell the story. Goat meat, much like Woldy as a child, was other. But being different was the essence of the story behind the dish, so Woldy held firm against the initial pushback to serve his version of a childhood memory that told his unique story. Those apprehensive about goat were pleasantly surprised, given how the story intertwined with the goat stew. Those familiar with the dish learned more about Woldy through his adjustments to the traditional Kalderetang Kambing.

The flipside of imposing your lens on a cuisine, even your own, is criticism of those seeking “authenticity”. Woldy’s often asked, “What is Modern Filipino” and whether his food truly reflects the culinary styles of his culture.

“People ask me that all the time. I’m celebrating the food I remember growing up with, but I’m modernizing it with the seasonality of where I am and my desire to eat healthily. The ingredients aren’t what I’d get back in the Philippines, but I don’t live in Manila. I live in Brooklyn. So, I express the nostalgia for the flavors I remember as a Filipino-American kid, with the bounty available in New York.

Woldy sees his food as comforting for the body and the eyes. He doesn’t want it to be warm, filling, and heavy, mainly because those dishes aren’t kind to your body if eaten regularly. His food, like the mushroom adobo or his pancit noodle salad, elicits nostalgia from a Filipino childhood but is bright and light enough to be eaten every day.

Woldy’s Pancit Noodle Salad | Photo by Kartik Das

“My food is authentically me–a queer, first-generation Filipino American. This is how I want to eat daily, but I want to eat Filipino flavors that remind me of the people in my life and my culture. My food is about living a lifestyle that nourishes your body, works with what’s in season, and pays homage to my roots.”

Authenticity as a concept can be misunderstood. The question most people don’t ask is authentic to what or whom? To someone living in the Philippines, Woldy’s food might not be authentic to classic Filipino cuisine, but his food is authentic to who he is. When immigrants seek nostalgic flavors to remind themselves of home but can’t find the ingredients, they adapt. They create something new that still evokes the memories of dishes they once had. Woldy believes his cuisine does just that, and he plans to be front and center as Filipino food continues to evolve in America. Who knows, in 10 years, the mainstream interpretation of pancit could be the vegetable-forward version Woldy prepares today, and that would be a wonderful thing.

Educating the public is fundamental to Woldy. With each magazine cover-worthy photo of his bibingka, a Filipino baked rice cake, Woldy draws attention to Filipino cuisine and culture. His social media presence helps food-curious people understand the origins of a dish and the lens through which Woldy views it.

“I know I’m focusing the spotlight on my culture through food — and getting people excited about something they didn’t know about.”

Aside from catering events, workshops, and Kamayan dinners, Woldy has now made his food and story more accessible through Hungry House in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Instead of trying to get a seat at one of his sold-out events, diners can enjoy his mushroom adobo or bibingka as part of their weekly routine. While there’s much to learn about translating his high-touch, one-of-a-kind Filipino experiences into a quick-service food model, Woldy is encouraged. His Hungry House patrons and the chefs who cook his food are learning more about Filipino culture and taking inspiration from his dishes.

Woldy’s dishes are now available through Hungry House | Photo by Kartik Das

He hopes they’re inspired to help evolve these dishes, the same way his Lola inspired him to spread joy through food. Woldy’s mushroom adobo looks different from his Lola’s classic chicken adobo, but the essence of the dish — homey, simple, comfortable, satiating — remains. I’m sure Lola would be immensely proud of what Woldy has done with the taste memories she made with him.

Today, he’s creating taste memories for a new generation that’s often been other-ed somehow, showing them that being different from everyone else is just fine as long as you’re proudly, authentically yourself.

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Some ideas on what to do in the kitchen, places to try new foods, and occasionally some nostalgic recollections of fantastic meals.

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Kartik Das

Kartik Das

Le Cordon Bleu | Cornell Hotel School | Singapore x New York x London | Editor of Next Favorite Food.

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