NORTH BETHESDA, Md. — To Filipinos, food is love.
“When you go to any Filipino household, first thing the elders will do is feed you,” says chef Javier Fernandez. He gestures to the words “Kaon na ta” on the wall of his North Bethesda restaurant.
“Even when you’re full, they’ll feed you.”
“Kaon na ta” means “Let’s eat” in the native dialect of Cebu, Fernandez’s home island in the Philippines. The phrase features prominently in a mural of Filipino and DC icons at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly.
Cooking is in Fernandez’s blood. Both of his parents have culinary backgrounds. His father worked as a personal chef. His mother was a house cleaner who baked and sold pastries to DC’s Filipino community on the side.
Growing up, Fernandez was charged, as are many Asian children, with cooking rice for dinner. “If the parents come home by 6 and the rice isn’t ready, you’re in big trouble,” he remembers, laughing.
He would serve as his mother’s assistant, cracking eggs and kneading dough. It would be his mother who would push him into cooking after he dropped out of college.
Kuya Ja’s is very much a family business. Whenever Fernandez comes up with a new creation, he’ll send a picture to his mother for feedback.
“If she doesn’t like it, I can’t sleep on it. I’ve got to somehow fix it, make sure she’s in love with the food.” Fernandez’s older sister Stella also inherited the family's cooking skill. She took over their mother’s pastry business, and Gwenie’s Pastries are available for sale in the restaurant.
True to its name, Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly's signature dish is lechon belly: a slow roasted pork belly similar to Italian Porchetta. The lechon of Cebu is world famous, winning the admiration of such famous foodies as the late Anthony Bourdain.
It took Fernandez a year to perfect his restaurant's lechon belly and give the classic his own spin. He uses a carefully crafted blend of seasonings and roasts the pork until the skin reaches a dark mahogany. The result is a crispy, fatty burst of savory flavor.
The lechon belly serves as the centerpiece for the restaurant’s monthly kinamot, a fifteen-course meal served all at once and eaten with bare hands. Also known as a “boodle fight” or “kamayan,” the kinamot is served on a bed of banana leaves and white rice.
In addition to the lechon belly, Fernandez includes fish, shrimp and chicken along with other Filipino specialties like lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) and atsara (pickled papaya salad). Diners sit together at long tables and literally dig in.
The kinamot is more of a food experience than a regular meal. It embodies the "food is love" ethos of the Philippines. Kuya Ja’s does two sittings a month at a price of $67 per person. Kaon na ta.