Kevin David didn’t grow up in a household full of cooks nor was he exposed to fancy food at an early age. “My dad and I had this conversation about eating when [my siblings and I] were kids. We always drank this powdered orange drink. And I would never give that to my kids. Think about how much sugar is in that,” David recalls.
After a trip to Europe at the age 15 or 16, he asked his mother if there was such a thing as “a school for cooking.” That’s how oblivious he was to the food world.
Yet here he is, a towering figure of over 6’0 and an Enderun dropout selling out seats to his own pop-up tasting menus he calls Idalia. His latest pop-up was held at a small rented kitchen in Pasig where he churned out well-plated food that tells a story.
“Telling stories with your food is very crucial, especially with our concept right now—the tasting menu. I don’t want to be that guy that drops a plate in front of you without telling you how I came up with it, what inspired me, where it came from,” says Kevin David.
“Telling stories with your food is very crucial, especially with our concept right now—the tasting menu. I don’t want to be that guy that drops a plate in front of you without telling you how I came up with it, what inspired me, where it came from. Everything that we do for Idalia is progressive.”
After dropping out of Enderun, he took the brave move to New York City where he washed dishes at The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges. “That opened my eyes about food more,” he shares. “Even though I was washing dishes, you had like the best seat in the house seeing all the cooks do their magic. I didn’t know what caviar was. I didn’t know what a beurre blanc was. They were doing all these cool things that I never knew about. I was excited to go to work just to see the guys whip up some good food.”
It was when David watched culinary giant Jonathan Waxman battle the “godfather of American cuisine” Larry Forgione on “Iron Chef America” that he decided he wanted to do more than wash dishes in a restaurant. In the episode, Waxman prepared a simple dish with peas and burrata (“I didn’t even know what burrata was at the time and had to Google it while watching it”) with lemon oil and Parmigiano.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the type of food that I want to eat!’” says David. Apparently, it was also food that he wanted to learn how to make. What better way to learn how to cook this way than from the source himself? He sent an email to Waxman’s restaurant in New York City, Barbuto, looking to be a stage (an unpaid intern). They replied with an open spot for the pantry or garde manger and asked for an interview.
“They made me cut four cases of kale. My knife skills weren’t that good and I had the shortest knife. It took me three hours to just cut kale. When you’re a stage, you’re working for free so they usually give you the most tedious task to do,” David explains. “I loved it even though I was exhausted.”
He was eventually offered the job and he stayed for two and a half years. He moved to San Francisco where Waxman asked him to help him open up Waxman’s in Ghirardelli Square. After two years, David moved to Los Angeles where he worked for Steve Samson’s Rossoblu. “While working there as a line cook, I was working at Otium as well as with chef Timothy Hollingsworth—who’s very well-known for the French Laundry and being on [Netflix’s] ‘The Final Table.’ I learned so much about food and techniques. They did full animal butchery and got fish fresh from the gulf. They made everything in-house. Talk about a scratch kitchen.”
“I was fortunate enough to work with Melissa Perello. She’s from San Francisco. She opened up a restaurant in LA called M. Georgina. I could have worked there forever. It was my favorite learning experience,” says Kevin David.
David’s first sous chef gig was at a steak and wine restaurant called American Beauty by Paul Hibler. His next position was going to be his favorite.
“I was fortunate enough to work with Melissa Perello. She’s from San Francisco. She opened up a restaurant in LA called M. Georgina. I could have worked there forever. It was my favorite learning experience. She was so maternal. She commanded the room and not in a bad way. She treated everyone with respect and called everyone chef. She always believed everyone can get somewhere,” he fondly recounts.
But then COVID-19 happened and M.Georgina closed as David was on the cusp of getting a promotion. He didn’t think about moving back to the Philippines until he received a visit from his father who urged him to try to cook in the Philippines.
“My dad said, ‘You have nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back to the States.’ I didn’t have any stable plans but I knew I wanted to do pop-ups at least with family and friends. And it just kind of kicked off. When people keep asking about when the next one is, it’s kind of hard to pack your bags and go.”
Each dish that he serves has an inspiration and story attached to it. The mussel dish he prepared at his last pop-up was a clear homage to chef Ignacio Mattos. “I’ve had his mussels escabeche on a toast dish and we just tweaked it a bit. The mussels were ever so lightly steamed. The moment they opened, we shucked them right away and put them in cold brine for 24 hours.”
The green pea soup was inspired by California in springtime. “We ordered too much crab from our last event and I thought it would go well with this dish.” The cold soup had generous chunks of crab, a cheddar tuile, and tarragon. “Think of crab sandwiches in Louisiana; they always have some type of cheese in it. I thought of doing a Parmesan tuile but I thought something sharp would go better.”
Although David’s Idalia concept is still finding a more permanent home, it’s finding a following as it does pop-ups. His skill and finesse come through the plates he serves and this is a product of all of his experiences.
“I’m a mixture of everything I learned from my mentors—keeping it simple from Jonathan [Waxman], letting the ingredients shine from Ignacio [Mattos], making sure that everything that you add onto a plate makes sense, this is from Melissa Perello. Make sure you put things with purpose, that’s what she told me. It’s just the mix of everything that I learned in the past 13 years. I’m grateful for that experience.”