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The Best Chef In L.A. Is A Filipino On A Mission

James Beard awardee Lord Maynard Llera won accolades serving food from his hometown in Lucena

The man hailed as the best chef in California is on a mission to bring Filipino food to the American mainstream.

Lord Maynard Llera won the prestigious 2024 James Beard Award for Best Chef California last June 12. Llera is the Filipino-born chef-owner of Kuya Lord, a fast casual Filipino eatery based in LA’s Melrose Hill neighborhood. 

The eponymous restaurant (Kuya Lord is also Chef Llera’s nickname) has been described as having a “Filipino-focused menu” with dishes from the chef’s southern Tagalog hometown of Lucena. 

“The menu is the story of my childhood favorites,” Llera says. Menu standouts include Lucenachon (slow-roasted pork belly), lechon kawali (twice-cooked pork belly), and grilled Caledonian blue prawns sautéed in garlic crab sauce with laing (taro leaves braised in coconut milk). 

These dishes are so familiar to any Filipino that descriptions are barely necessary. But that’s also because Llera is on a mission to make Filipino food reach a wider, non-Filipino audience. 

His goal, he says, is for Filipino food to “enter the American mainstream and be finally accepte by non-Filipinos like how they accept and crave for other Asian cuisines like Chinese, Japanese and Thai.” 

He is on a mission to educate non-Filipinos about “culture through food and to be familiar with Filipino flavors.” He exposes their palates to Filipino flavors like sampalok and niyog, which he uses in his dishes. This familiarization campaign has been such a success that now, 80 percent of diners at Kuya Lord are non-Filipinos. 

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Llera was 24 when he immigrated from the Philippines. He earned a degree from prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, before settling in California. He started his culinary career cooking at Bestia, a top-end Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. It was always his goal to open a Filipino restaurant, but just when he thought he was ready, the pandemic hit. 

So Llera opened a pop-up eatery from his own home. Soon it was drawing in hungry diners. In 2022, he finally got to open a brick-and-mortar Filipino restaurant. 

For a tiny eatery seating just 28 diners, Kuya Lord has won a lot of accolades in just two years, including a place on the LA Times’ 101 Best Restaurants and Bon Appetit’s 24 Best New Restaurants for 2023. Clearly, Llera is doing an excellent job cooking, serving and promoting Filipino food. 

And while clearly elated at bagging a prestigious James Beard award, he’s also got his feet firmly on the ground. The accolade, he hopes, will pave the way to a sit-down Filipino restaurant and allow him to reach a wider audience. 

“"Hard work and perseverance really pays off. It means a lot because, you know, it represents us," said Llera, adding: "I made, you know, my country proud.”

He definitely did. 

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Lead photos: Kuya Lord