Going From Good To Great: Mapping the Journey With Chef Carlo Lamagna In Seven Dishes
ONE: DINUGUAN, CHICAGO, MAY 2017.
Prepped at Clyde Common, Portland, Oregon, the Korubuta pork collars were cater wrapped like chrysalis, nestled in the safety of a nondescript, black roller bag, dormant and awaiting transformation. For good measure, Carlo also brought dozens of handmade longganisa to be presented at our collaborative pop-up dinner, Twisted Filipino Kitchen, scheduled for two days after his presentation on arroz caldo at the National Restaurant Show.
Carlo’s finished dish, served family style on the famous, bigger-than-your-head plates at revered Filipino breakfast diner, Uncle Mike’s, were tender, with just enough snap in those casings holding up to a slight blister from the griddle. Enveloping the braised chipped pork collar like a mink stole made of midnight, the richness and complexity of the dinuguan made me doubt why our parents’ generation felt the need to lie to their American Filipino children about “chocolate meat”. A side of fluffy, steamed rice cakes with melted cheese – puto (yes, PUTO) – and fresh slices of kamatis balanced out the dish.
The dinuguan, and the other courses Carlo presented that night, showed us again that our food, Filipino food, like us ourselves, is meant to evolve, and to change; even to dance and to fly. Our food moves us. It gives us literal energy in the form of calories and comfort, but more than that, our food reminds us of where we came from, so we can know where we are going. And most importantly, our food reminds us of why we are going there.
This is the definition of diaspora. Our food can transport us somewhere else, into the places of memory, of ancestors, to the people we were with and to the people we were. In careful reflection, our food can show us who we are today.
Chef Carlo Lamagna is a Philippine born, Detroit raised, CIA- and Chicago-trained chef, mastermind behind the pop-up dinner series, Twisted Filipino; and chef-owner of the eponymous, fully Kickstarter funded, soon-to-open Portland, Oregon restaurant, Magna. This is the story of Carlo's journey from good to great, in seven dishes.
TWO: CONEY DOG, DETROIT, EARLY 1990'S.
In the city of Carlo’s early childhood, he learned Midwestern sensibility and genteel, gained a strong sense of family and an understanding, in this land of apple and cherry orchards and blueberry fields, that food was from farms, not grocery stores. Carlo learned that he was “a color kid in a white world. I stood out like a sore thumb. I wasn’t from there.” In first grade, he was called ‘chink’ by a classmate. He retaliated by slapping that little girl out of her chair. At the disciplinary meeting with their parents and school administrators, the mother of the little girl told Carlo’s mom, Gloria, “Why don’t you teach your kid not to hit people?” to which Gloria replied, “Why don’t you teach your kid not to be a bigot?”
In his parents’ Detroit house, Filipino food was the food (except for his sister’s baking experiments, which is why Carlo started cooking), and American fast food was a rare treat. Indulging in American fast food, particularly Detroit coney dogs, remained the food of choice post-shift for Carlo as a young cook building a foundation of basics and learning modernist techniques in Chef Brian Beland’s kitchen. According to food historian Bruce Kraig in “Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America,” the coney dog’s distinction is its sauce, or “chili”: “… a tomato-based meat sauce with flavoring [such as cinnamon, oregano and paprika] reminiscent of Greek tomato sauces used in meats and familiar to many Americans in moussaka.”
THREE: GOAT, SAN NICOLAS, PANGASINAN, PHILIPPINES; 1992.
“This may sound weird but I stuck out like a sore thumb there, too,” said born-of-Filipino-parents Carlo. “A bunch of kids didn’t accept me as a Filipino kid, as an Amboy.” Gloria sent Carlo (then a young adolescent) with his elder siblings to the Philippines to live with their dad, Wilfredo, both to rein in teenage “bonehead” behavior as well as to bring them closer to their father, who had moved away from Detroit years prior to attend medical school and successfully develop a practice there as a doctor. Gloria and Willie wanted their kids to be in touch with their culture. “Spending time in our ancestral home, we slaughtered pigs, goats and other animals,” Carlo said. While he was a picky eater as a child, his father’s encouragement to try different foods soon expanded Carlo’s palate.
“From a single goat, we would make kilawin [quickly cured meat or seafood, using vinegar or citrus] from the loin and skin, pinapaitan [broth bittered with bile, offal and meat] from the intestines, and caldereta from the rest of the meat. We would use every bit of it.” From his father, cooking and eating in this way, said Carlo, “We learned that nothing is beneath us.”
Mel Lamagna, Carlo’s cousin, confidant and oft-sous chef (when he’s not busy being a social work administrator for a Chicago hospital), said about their shared childhood in Detroit and the white bread environment it was, “All the men in the family cooked. His dad, my dad – they were putting the food on the table. When we were really young, we had a goat in the backyard, which we killed, gutted and cooked. There was a lot of black smoke, and the neighbors called the police, [not the fire department]. Apparently they thought we were doing some sort of sacrifice.”
Mel noted that from those years in Willie’s kitchen, in Detroit and later in the Philippines, Carlo learned the basics of how to feed a family. “Uncle Willie, Carlo’s dad, was the centering person in their family,” said Mel. “All those meals Uncle Willie would cook, Carlo observed.” Filipino food at home in Detroit meant family. But Filipino food in the Philippines, that meant something bigger to a Filipino American. Reflecting on how living in the Philippines as a young man was a poignant, personal experience for Carlo, Mel said, “This is the homeland. This is why our family is keeping these traditions alive.”
Over a number of years, Willie, Carlo and his siblings all moved back to Detroit, back in with Gloria. The first time all of them were living together was in a one bedroom house in Detroit, as “grown ass adults.” Carlo’s tone softened here, as he told me during those six years they reconnected and reformed bonds. As their parents ushered his older siblings, Maricel and Darvin, towards the medical field, the bunso Carlo went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.
FOUR: WHITE CASTLE, CHICAGO, 2009.
After graduating from the CIA, Carlo moved in with Mel and his wife Sarah, and worked at North Pond in Lincoln Park. Sometimes Mel waited up for Carlo to come home from work to hang out, talk about the day. Back to that American fast food obsession, provisions from White Castle -- undoubtedly sliders, onion rings and crinkle cut fries -- were Mel and Carlo’s meal of choice. “He’d tell me about his colleagues who were opening up their own restaurants. Carlo was waiting for the right opportunity… He’s not a ‘go big or go home’ kind of person, not at that point. He thought, we’re not there yet.” When asked to clarify this last point, Mel said he meant ‘we’ as a dining community. The way Carlo saw it then, Mel reported, people weren’t ready for Filipino food, or Filipino food the way he wanted to cook and present it. “We’d ask, how do we ease people into this? Maybe we open a taco truck and put adobo in a taco? Maybe we open a small diner and put some Filipino dishes on the menu? What were some subtle ways of getting Filipino food out there?” Mel continued, “Carlo had an awareness that Filipino food was not at the Chinese or Italian food level of takeout [among the public].”
FIVE: PINTXOS, EUROPE, 2010.
Willie passed away in October 2009. The death of the person Carlo named first when asked about his influences had a core shaking effect. He stayed on for another year at North Pond but went on a sojourn to Europe. He was “soul searching,” Carlo noted, “Fed my curiosity, a need to travel and eat.”
In Germany, Carlo fine-tuned his charcuterie- and sausage-making. Next stop was Lyon to learn country-style home cooking, where many of France’s greatest chefs originated, and from where the Michelin Guide started. In Barcelona, Carlo gobbled pintxos of jamòn iberico (cured black Spanish ham) and fried padrón peppers, and cut the richness with a glass of txakoli (Basque white wine, typically sparkling and dry). But on one occasion when Carlo dined alone at a major restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, an accidental eavesdropping laid the foundation for historical realizations. when he suddenly understood what the kitchen staff was saying… in his parents’ language, Ilocano! “The entire kitchen, all Filipinos,” said Carlo. “They were the workhorses. Like the way that Mexicans are in many restaurant kitchens in the US.”
After resting around the subject of Europe, I asked, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“No,” he replied. While he felt a semblance of peace of mind and some settling of the spirit, after Europe Carlo headed to the Philippines for a month.
“That’s when the seed grew, planted when my dad passed.”
SIX: SUMAN AT INIHAW NA LIEMPO, FEAST PDX, PORTLAND, OREGON; 2017.
Late afternoon sun seemed unwilling to fade at the Feast food festival’s Night Market held in an industrial yard off on the banks of the Willamette River. Likewise the Magna team kept going strong into the wee hours. By the time stars shone above us in the Pacific Northwest, Carlo, cousin Mel flying in from Chicago, and Carlo’s sous chefs Kevin Balonso and Dante Fernandez (affectionately known as The Wild Rice Boys); and Chef Sharwin Tee from Manila, and even Natalia and I had a hand in feeding a generous tasting of Filipino food to most of the 1,200 souls present.
The plate’s base was suman, chicken stock-fattened malagkit (sticky rice) about the size of two fingers, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, perfuming the rice with vegetal aroma. While usually served as a sweet kakanin for merienda, sometimes flavored with molasses-like muscovado and strips of young coconut woven in between, Carlo’s savory suman instead formed the foundation of an over-the-top snack. To make it easy for guests to eat, Carlo’s team unwrapped the warm suman on the plate. (Hopefully this also made it apparent to guests that the banana leaf was not for consumption!) On top of the malagkit, thick hunks of liempo -- juicy ribbons of marinated berkshire pork were laid, with a slight char; that richness balanced with a bright dollop of sawsawan of cane vinegar, sweet diced tomato and onion.
At one point in the evening, the team put the pedal to the medal for an unrelenting three hours -- warming suman and waking up banana leaf oils, charring pork belly, and assembling. A line of hungry patrons snaked to the head of the Magna booth, taking the finished plates as soon as they were set down by Carlo or one of the crew. The dj’s reggaeton and latin electronic rhythms perfectly matched the soulful, urgent pressing of the Magna team. Carlo, like many great chefs, knows how to harmoniously combine memory and ingredients with technique, but beyond that he is a leader, eliciting the best from his teammates, regardless of skill or experience level, to work together to achieve a common goal.
For the sheer amount of coordination and work in executing, it bears mentioning that the night before the Night Market, Carlo, Team Magna, and Chefs Alvin Cailan of Los Angeles' Eggslut, Unit 120 and Amboy; Isa Fabro of Unit 120; and Sharwin Tee (with an assist from Filipino Kitchen) presented a collaborative Whiskey Pig dinner.
What it really is, it’s a Magna family. That became apparent right away in the basement kitchen of Clyde Common two days before the Night Market. Rolling 1,200 suman with sous chef Dante Fernandez, he told me, “I go wherever Carlo goes.”
In addition to Carlo’s family of birth and his professional family, what makes Magna possible is Carlo’s family, particularly his wife Anjuli and their children.
“Anjuli and I came to visit Portland when we were still pregnant with Rishi. We were both at a crossroads in our lives and realized that we needed a change. On the cusp of starting our own family, we realized that we both sought out more balance in life,” wrote Carlo in an email.
“Anjuli is the perfect balance for him. She called him out on his shit,” said Mel. “They moved to a place that has calmness, nature, peace. Portland served a really important purpose for him, family. People thought he was crazy -- he was setting himself up very well in Chicago, but he got bogged down.”
The stamina and drive we witnessed over four days at Feast Portland was just a sliver of the long hours that ambitious cooks who want to be chefs and lead kitchens of their own one day endure for years as professional de rigeur. Adding to the long, thankless, physically punishing hours; without benefit of healthcare (often) and earning dreadful low wages, toiling in sunless basement kitchens, often without protection of “human resources” are conditions all too common in hospitality. The service industry is often nearly servitude.
Wrote Carlo in an email, “I have worked long hours for so many years, that I was starting to burn out. How do you rebalance? We were taken aback by the lifestyle and natural surroundings in Portland and realized that we wanted something different.”
All the same cooking is what some people, like Carlo, are just made to do; for Carlo, cooking is more a calling or vocation rather than a chosen profession, according to his cousin Mel. As an art, cooking demands of its practitioners a vulnerability that needs to be attended to.
“Things settled down and opened up for Carlo at Clyde [Common]. It became a vehicle for Twisted Filipino [Carlo’s pop-up dinner series] because he had the time to do it.” Said Mel, “There had to be something else woven into his purpose and passion, in a profession where sustainability is key.”
Wrote Carlo, “Portland isn't perfect. It has its own flaws and this may not be the final destination in our lives. It's just another stepping stone in search of happiness.”
SEVEN: DISH UNKNOWN, JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION HOUSE, NEW YORK CITY, JANUARY 2018.
On January 25, 2018, Chef Carlo Lamagna will cook a Filipino regional dinner with a cadre of Filipino American chefs at the renown James Beard Foundation House in New York City. Even while backers fully met the $30,000 Kickstarter goal to help crowdfund his new restaurant Magna, set to open in Spring 2018 in Portland, Carlo pushes to meet the challenge of the Beard Foundation House. Alongside chefs Francis Ang of Pinoy Heritage in San Francisco; Lou Boquila of Perla in Philadelphia; Melissa Miranda of Musang in Seattle; and Miguel Trinidad of Jeepney and Maharlika of New York City, Carlo understands that this Beard House dinner is another necessary step to get us there, to help the dining public and even Filipinos ourselves arrive to a place where Filipino cuisine (and the people who make it) is acknowledged and more deeply understood. As far as the professional culinary world, the stage doesn’t get any bigger than the Beard Foundation House. It's not an opportunity easily passed up, even with a restaurant opening just on the horizon.
While it takes courage and audacity to open a restaurant in the first place, putting one’s name on it – the word Magna which also happens to be the Latin word for “great” -- seems to, at minimum, be setting an especially high bar for one’s self. Others may think the restaurant naming smacks of an ego-driven individual. But remember, Magna is his family name.
When asked about the difference between good and great, Carlo wrote, “In my mind, good means that you are doing fine and are in your comfort zone, achieving bare minimum to get by, content with what you have. Great is taking risks, pushing past your comfort zone, your boundaries, and setting new goals. Great is when you achieve them and continue forward. Great is when you fail and learn from those failures to move forward. Great is when you finally look up from working so hard and realize you are on a different level... and continue to push forward to keep going.”
“A chef once told me that perseverance is key. When the fires of passion die out, and the brakes start slowing down your drive, perseverance is what is going to push you past all those challenges. Perseverance will keep you going when everything is going against you. That is how you go from good to great.”