Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2021: Carlo Lamagna
Carlo Lamagna approaches Filipino food like a Grand Prix race car driver: He drives with extreme precision and finesse, but he isn't afraid to press on the gas. The translucent broth that forms the base of his sinigang at Magna Kusina, Lamagna's Portland, Oregon, restaurant, has the elegant gleam of consommé but is anything but subtle in flavor. It fully embraces its sour notes, with punches of tamarind knitted together by tomato, fish stock and fish sauce, onions, and garlic. And then there's the electrifying, elemental funk that ripples through the bagoong alamang, a condiment of fermented shrimp paste spiked with garlic, fish sauce, and palm sugar. It's a favorite childhood food of Lamagna's, given a cheffy makeover in a dish called mangga at bagoong alamang: It arrives at the table in a small boat carved out of raw green mango and is covered with a shower of edible flower petals.
There's another element to Lamagna's food, though, that isn't found in bottles of vinegar or the tubs of salt in the restaurant's pantry. Nor is it down to the quality of the produce or slabs of meat in the restaurant's walk-in fridge. It's his untethered enthusiasm and infectious pride for the cuisine that he cooks and the culture that he represents, which lends a depth to everything that he makes that other chefs spend years trying to achieve.
To walk into Magna Kusina is to walk into a dinner party at Lamagna's house. The dining room radiates welcoming warmth. (Lamagna built it with help from friends, finishing the construction on the restaurant after a contractor bailed halfway through.) There are heavy pours of Oregon wines, and Janet Jackson plays over the sound system. Lamagna feeds you with the joy and giddiness of an auntie who hasn't seen you in decades, passing you generous portions of pancit miki-bihon, bulked up with a combination of rice noodles and housemade egg noodles, and meaty, crispy lumpia packed with pork and mushrooms and fried. You'll eventually swear you have zero stomach real estate left for even one more bite, when out comes a mound of biko, coconut sticky rice, cuddled in a banana leaf blanket and topped with condensed coconut milk and an orb of ube ice cream gently melting like a purple snowman caught in the sun. Suddenly, miraculously, your stomach will manage to find an empty quadrant.
For Lamagna, Magna is more than a place to champion Filipino cooking. It's also a way to honor his late father. "One of the last things he said to me was, 'I'm proud of you. I am not worried about you. Just promise me you won't forget who you are and where you come from.'" It's a promise Lamagna knew he could keep through food. "From the point that he passed away to now, the goal was to open a Filipino restaurant and show the world our family's culture," says Lamagna, "There's a reason why it's called Magna. It's part of our last name."
Lamagna was born in the Philippines but spent a large part of his childhood in Detroit, returning to the Philippines when he was 11 and staying through high school and college. He comes from a family of talented cooks; his sister was the person who encouraged him to pursue cooking professionally. "She was the reason why I started thinking I could make a career of this," he says. After getting kicked out of college, Lamagna made his way back to Detroit, where he attended a local culinary program while working at a slew of restaurants across the city, from a country club to a sushi bar.
After that, he decided it was time to take his career seriously, enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he landed a job in Chicago, where he eventually worked for chef Paul Virant. An opportunity in the kitchen at Clyde Common brought Lamagna to Portland. He was laid off after nearly three and a half years there, and he decided it was time to stop working for other people and chase his dream of opening his own Filipino spot. He did pop-up dinners for two years before Magna Kusina opened in August 2019.
Long term, Lamagna dreams that Magna will one day become a pillar in the Filipino community. "I want it to be more than just a restaurant," Lamagna says. "I want it to be a place where people feel safe and comfortable, and where they can come together and share stories." He imagines Magna as a communal space, where others can launch their own ideas and pop-ups. And he hopes it will one day be a restaurant that "turns out some amazing chefs in their own right."
As for that last point, he is well on his way: Most of the people who work for Lamagna have been with him for at least two years, with one of his sous chefs coming up on 11 years of working together. "Ultimately, I just want to be able to have something that my kids are proud to say, 'Hey, look. This is what my dad did,''' says Lamagna. "The same way that I talk about my dad, I want them to talk about me."
Photos by Aubrie Pick