How I Helped Portland Embrace Filipino Food
"In the long run, I think Filipino food can absolutely get as mainstream as Thai and Chinese food. It's going to go through the same processes through which those cuisines went—an Americanization phase, then to many different offshoots under young...
Lechon, housemade Hawaiian rolls, pickles, and preserves. All photos courtesy of Clyde Common
When I first added crispy pata and lumpia to the menu at Clyde Common, everyone was like, "What is that?" Even the Filipinos were like, "Who is back there in the kitchen adding deep fried pig's foot to the restaurant attached to the Ace Hotel?"
At first, I had Filipino people come up to me and say, "That's not crispy pata!" in Tagalog—to which I would just polite respond, "I'm sorry that's not the crispy pata that you know, but I assure you that it is." The thing is that a lot of people are used to eating undercooked or overcooked, shredded, almost-dusty crispy pata, and just because I sous vide mine to maintain the integrity of the pork does not mean that it is not the same concept. I also serve mine with spaetzle and pickles, which was an ode to my experiences as a trained chef. This approach of twisting traditional Filipino dishes was the basis for my pop-up dinner series, Twisted Filipino.
When I explain to non-Filipino people what Filipino food is, the first thing I tell them is that it's nothing like Thai food or Vietnamese food, since those two are the most dominant Asian cuisines in Portland, and I want to shut down that expectation right away. After that, I follow up with the fact that the Philippines is a melting pot just like the US, made up of many different cultures.
We were occupied by Spain. Then there was the spice trade. Then there were Chinese, Malaysians, Japanese, and American influences coming in, so we have a huge flavor palette to pull from. We have a lot of the ingredients that you might be familiar with—curries, the use of coconut, fish sauce, soy sauce—and we adapted them. For the most part, people are excited and the responses have been really positive.
I moved to Portland, Oregon three years ago for this job as the executive chef for Clyde Common, and I when I first got here, I was like, Where are all of the Filipinos at? Where can I get my Filipino food fix?
There were a few food carts and one restaurant in the greater Portland area, but that was about it. I got into food late in the game. I'd barely only heard the term "culinary" when I was 19 years old, but I started reading a lot of books, watching all these shows, and then graduated from the CIA in New York.
I was born in the Philippines, but my parents moved to Detroit and I came to the US as a baby. I was an outcast growing up. I lived in a predominantly white community and I was one of only two people of color in my neighborhood. I didn't know who to identify with because I was what Filipinos would call an amboy, which means an American-raised Filipino who doesn't speak the language. I was an outcast to my own country, and here, too. I was confused for a long time. Then, I eventually learned that I'm an accumulation of my experiences and my own person. Throughout this journey of finding myself, Filipino food has always been my compass. It has always been my guide.
Both of my parents were in the medical field, but they still cooked a lot at home. The "on-switch" for me to specialize in cooking Filipino food over any other cuisine came after my dad passed away in 2009. He always pushed me to focus on Filipino food, but I kept saying, "Nobody wants to eat that, Dad. I'm going to do French or Spanish food." After he passed away, I got depressed, but then I got curious and wanted to learn how to cook the dishes I grew up eating.
As soon as I took over the kitchen at Clyde Common, I implemented lumpia almost instantaneously. Because the restaurant is attached to the Ace Hotel, there is this certain type of customer that comes into the restaurant. Because of this, I have simplified the explanation of things like lumpia to just "pork, shiitake mushroom, sweet and sour" in hopes of opening up the conversation with our servers and diners.
In the long run, I think Filipino food can absolutely get as mainstream as Thai and Chinese food. It's going to go through the same processes through which those cuisines went—an Americanization phase, then to many different offshoots under young Filipino chefs: fine dining, middle-ground restaurants, and casual. Then, we're going to see a lot of chefs who aren't Filipino get very interested in our flavors.
It's really awesome to have witnessed Filipino food catch on in the US over the last three years. In LA, you have LASA and Alvin Cailan of Unit 120. For San Francisco, the whole fuckin' Bay Area is pretty much Filipino. In New York, you have Jeepney and Pig & Khao. In DC, there's Bad Saint, and so on and so on. People have accused me of jumping on the Filipino bandwagon because I'm adding a few Filipino dishes at a restaurant like Clyde Common, and I'm like, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
Just like any other Filipino, we are always late. But we just have to keep on fighting, pushing, and making sure we don't lose our own identity in this process. This mainstreaming will not happen overnight, and this next year will be the proving ground to see if Filipino food is just a fad or if people are just going to stick with it.
I'm going to be one of those chefs who will hunker down and stick it out.
As told to Javier Cabral
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carlo Lamagna is the Executive Chef for Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. For more information about his food and his restaurant, visit the restaurant's website.