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Carlo Lamagna of Magna Kusina: “Why You Should Not Sweat The Technique”

Don’t sweat the technique — for many years in the beginning technique was everything. Technique can be learned at any point. Don’t get me wrong, technique is important and plays an important part in cooking. You can be technically savvy, but without soul in a dish, you will just be another robo-cook. Without a story or […]

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Don’t sweat the technique — for many years in the beginning technique was everything. Technique can be learned at any point. Don’t get me wrong, technique is important and plays an important part in cooking. You can be technically savvy, but without soul in a dish, you will just be another robo-cook. Without a story or a connection to a particular dish, you will just have exactly that, a dish. It can be beautiful and balanced, but it should hit some note with yourself and the diner. That’s what will make you stand out from the rest.

As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational BIPOC Chefs & Restaurateurs, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Chef Carlo Lamagna, a Philippine-born, Detroit-raised, CIA- and Chicago-trained chef. Lamagna is the chef-owner of modern Filipino restaurant, Magna Kusina, located in Portland, Oregon.

In the city of Lamagna’s early childhood, Detroit, he grew up amongst Midwestern sensibility and genteel, gained a strong sense of family and an understanding that food was from farms, not grocery stores.

His mother Gloria sent young Lamagna and his elder siblings to the Philippines to live with their father, Wilfredo. Gloria and Willie wanted their children to be in touch with their culture. From his father, cooking and eating in the way that he himself grew up was a key point in Carlo’s understanding and appreciation of Filipino food and culture.

Upon returning to the U.S., Carlo graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, climbed the ranks through several Detroit establishments and Chicago fine dining restaurants, then moved to Portland, Ore. to serve as Executive Chef at a celebrated European-inspired tavern for three years. Lamagna began a pop-up dining series, Twisted Filipino, in 2013 in Chicago and continued them in Portland with great success.

While Lamagna cites respected chefs influential in his career, philosophy, and leadership style, the chef he most reveres is his late father, Willie, who, alongside his mother Gloria, serves as a major influence of his modern Filipino restaurant, Magna Kusina.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Growing up, food has always played an integral part in our day to day family dynamic. The table is where we caught up, shared stories, and simply spent time together after a busy day. Although my entire family has been highly influential in my discovery for all kinds of food, it was my sister and her cooking “experiments” that really got me thinking about the professional chef route. I was her designated helper and had to earn my keep if I wanted to partake in her creations. As a growing teenage boy, I was more than happy to help for some free food. She taught me how to hold a knife and was tasked to slicing onions. Who would have thought that a simple task would be the spark to ignite the desire to cook, but for some reason that was it. I wanted to be faster and better, and so it went and grew from there.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

After cooking many different cuisines over a 20+ year cooking career, I have finally come back around and am focusing on the food of my heritage, Filipino cuisine.

Filipino food has always been there growing up in Detroit. My mom made sure that we were in touch with our roots through her cooking. Anytime my extended family would get together, you can be sure that Filipino food was on the table, in some way, shape, or form. Living in the Philippines during my teenage years opened up the door to all that our cuisine had to offer, and I went all in. Many years later as I started cooking in professional kitchens, my dad would always ask why I didn’t put Filipino dishes on the menu. At the time, I was well rooted in French technique and always thought that people didn’t want our food or that it was too rustic. As time passed, I kept finding myself drawn back to the flavors of the Philippines and finally started asking my parents to teach me. Combining my memories of living there, and all the food I’ve eaten, alongside all the lessons my parents taught me, I started to realize that there is a place for our food on the world stage.

When my dad passed in 2009, it was a final conversation with him that really set me on the path to celebrating and sharing Filipino food with the masses and so the idea of Magna Kusina was born.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Bahala ka sa buhay mo….this is a Tagalog phrase meaning “take care of your own life.” Now don’t get me wrong, this is often used as a response when someone is angry with you or is often said in frustration….basically when someone says, ”Whatever!!!” In an argument, this is kind of the same thing.

The reason this one sticks is because when I was at a low point in my life, I got into a huge argument with my dad. Yelling, screaming, finger pointing……at the height of the argument, my dad said this phrase, and then we both went silent. You have to understand, this was basically him kind of giving up in the moment. Tears streaming down both of our faces, I realized how low I have sunken down to. It was in that moment that I took that phrase and turned it around for myself, that yes, I needed to take care of myself and take responsibility for my own life. I also realized in that same moment, that even though we walk our own path, there will always be people that care for you and love you, and that are willing to guide and help you through it all.

Take care of your own life, but know you are not alone in any of this.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I think the funniest moment happened during my first real kitchen job at a club in Detroit. It was probably my second week in and one of my chefs had asked me to grab the pesto from the reach in cooler. I rushed to the cooler and was franticly searching for it. I guess I took too long looking for it (it wasn’t labeled mind you…) and my chef walks over, grabs it and yells at me,” It’s right in front of your face!!! WTF, are you colorblind?!” I simply replied, ”yes chef”. I don’t think he was ready for that and kind of did a double take, like,” wait, are you really?” I am actually red/green deficient. After I explained this, he just mumbled something about,” you should have said something” and stomped off.

From then on, I made sure I learned to compensate for my slight disability through other senses, and also not to be so hasty in judgement and simply teach people to get better results…..

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I think the hardest time for me was leading up to the opening of the restaurant. About 2 years prior to opening the doors, I was actually let go from my job as an executive chef during a particularly bad economic downturn. I am married and we just had our 2nd child, so you can imagine the stress and fear that I felt. After the initial shock, I went all in, committing to opening my own place, to be my own boss so that this will never happen again. It took two years of hustling, really throwing myself out there, doing events, taking on any and all private catering gigs, working out of friends kitchens, and re-starting my Twisted Filipino pop-ups that I have put on pause. Even when I signed the lease to our current space and started buildout, I had to fire our contractor and his entire team for leaving booze and drugs all over the worksite and leaving so many jobs unfinished. Me and my team, with the help of many of my friends who were in the trades, ended up fixing his mistakes and finishing up the project. Kind of back to that Filipino saying, I took responsibility in my own life and accepted the help of my surrounding community to get things done. Some things in life are worth fighting for, and I fought long and hard for this one.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Harmony. When all the ingredients flow together and balance each other, it can make a dish really sing. It’s cheesy I know, but very true. Music composition is very similar to cooking. Take the Jimi Hendrix experience for example…Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell….all key ingredients to making essential music. They played off of each other, each member of the band complimenting each other. With Noel Redding’s blues knowledge and Mitch Mitchell’s unconventional jazz drumming, they were able to compliment Jimi Hendrix’s unique playing style.

The same goes for any dish you try to create. The ingredients need to flow with each other, no matter what. The connections to each ingredient may not be conventional and may seem weird to some, but as long as it works and that all the flavors work, you have the potential for a great dish.

Personally, what is the perfect meal for you?

The perfect meal will have all the right things….the ambiance, the company, the food. I would want to be in a forest at dusk, surrounded by my closest family and friends. We would have food made by our own hands, over an open fire, cooking together and playing music together. My dad’s adobo, my mom’s blue crabs, uncle Bill’s goat kaldereta, auntie Loida’s pancit…..nothing fancy, just comfort food and experience to feed the soul.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I’m working on a street cart concept alongside a friend that can translate anywhere. We are currently in the testing stages, but we are excited to get this going and the possibility of expanding it to other platforms. This could possibly change the game for us, and allow us to continue helping our community in many more ways.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Surround yourself with good people and listen to your team, your personal and professional support. Treat everyone with the same respect you would want. Without the right support, you will never be able to sustain performance at a high level.

Do you have any advice for up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?

Persevere. This job is extremely difficult, with long hours and little pay. Although the kitchen culture is changing, there are still chefs out there who will yell and belittle, who will push you to your limits. Keep your goals in sight. Set your path and take the steps to achieve them. Learn, listen, and work hard. Persevere. When the fire of passion burns out, and the brakes are pumped on your drive for work, perseverance will help you break through those walls and come out better on the other side.

COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?

We have been pushing since the start of COVID. We have explored and tested many different models, experimented with different dishes, and have talked about many different directions we could go during and after Covid. During all this, we also made sure we gave back to our community through donations, both food, and financial, to those people and organizations that are truly in need. We even created a Meal for a Meal program, where every meal purchased from us helps bring a meal to frontline works. Give back to your community and you will find that your community will in turn support you. It shouldn’t be about being cool or being the most popular, it’s about survival and helping others survive and get through this.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Travel more — See the world and experience more places. You can and will draw inspiration from new experiences and you might even be able to apply a different way of doing things that you may be used to. This will make you a better person overall. My time spent in Europe and Asia helped shape the person and chef I am today.
  2. There is a difference between teaching and abusing. — I have worked in many places both high end and low brow. I have learned more from lifelong line cooks slinging pancakes than 3 Michelin starred chefs. I have worked for chefs that knew how to treat people and bring out the best in their team. I have also worked for chefs that would belittle you for no other reason than to see you cry. Have the courage to speak out and walk away from these chefs. Just because it will look good on your resume doesn’t mean it will make you a better cook or chef.
  3. It is important to maintain balance — This is something I wish I knew earlier on. We push ourselves to be great, but at what cost? All the missed family gatherings, holidays, and birthdays can’t be recreated. Take the time to balance it all out, to work hard, but also to live. I lost my dad just when my career was starting to take off and I now regret the time I missed out on. Never again. I make sure to balance my work life with my family life, because if I am not happy, no one around me will be either.
  4. Don’t sweat the technique — for many years in the beginning technique was everything. Technique can be learned at any point. Don’t get me wrong, technique is important and plays an important part in cooking. You can be technically savvy, but without soul in a dish, you will just be another robo-cook. Without a story or a connection to a particular dish, you will just have exactly that, a dish. It can be beautiful and balanced, but it should hit some note with yourself and the diner. That’s what will make you stand out from the rest.
  5. Opportunity doesn’t come knocking. — Things don’t always fall on your lap. You have to work hard and do your best, be your best. You don’t stop there and wait though. You need to continue moving forward and motivating yourself, creating opportunities even when there seem to be none. No matter what position I was in the kitchen, I made sure to learn something everyday. Even if I was staging and picking herbs in a corner, I made sure to open my eyes and ears and take in my surroundings and to ask questions, where some people simply settle for the task at hand. Don’t settle, never settle.

Whats the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Our crab fat noodles captures my journey as a chef. It is aptly named Mom’s Crab Fat Noodles on the menu, because the origins of the dish come from my favorite meal made from blue crabs by my mom. Every other component comes from techniques I have learned through my journey from my mentors and ingredients from my heritage.

Squid ink miki noodles, picked Dungeness crab meat, crab fat sauce, pickled corn and peppers, fried garlic, and salmon roe.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would encourage people to open their table to others. To share a meal with strangers, share stories over food and learn to listen and be empathetic to our fellow people. We don’t always have to agree, but we can at least understand and see different points of view. This can help us take one step closer to eliminating racism and hate, creating a much more peaceful state of being.

How can our readers further follow you online?

People can follow us on Instagram @magnapdx to see what we are up to and visit us on our website at

www.magnapdx.com

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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