Interview by Megan Cole
Portland has become a destination for anyone who loves food, beer and spirits. There is an seemingly endless list of bars, restaurants, breweries and food carts that anyone who lives in or visits the city needs to enjoy, and one of these musts is Clyde Common. This restaurant, which is part of the Portland Ace Hotel, has become a popular spot to sit and enjoy a cocktail, some happy hour snacks or a meal. The man behind the plate at Clyde Common is Carlo Lamagna, who brings the flavours of his childhood, his experience in professional kitchens and the ingredients of Oregon to the menu. From Windsor, Ontario to the Philippines, and from the kitchen to the piano keyboard, Lamagna has covered a lot of ground.
I’ve heard you used spent some time up here in Canada where Rice and Bread is based?
Carlo Lamagna: I was a former patriot of the former homeland, Canadia. I was a Canadian citizen until a few years ago when I had to switch over to the US.
Where did you live up here?
Just over in Windsor, Ontario. Nothing fantastic. It was literally right across from Detroit, which was where I spent most of my time. Ontario, yay!
What was it like growing up in Detroit?
At the time I was a kid there it was the ’80s and early ’90s, but it was wicked and weird. I lived downtown for the first part of my childhood. We lived in an apartment right off of Jefferson, which is literally maybe half a mile from the Renaissance Centre. Even then it was still a rough neighbourhood. I grew up in one of the largest Polish communities, which was interesting. Half my classmates didn’t speak English. I learned a lot about pierogies and krauts, and all that. It was interesting.
When we moved out to the suburbs I was the only brown kid at the time, one of maybe three. I definitely had some choice encounters. It wasn’t terrible. I wasn’t ostracized or anything like that, but there was definitely a racial thing. The weird thing was that even though I’m Filipino I experienced the same thing when I was in the Philippines. I grew up in the US so when I moved to the Philippines I was like “Oh yes, everyone is brown like me!” But everyone thought I was so American. I couldn’t catch a break.
How old were you when you moved to the Philippines?
I was 11. It was in 1991.
Why did your family decide to move back?
My family is slightly complicated, but awesome. My parents met when they were living in the US. My mom was living in Detroit and my dad was living in Chicago. They got married and their work contract was up. They were both nurses, and the US told them they had to get out and the States didn’t care where they went. They ended up in Canada and started working as nurses there. They had my brother up there. But they moved back to the Philippines and I was born there, and they came back to North America after that. Eventually my dad ended up going back to medical school so he was stuck in the Philippines, but my mom earned better money here so my mom stayed here. My dad flew back ever eight months or so. They were never separated or divorced, and just knew it was what they had to do. They didn’t want to separate the siblings so eventually all moved over to the Philippines. I spent a decade there without ever coming back to the US. Having spent all that time there, think about happened between 1991 and 2001, I was still stuck in the ’90s. My fashion sense when I came back to the US was terrible.
When did you start to develop your passion for cooking and food?
Food has always been a huge part of my life. I know everyone says that, but it really is. Growing up in Michigan when I was younger, I had a lot of relatives around. We always had this weird hodgepodge of dinner. My mom would cook steak, but there was always a pot of rice. No matter what we were eating there was always rice. Being introduced to Filipino food at such a young age I grew up loving adobo and other traditional dishes. That was the norm for me, but at the same time, at special occasions my mom helped me appreciate a wide range of food even though I was a picky eater. I was picky in the weirdest ways though. I wouldn’t eat peas in my fried rice, but I would eat peas normally. She would take us to fine dining restaurants in Detroit. I remember the old rotating ballroom in the Renaissance Centre, and I was seven and my sister was turning 10. I was eating escargot because I love snail, and all this weird stuff. The waiters would ask if they knew what I was ordering and then I would gobble it up. My sister eventually started dabbling in cooking and she was watching cooking shows, like Wok with Yan. That’s how I really got into it. My sister was the one who influenced me though into making it a professional career. She was the one who showed me how to hold a knife and would experiment on me.
How old were you when you started working in restaurants?
When I was 16 or 17 I was working as a dishwasher somewhere. It wasn’t until I moved back to the States that I started seriously pursuing cooking, because there were no opportunities in the Philippines at the time. I ended up working my ass off, but I was introduced to the restaurant world as a teenager.
How did you end up in Portland?
By way of many places. I went back to culinary school and graduated from a small program in Detroit. I spent a fair amount of time training there and then I moved to New York to go to the Culinary Institute of America, then I moved to Chicago. I spent five years there before I moved out to Portland last year. During my time in Chicago I met April Bloomfield, and we became pretty good friends. I was working at a steakhouse at the time, which I hated and was the opposite of what I wanted to do but I had a family. I was at my wits end and I remember it was during a service in October and I was expediting, and I looked at my phone and there was a text message from Peter Cho, who was the chef de cuisine for April at the time and he said, “Do you still want to move to Portland?” He’s from Portland originally and I said of course I want to move. He put me in touch with Nate Tilden, who is the owner of Clyde Common and other restaurants around town. Within six text messages Nate was asking to fly me out, and he did, and four months later I was moving to Portland.
What were your first impressions of the city?
I had come to Portland to visit four years ago, and I just fell in love with it rain and all. We came in November and I just loved it. There was no snow on the ground, and there was this amazing laid back attitude and environment. To be able to drive 45 minutes and you’re at the coast and half and hour and you’re at the top of a mountain is so incredible. That’s what drew me in was the balance and quality of life. Up until this day I am still pretty amazed of how amazing it is here.
What is it like to be a chef in a city like Portland where people seem to be so inspired? Did it change the way you approach your food at all?
It didn’t change the way I approached my food, but it did open a lot of doors. The attitude and the Portland philosophy and approach to food, which is so local and seasonal, is something I’ve always done. I worked under great chefs in Chicago that have had that same philosophy, which is now becoming the norm to a certain degree. Living in Portland didn’t change things, but it definitely opened a lot of doors. This is my second time being an executive chef at a very busy restaurants. I see a lot of people coming in who understand the variety of ingredients, which motivates me to take advantage of that while sticking with the ethos of local and seasonal, and working with more farmers and producers. It’s been great to combine all the influences from my roots along with all my experiences and I’m really applying that here.
In addition to creating in the kitchen, you’re also a bit of a musician. Can you tell me about that?
I’ve always been into music. It’s crazy. Whether it’s through dancing or instruments, I’ve always been passionate about music. I was that little chubby kid in a tutu and a leotard. I did ballet and jazz, and I was pretty damn good at it. Growing up, it sounds funny, but my aunt was a doctor, but she was also an amateur opera singer. She was always into musicals and that stuff. I memorized Les Miserables by the time I was 11. I was a fan of Phantom of the Opera and all these other musicals. Later on, as I was growing up, I had two older siblings, my sister and brother, and their musical influences wore off on me, which meant I was into The Doors, Depeche Mode, and really bad ’90s R&B. My dad always played instruments while I was growing up. I always played piano, even thought I was terrible at it, I loved it. The piano was my first instrument. I picked up the ukelele at 11, and then I was into guitar when I was 12 and 13. I love playing the drums, too, and have been doing that for a couple of years. My frustration instrument right now is the banjo. I got one for my birthday three years ago and I’ve barely picked it up, because having a kid and having a new instrument to learn… It just never happens.
What’s your favourite kind of music to play?
That’s definitely evolved over time. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so I was playing a lot of grunge as a kid. I was listening to a lot of Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but now my tastes have changed. I’m more bluegrass and new American folk, like the Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams.
Carlo Lamagna is the executive chef at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon.