Amid the unique realities faced by the restaurant industry in this pandemic, 11 chefs in the US, according to Food and Wine magazine, have displayed extraordinary leadership and culinary prowess, earning them a spot in the respected publication’s 2021 list of Best New Chefs.
Two of the chosen 11 are Filipinos who, just like the rest of their esteemed company, have expanded the role of chefs—not only are they in charge of creating delectable dishes but, equally important, they are leaders who value the welfare of their staff, and who reach out to their immediate community in dire times.
Carlo Lamagna, owner and chef of Filipino restaurant Magna Kusina and Kantina in Portland, Oregon and Thessa Diadem, pastry chef at All Day Baby restaurant, bakery and cocktail bar in Los Angeles made it to the publication’s “Best New Chefs” roster for the year.
Carlo’s sinigang in Magna Kusina was one of the dishes that caught the interest of the magazine. “[The broth] fully embraces its sour notes, with punches of tamarind knitted together by tomato, fish stock and fish sauce, onions, and garlic,” restaurant editor Sha Khushby wrote.
Mangga at bagoong alamang, which was one of Carlo’s favorite street food back home in the Philippines, also won the editors’ tastebuds. According to the article, there’s an “electrifying, elemental funk that ripples through the bagoong alamang, a condiment of fermented shrimp paste spiked with garlic, fish sauce, and palm sugar.”
Browse thru the restaurant’s Instagram and you will see Magna Kusina’s rich variety of offerings which honor Carlo’s Filipino roots. There’s oxtail kare-kare (which uses roasted pumpkin seed butter instead of the classic peanut butter), chicken adobo with sitaw and pickled onions, pancit miki bihon with veggies and chicharron, pinais na isda (local rockfish steamed in banana leaf with Napa cabbage and purple radishes), chicken inasal (lemongrass and achuete brined chicken with pickled green garlic, pickled ramps, and jalapeños, topped with grilled cilantro relish), and pandan custard topped with blueberries, blackberry aigre doux, nata de coco, and polvoron.
Carlo also serves all sorts of inihaw or grilled meats, which remind him of late-night food haunts back home in the Philippines. “A true respect for any animal or ingredient is to use it in its entirety, to not waste any part, to extract as much as you can,” he writes on Magna Kusina’s Instagram. “From using all the offals of an animal, making preserves and pickles from vegetables, oils from aromatic spices, ferments and dried items from fishes and seafood....the possibilities are endless.”
Love for cooking runs in the blood of the Lamagnas. And Carlo developed his talent in the kitchen by attending the Culinary Institute of America, working with chef Paul Virant (named one of 2007’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine), and also in the kitchen of European restaurant Clyde Common in Portland. When he got laid off from that last job, he took it as a sign to pursue his dream: opening his own Filipino restaurant. The journey started with pop-up dinners and, after a couple of years, Magna Kusina and Kantina was born. It’s now two years old.
Carlo says the restaurant is his way of sharing with the world his family’s unique culture, and a way to keep his promise to his father who asked him, before he died: “never forget who you are and where you come from.” The chef wants Magna Kusina and Kantina not only to become a go-to dining spot for the Filipino community, he told Food and Wine, but to also serve as venue for members of the community to launch their own ideas and pop-ups.
Food & Wine raves about Filipina pastry chef Thessa Diadem’s sweet creations at All Day Baby in Los Angeles—particularly her ube pie. “The thick ube custard, a shade of purple so saturated and vivid that Prince would be jealous, sturdily sits up in an impossibly flaky crust,” writes Khushbu. “Each piece is topped with a cascade of chamomile-spiked whipped cream puffs that gather like clouds before a rainstorm.”
Thessa’s luscious-looking sweet potato sticky bun with toasted marshmallow also made it to the September cover of the magazine. Her Instagram account pretty much illustrates just how much of a genius she is in the kitchen. She tells Food & Wine she makes the rounds of international grocery stores to come up with inventive flavor profiles for her cakes and pastries.
While this Pinay chef was already exploring the kitchen in her teens, it was through the encouragement of her father that she decided to attend culinary school. She studied pastry arts at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. “At first I was just doing this because I wanted my dad off my back, but on my first day in class, I just realized this is where I was supposed to be,” Thessa tells the magazine.
She honed her culinary chops working as a cook in New York before coming back to Los Angeles to work in a hotel, and later at Mezze where she met All Day Baby chef and co-owner Jonathan Whitener.
Now heading the pastry department of the restaurant, bakery and cocktail bar, Diadem puts a premium on her team’s overall well-being, especially as she herself had to struggle with burnout and anxiety in her previous jobs. “Her team is responsible for over 1,000 biscuits a week in addition to several other pastries,” Khushby wrote, “but Diadem is a calm and gentle presence—shaped by years of observing how she didn't want to be in a kitchen—and remains optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry, as long as it is rooted in self-care.”
“I think it’s really critical for restaurants and employers to honor the value of their employees, and show them that their time is appreciated,” Diadem told Food & Wine.
“From coast to coast, the 2021 class of Best New Chefs is reinventing what it means to lead in the kitchen while cooking the food that matters to them most,” wrote restaurant editor Sha Khushby. “Restaurants may no longer look the same, but with this class of chefs at the helm, I am excited to see—and eat—what the future holds.”