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Rendering of Novel RiNo hotel

Portland, Ore.’s Magna Kusina branches out to Colorado

Chef Carlo Lamagna brings his Filipino concept to Denver with Magna Kainan

Denver had always been on chef Carlo Lamagna's radar as a potential place to open a restaurant, and come 2024, he will with the launch of Magna Kainan, the sister spot to his Portland, Ore., eatery, Magna Kusina.

"Denver held a special place in my heart. The first time I went it was so cool, and I met great people from there," said Lamagna. "But, Portland was the first place where I was offered a job, so we moved there."

The chef ended up in Portland after making an ill-fated journey to a pick-your-own berry patch in the Chicago suburbs. After a 2.5-hour drive and hopes of frolicking in fresh air and the outdoors, his family was disappointed to find the spot was basically someone's yard with some berry bushes. He knew it was time to leave the Midwest, and though Portland won the spot for relocation, Denver (which is decidedly the West, not the Midwest) never left his mind.

"I stayed in contact with friends like [Denver power-chef couple] Jen [Jasinski] and Max [MacKissock], who I met in 2012 or 2013, and on the drive from Chicago to Portland, I stopped in Denver to hang with them and do the Great American Beer Festival," the chef recollected over the phone. "Max kept saying, 'Come to Denver and open a restaurant,' and then, last year I got a phone call from him, it had been a while, and he asked me to come check out Denver."

It turns out this time was the right time. Not only did Lamagna feel ready to explore new horizons, but MacKissock, the culinary director and one of the partners in The Culinary Creative restaurant group, had the perfect spot for him inside Novel RiNo, a 483-unit mixed-use apartment community opening in a trendy Denver neighborhood. Lamagna flew in a few days after MacKissock had asked him, met Juan Padró, founder and CEO of the group, saw the 3,000-square-foot space, and loved both the building and the people behind the project.

"It's a big leap of faith to go from having established myself in one city and going to another, I'm nervous, but excited," Lamagna said. "It helped that I know Max, and it helped that Juan is awesome. It's rare to find someone who is that successful with that many businesses, but also kind."

Padró started The Culinary Creative with Katie O'Shea, now the chief financial officer, in 2010 with the opening of their first restaurant, Highland Tap & Burger (now just Tap & Burger, with four locations). Over the years the portfolio has expanded to encompass more than a dozen restaurants in the Denver area, from downtown steakhouse A5 to Latin American Señor Bear to Israeli cuisine at Ash’Kara. MacKissock joined the team in 2015 to open Italian concept Bar Dough, and now, with Magna Kainan launching in the first quarter of 2024, the company gets its first Filipino concept.

Lamagna, who was born in the Philippines, grew up in Detroit, then went back to his home country for high school and college, said he was meant to go into the medical field, "like all Filipinos," he joked. Instead, he decided to cook, and has done so professionally for around 24 years, perfecting different styles, cuisines, and techniques as he moved around the world for work.

"I did every kind of cuisine; you name it. I did it from sushi, Thai, Spanish..." said the chef. "But my dad and mom were always like, ‘Why don't you cook Filipino food?’"

At the time, Lamagna was going into the fine dining phase of his life, and, he said, French and Spanish cuisine were the ones he wanted to do. But the situation changed in 2009 when his father was diagnosed with cancer. During the illness, father and son talked a lot about Lamagna's career and why it was worth doing even when it didn't make a lot of money.

"Before he passed he said he was proud of me for what I was doing, saying I was pursuing my passion,"  Lamagna recalled. "He said he wanted me to promise him that I wouldn't forget who I am or where I come from ... and that's why I am now cooking Filipino food."

For the Denver spot, Lamagna plans to mesh his Portland restaurant's modern Filipino style, with another concept's (opening soon, though details aren't available yet) rotisserie meat focus. Think different types of Filipino staples such as pancit, lumpia, adobo, and sinigang, plus his mom's crab fat noodles, inspired by how she cooked blue crab during his childhood in Detroit. Overall, the chef wants to explore the breadth and depths of Filipino food, as well as showcase the flavors he grew up with.

He mentioned Kasama in Chicago, which is recognized as the first Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in the world. He wants to help make another, or, at the very least, showcase the foods, flavors and techniques he, and so many other people, love. Part of the mission, he added, is to become entwined in the Filipino community in and near Denver as well.

"I am doing it for a reason, [I am part of] the second and third wave of chefs putting Filipino cuisine on the map," said Lamagna. "We have one solid shot at this, to really establish Filipino food as something that deserves to be on that upper level. If we mess it up, we are going to [hurt] the legacy of what Filipino food is [outside of the Philippines]."

He said he hopes Magna Kainan will not just showcase the cuisine in Denver, but open up the conversation in an unpretentious way. The goal is to give the restaurant’s 30-minute story in just 30 seconds, and then pave the way for diners to explore more if they wish.

"I think it is important to have an educational aspect for people, especially now, so they can connect through food to different cultures and countries," the chef said. "If you aren't able to go travel, you can get an understanding through the food."

Or at the very least, have a delicious meal and try something new.

TAGS: Operations
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