No cooking contest casting is truly complete without a Portlander, and The Great American Recipe, premiering June 24 on PBS, is proof of that. Southwest Portland’s Christina McAlvey is one of ten home cooking contestants nationwide, and she’s bringing her own twist on Filipino cuisine, which she calls “Fili-fusion,” to the table. . Although she grew up in Michigan, McAlvey has lived in Portland for nine years, where she works as a small business banker, part-time office assistant at a yoga studio (she is also a certified yoga teacher) and cooking with ingredients sourced from farmers markets as well as Filipino and Asian markets everywhere from 82nd Avenue to Beaverton.
The show also includes a star powerhouse from host Alejandra Ramos, a Today’s show contributor, and judges Leah Cohen (a chef from New York), Tiffany Derry (a Excellent chef and Top Chef All Stars competitor) and Graham Elliot (chef and judge on Chef and Junior Master Chef). We sat down with McAlvey to find out more about his culinary journey, find out if the contestants on the show secretly hate each other, and understand what Irish lumpia is.
Where did you learn to cook?
Both of my parents were working parents. And it was basically, if you want to eat, you’re going to have to learn how to cook, like a lot of Gen X kids. And so it just started with very simple things. My daily chore was to cook the rice for dinner with the family, then my dad taught me how to make scrambled eggs, and then it all progressed from there. I am what I would call an autodidact, where I am self-taught. Everything just evolved with time and skill.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Portland?
Even though I’m allergic to wheat, I will occasionally eat a wheat product because I know you can’t necessarily duplicate that experience, like gluten-free pizza. Ranch Pizza is probably one of my favorite pizzas. They do this really great Sicilian style. I’m also a big fan of Assembly Brewing in the Southeast. They do Detroit-style pizza, the guy is from Michigan, and that’s something I hold dear. I’m a big fan of Lardo and all of their sandwiches. There’s a smaller, lesser-known Vietnamese spot on 23 NW called Lela’s Bistro – fantastic Vietnamese food.
Have you seen the Filipino food scene here change much over the past 10 years?
Oh my God, yeah. When moving here in January 2013, there were a few food trucks here and there. My husband, brother and I ate it and were like, ‘This isn’t so good. It’s not like what mom and dad did. But we have amazing Filipino chefs like Carlo Lamagna at Magna – he’s an incredible representative of what Filipino cuisine is and can be. You have the new Baon Kainan food truck which gets a lot of local press because they have a very interesting twist on Filipino food. Filipino food in the Northwest has really exploded.
But in other parts of the country, it’s not as well known. What really shocks me is that, from a population perspective, we Filipino Americans are the third largest Asian group in the United States, after the Chinese and after the Indians. But our food is not as well known. People are more familiar with Thai, Vietnamese cuisine, and their populations are less. So I would really like to see that awareness grow. Some of my fellow competitors, some of whom are Asian, say, “I’ve never eaten Filipino food. How are you Asian and you have never eaten Filipino food? I got your people’s food and you didn’t get mine? It amazes me.
So I guess you have to cook for them and give them a taste of Filipino food?
You know, that was one of the biggest parts of filming the show, meeting everyone from different fields. There was a Dominican woman, Puerto Rican, there is a Mexican woman. He is the most traditional Italian I have ever met. So we all had that background and just learned to inspire each other.
What dishes did you prepare on the show?
There are some traditional Filipino dishes. There’s a joke that you can make adobo with any type of meat or protein as long as you have garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar. Every Filipino family has their variation of this dish, so of course, being Filipino, I’m going to have an adobo dish. When you talk about Filipino food, people tend to think of adobo, lumpia, which is an imperial roll, and pancit, which is a rice noodle dish, and I was able to present my version of all those dishes.
How would you describe your “Fili-fusion” cuisine?
Everything I do I try to make it healthier. Filipino food often tends to use pork belly, which is the most delicious, but not the healthiest. Lumpia tends to be fried, so I cook mine. I’m trying to find ways to reduce the fat and oil, maybe amplifying the vegetables and reducing the meat. Because Filipino food is so rice-based, it’s a great place to start for those with wheat intolerance or who need a gluten-free diet. And then because I’ve lived in so many places, I try to integrate a multicultural aspect. My husband is Irish so I made what we call Irish lumpia which is an egg roll stuffed with corned beef and cabbage.
At the scale of Great British Bake Off to Gordon Ramsay, how fierce was the competition?
We joked backstage that we would try to make it as dramatic as possible because American audiences love drama. But I love my cast mates. It’s hard to be aggressive and mean when you really like everyone you’re with. Even before recording some of the episodes, we were practicing and preparing for each other. I mean, yeah, everyone wants to win, but we all want to win the right way, which is helping and supporting each other.
Want to try McAlvey’s food? Collaborations with Boiled PDX nuts, Ridgewalker Craft Culture Marketand feed the masses are in preparation, others are to come. There will also be a watch party and fundraiser for the Portland Food Project June 24 (time to be specified) at West Coast Grocery Company (1403 SE Stark Street). McAlvey will serve adobo chicken with a PNW twist, along with raffle items including a month of yoga classes from Yoga Six in Slabtown, a five-class pack at Megaburn Fitness, wine from Willful Wine and nut butters GroundUp PDX. Register for the watch party here.