No cooking competition cast is truly complete without a Portlander, and The Great American Recipe, premiering June 24 on PBS, is testament. Southwest Portland's Christina McAlvey is one of the show’s ten home cook contestants from across the country, and she’s bringing her own spin on Filipino cuisine, which she calls “Fili-fusion,” to the table. Though she grew up in Michigan, McAlvey has lived in Portland for the last nine years, where she works as a small business banker, helps out part-time at the desk at a yoga studio (she’s also a certified yoga teacher), and cooks with ingredients from farmers markets as well as Filipino and Asian markets everywhere from 82nd Ave to Beaverton.
The show also includes some star power from host Alejandra Ramos, a Today Show contributor, and judges Leah Cohen (a New York chef), Tiffany Derry (a Top Chef and Top Chef All Stars contestant) and Graham Elliot (chef and judge on Master Chef and MasterChef Junior). We sat down with McAlvey to learn more about her cooking journey, find out whether the show contestants 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 essentially, if you want to feed yourself, you're going to have to learn how to cook, like a lot of Gen X kids. And so it just started with really simple things. My daily chore was to make the rice for the family dinner, and then my dad taught me how to make scrambled eggs, and then everything just progressed from there. I’m what I would call an autodidact, where I’m self taught. Everything has just evolved with time and skill.
What are a few of your favorite restaurants in Portland?
Even though I'm allergic to wheat, I will occasionally eat a wheat-based item because I know that you can't necessarily replicate that experience—like a gluten-free pizza. Ranch Pizza is probably one of my favorite pizzas. They do that Sicilian style really great. I’m also a big fan of Assembly Brewing in Southeast. They do a Detroit-style pizza, the guy is from Michigan, and that’s something that is near and dear for me. I’m a big fan of Lardo and all of their sandwiches. There’s a smaller, lesser-known Vietnamese place on Northwest 23rd called Lela’s Bistro—fantastic Vietnamese food.
Have you seen the Filipino food scene here change much over the past almost 10 years?
Oh my gosh, yeah. Moving here in January 2013, there were a couple food trucks here and there. My husband and brother and I ate it and were like, ‘This isn’t that good. This isn’t like what Mom and Dad made.” But we have amazing Filipino chefs like Carlo Lamagna over at Magna—he’s an amazing representative of what Filipino food is and can be. You have the new food truck Baon Kainan that’s getting a lot of local press because they’ve got a really interesting twist on Filipino food. Filipino food in the Northwest has really blown up.
But in other areas of the country, it’s not as well-known. What really shocks me is, population-wise, we Filipino Americans are the third-largest Asian group by population in the US after Chinese and after Indian. But our food isn't as well known. People know more Thai food, Vietnamese, and their populations are smaller. So I’d really like to see that awareness grow. Some of my fellow contestants, some of them who are Asian are like, “I've never had Filipino food.” How are you Asian and you've never had Filipino food? I’ve had your people’s food and you haven't had mine? That just blows my mind.
So I'm guessing you got to cook for them and give them the first taste of Filipino food?
You know, that was one of the greatest parts of filming the show, getting to meet everyone from different areas. There was a woman who was Dominican, Puerto Rican, there's a woman who's Mexican. There is the most traditional Italian guy that I've ever met. So we had all these backgrounds and just learned to take cues from one another.
What are some dishes you made on the show?
There are some traditional Filipino dishes. There’s a joke that you can make adobo with any kind of meat or protein as long as you have garlic, soy sauce, and vinegar. Every Filipino family has their variation of that dish, so of course, being Filipino, I’m going to have an adobo dish. When you bring up Filipino food, people tend to bring up adobo, lumpia, which is an egg roll, and pancit, which is a rice noodle dish, and I was able to present my version of all these dishes.
How would you describe your “Fili-fusion” cuisine?
Everything that I do, I try to make healthier. Filipino food often tends to use pork belly, which is the most delicious, but not the healthiest. Lumpia tends to be deep-fried, so I bake mine. I try to find ways to cut back on the fat and the oil, maybe amping up the vegetables and reducing the meat. Because Filipino food is so rice-based, it’s a great starting point for people who are wheat-intolerant or need a gluten-free diet. And then because I’ve lived in so many places, I try to incorporate a multicultural aspect. My husband is Irish, so I've made what we call Irish lumpia, which is an egg roll stuffed with corned beef and cabbage.
On a scale from Great British Bake Off to Gordon Ramsay, how cutthroat was the competition?
We joked behind the scenes that we would try to make it as dramatic as possible because American audiences love drama. But I love my castmates. It's hard to be aggressive and mean when you really like everyone that you're with. Even before taping some of the episodes, we’d be coaching and prepping each other. I mean, yes, everyone wants to win, but we all want to win in the right way, which is to help each other and be supportive.
Want to try McAlvey’s food? Collaborations with Boiled PDXNuts, Ridgewalker Craft Culture Marketplace, and Feed the Mass are in the works, with more to come. There’ll also be a watch party and fundraiser for the Portland Food Project on June 24 (time to be announced) at West Coast Grocery Company (1403 SE Stark St). McAlvey will be serving chicken adobo with a PNW twist, plus raffling off items including a month of yoga classes from Yoga Six in Slabtown, a five-class pack at Megaburn Fitness, wine from Willful Wine, and GroundUp PDX nut butters. Register for the watch party here.