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Chef Alvin Cailan On Comfort Food, His Heritage And His New Book, 'Amboy'

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Chef Alvin Cailan is the founder of the massively popular Eggslut restaurants. And for him, the best comfort food came from the kitchen of his childhood home in Pico Rivera, Calif. The smell of savory beef stew, the communal preparation of lumpia, egg rolls or making lugaw, a rice porridge he calls a hug in a bowl - all of this connects him to his family's roots. Cailan is sharing his experience in a new cookbook titled "Amboy," short for American boy. It's a nickname his grandmother in the Philippines gave him.

ALVIN CAILAN: I'm Filipino, but I'm not Filipino enough to most Filipinos. And I'm American, but I'm not American enough because of being Filipino. So I am amboy (laughter).

ELLIOTT: We reached Alvin Cailan in the busy dining room of one of his restaurants also called Amboy. I asked him why he wanted to make Filipino recipes go mainstream.

CAILAN: After making Eggslut, I was cooking egg sandwiches, you know, 20 hours a day for five years. And I was like, I just want to make food that I love, food that speaks to me. And a lot of people who have seen the recipes kind of relate to it because they also grew up here in America and cooked similar cuisine.

ELLIOTT: It sounds like cooking was a big part of your family and very much a family affair for you growing up.

CAILAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, my great-grandmother - she was like the matriarch of the family. She was like the pillar. Every weekend for the entire weekend, she would help - make us help her cook for all nine of her great-grandchildren and grandchildren. And my aunt came to live with me in, like, the early '90s, and she was a caterer by trade. And she would make me do all of her prep work, so I got the repetition of making Filipino desserts 'cause she was very famous for her Filipino desserts. So at a young age, I was, like, making Filipino sal, kutsinta, which is more, like, relatable to mochi with shredded coconut.

ELLIOTT: I want to talk a little more about pan de sal. You say it's less of a recipe and more of a philosophy.

CAILAN: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, everyone in the Philippines and Filipino Americans in America have pan de sal for breakfast with their coffee.

ELLIOTT: And it's like a sweet bread, right?

CAILAN: Yeah, it's comparable to, like, a Portuguese soft bun. We like to put bread crumbs on the top of the bun, like, almost like how sesame seeds are with burger buns.

ELLIOTT: And was that sort of the beginning of the Eggslut sandwich?

CAILAN: Oh, a hundred percent. The Eggslut sandwiches - bacon, egg and cheese - was really typically pan de sal, SPAM, egg and cheese growing up. For some reason, I was ashamed to use SPAM, so I switched it out to bacon. And Eggslut was born (laughter).

ELLIOTT: Now, the memoir parts of this book were written with Alexandra Cuerdo. What was it like reflecting on your story with her?

CAILAN: Oh, my gosh, it felt like therapy. And there was a lot of things that - I had to really dig deep to find why I love food. I really uncovered and unearthed a bunch of memories through the process of being interviewed. And it really did, like, help me close chapters in my life because I really lay it all out there.

ELLIOTT: You know, growing up, being a chef was not in the picture. You went to college. You worked in construction. You worked in sales before making that leap to go be trained as a chef. And that wasn't exactly received well by your family. What was that like?

CAILAN: Oh, no. Yeah, my parents migrated here. And when they had me, I think they already had my life planned out as soon as I was born, you know? Go to school. Go to college. Work for a big corporation and better myself and the generation after me. I don't know what made me different, but I didn't want to follow that traditional route. I mean, I did to make them happy. I went to college. I tried to get a corporate job. But ultimately, I was really passionate about food. And when I actually finally told them that I was going to go to culinary school, my mom was so upset. And we didn't talk for the entire duration of me being in culinary school. And when I started Eggslut, my parents again didn't believe that I should be doing this. They didn't want to see their son be a cook. They thought that I was, like, wasting my life. And I didn't speak to my parents for another four years after. We really just started talking to each other again three years ago.

ELLIOTT: What is it about making food that makes you happy?

CAILAN: When I give the food to my customers and they love it, it's the best feeling in the world. And I've been in this business long enough to where, at Eggslut, I've had people go on their first date, and I've catered their wedding. Their first child is born, and they bring their child over to the restaurant. And I got to see their family grow. Honestly, if it wasn't for food and if it wasn't for being good at what I do, I wouldn't be able to experience that. And that's some of the best experiences I've ever had. It brings joy to my heart.

ELLIOTT: Before we let you go, I'd like to get your take on the racial reckoning that we're seeing happening in the food scene now. You know, revelations about pay disparities. There's been a backlash over cultural appropriation. How do you see that playing out?

CAILAN: As far as, like, racism - and, really, I was a victim of that. For the latter four years of my career, when I was still employed by other chefs, I was always promised a better position and never given it and always overlooked for other chefs who were - they were all white that got pushed up above me with less experience.

And as far as cultural appropriation, I think that opportunities are a lot harder for people of color. And it would be unfair for white people or whatever to appropriate a person's culture and cuisine. But I think it's also a matter of how they do it. That, to me, is what I look at first and foremost because I look at it as - sometimes, as a cultural appreciation when people like Andy Ricker, the famous chef from Pok Pok, who is just in love with Thai culture and has really embraced it - I think situations like that is awesome. And I think it's great for food. But there's also the food trend people who say, oh, I will make a concept. When people say concept, I start to get leery.

(LAUGHTER)

CAILAN: That's kind of the line, right? - because Filipino food is not a concept. Filipino food is real. You're cooking an entire culture - recipes that mean so much and traditions that are involved. So if you respect that, I respect it.

ELLIOTT: I'm curious. Has your family embraced your success now?

CAILAN: I think they still don't understand the long hours. They say that I'm killing myself by working so much, but I don't look at it in that way. I - it's something that I love doing, and they're going to have to deal with it (laughter).

ELLIOTT: That was chef Alvin Cailan. His new cookbook is called "Amboy."

Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today.

CAILAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAKIM KARUD'S "PLAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.