Alvin Cailan built his reputation on perfectly photogenic oozy egg sandwiches at Eggslut, first a truck and now a mini chain with four brick-and-mortar locations spread across LA and Las Vegas. But, as popular as Eggslut’s dripping cheese and social media-friendly name have made him, for Cailan, the era of ~ cooking for the ‘gram ~ is over. “I’m steering towards the future and not trying to make Instagram food anymore,” Cailan says.
The chef has spent the past several months in New York, and it’s changed him. Initially Cailan came to the city for an Eggslut pop-up at Chefs Club Counter, which hosts a rotating roster of chefs. But when that pop-up ran its course, he rolled out a menu of breakfast plates and toasts for a new concept: Paper Planes, which will focus on an of-the-moment, all-day menu of healthier breakfast options.
Since then, Cailan’s offerings at Chefs Club Counter have gotten healthier, and now include yogurt and granola bowls. Curiously, when he does open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in New York — a city famous for its love of corner store egg-and-cheese sandwiches — it won’t be an Eggslut, but a Paper Planes.
This isn’t Cailan’s only venture outside of Eggslut. Cailan explores his Filipino background with Amboy, which began as a take-out window in LA and is now available for delivery in New York via UberEats. And in addition to working on nailing down a location for Paper Planes, Cailan is also working on an Amboy cookbook, thinking about launching an ube soft serve concept in LA that his friends could manage, and experimenting with doughnuts — but, he notes, his will be “anti-Instagram” doughnuts. (It’s pretty hard to imagine how a concept dedicated to purple soft serve wouldn’t be social media gold, though.)
“The food that I’m making now — it tastes good,” Cailan says.
Eater caught up with the chef at Feast Portland; read on for more on how he’s cooking for the future.
On finding a permanent space for Paper Planes in New York:
“See the problem with me and trying to find a location is I don’t like rushing it. I found a few, I vibe it out, and I’m not really in a hurry. I’m more in the stage of gaining respect within my peers in the industry in New York City. I don’t want to be the guy from LA who comes to New York who thinks he’s going to do something amazing. I’d rather just really throw myself into the industry and see if I can do it. I really take my job at Chefs Club Counter seriously.”
On earning “street cred”:
“I’m trying to earn my respect with other chefs like Jean-Gorges [Vongerichten], or other New York chefs that I’ve met recently, just so that I can be a part of the industry as opposed to the newcomer. I’m trying to earn some street cred.
I feel like a lot of people are approaching [New York] the wrong way, especially if you’re from out of town. They think that you come to New York, and it’s already your place. But really it’s a city where New Yorkers feel like you can’t try to change my view on food, so leave your California laid-back lifestyle in California, and you become a New Yorker. So I’m trying to learn that stuff first before I open a restaurant, because I don’t want to open an LA restaurant in New York. It just doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t feel right.”
On why he’s doing health food in New York, and comfort food in LA:
“It’s kind of weird I guess, because when I’m in New York I feel like I have to eat healthier, because I’m already walking everywhere. I need more power food. When I’m in LA I drive everywhere, so I can hang out in traffic and be full because I ate barbecue. But in New York it’s like I have to walk .9 miles to my next destination. If I took the train, it’s still .6 miles away from the place, so I might as well walk.
I’ve got to eat the way I live. And where I live right now — I live in Tribeca and the closest subway is a half a mile away, and my work is .8 miles away, so it’s only three blocks further. So I walk it and when I wake up in the morning, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s why people eat bowls or they drink juices,’ because you can’t get held down, because by the time you get to work and you’ve had a heavy breakfast, you’re tired. You’re ready for a nap.”
On how New York has changed him:
“I’ve already started transitioning the way I’ve been making food. I’ve been making it healthier and playing with fermentation, vinegars, and stuff like that — not making it my focus, but an attribute to eating healthier. [I’ve been] learning probiotics, learning how it helps your digestive tract and how to build energy. It sounds hippyish because in LA that’s how it is, but in LA I didn’t even care about that.
It’s a trip. New York has changed me. I’ve been here for eight months, so it’s a little weird. I hate to admit it because a lot of my friends from LA are like, ‘Dude, what’s up?’ Now I’m starting to make my own juices too. But I’m not making juices for a health thing, it’s more like a rehydrate, detox thing.
That’s a New York thing too. In New York I’m hanging out until four in the morning. I have to be up before breakfast at 7:00, 8:00. So it’s like, alright, I’m getting two hours of sleep, I’m ultra-dehydrated. How do I make this better? So I’m making juices, I’m mixing them with coconut water and it’s really shaping my menu, and Paper Planes is evolving to become an actual New York restaurant. It’s organically becoming a New York thing.”
On getting older:
“A lot of [my food has] changed because I’ve gotten older. When I was younger, I would crave comfort food all the time. Now that I’m older, my whole eating habits have been changing. And so that’s what I’ve been doing at home. I’ve been trying to eat healthier. I’ve been trying to get more creative. I’ve stopped mounting things with butter, and I’ve started learning things with other flavors, like coconut oil or stuff like that, using liquid aminos. It sounds really weird, but it’s really just an adaption, or an evolution of me.”
On why he’s selling his Filipino food on UberEats:
“We were playing with UberEats in LA a lot, and so when we were in New York, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s try to enter the Filipino food using Uber Eats just to see the popularity of Filipino food, to see whether or not we should continue doing our pop-ups in New York.’
It’s a great way to gauge whether or not certain areas of New York City like Filipino food. Because if they’re looking for it they have a platform to find it. And it’s worked. We do amazingly well on UberEats.”
On the future of his Filipino food:
“The app delivery service is not my favorite. I feel like there’s a disconnect. I want to reel it back in. We're going to keep doing [UberEats] but we’re going to focus on one dish only, that stays perfect as to-go food, as opposed to having 50 different things and jeopardizing its integrity with the 10 minute ride it takes from the restaurant to the delivery point. So that way when people have our food they’re like, ‘Oh that's great,’ regardless. Since we don’t have a brick and mortar, we don’t want people to judge us on something that got messed up in between the process of delivery.
Now we’re focusing on the bigger Filipino menu as a pop-up situation. We’ve done two barbecue [pop-ups] in Chinatown, and I’ve hosted private dinners with Chefs Club. It’s interesting, a lot of people like Filipino food. More people look for Filipino food in New York than I’ve experienced in Los Angeles. I know there’s a bigger Filipino community in LA, therefore it should work, but the actual clientele that we’re getting in New York City is way more diverse. I think New York City has a palette for different foods, so they look for it. And I think that’s worked to our advantage. Being in New York is awesome because people love food. It’s a no nonsense town. If your food sucks, you’re probably not going to survive, but if your food’s good, you’re going to have a home. So try to make good food.”
On what we can expect from his Amboy cookbook:
“I have been hanging out with a lot of chefs in New York, and your first cook book makes or breaks your cook book career. I had one direction that I was following and now I’ve switched it up. Filipino popularity when we got the book deal was just that — it was must popular. Now people want to be educated in Filipino food. People are starting to ask questions as to why. Instead of, ‘Ooh, what’s that?’ It’s more like, ‘Why is it that?’ And so I think my book’s kind of shifted into going like, ‘Okay well, if you like my food, this is where it came from, this is the inspiration.’”
On his latest obsession:
“I’m also playing with a lot of doughnuts right now. I love doughnuts, because New York doughnuts are pretty phenomenal. Doughnut Plant is my jam, but I'm trying to Paper Planes it up.
Cake doughnuts are too easy. They’re cakes. Let’s just be real. I don’t know if it’s going to be a fair thing, or if it’ll ever become a brick and mortar, but we’re definitely playing with some dope, dope doughnut stuff. Not crazy lemongrass, rosemary stuff, but more like chill dulce de leche. But, you’ll see. I can’t say too much, but, let’s just say that it’s not a big chunk of the doughnut scene. It’s almost the anti-Instagram doughnut, let’s just say that.”
On staying busy:
“I just stay busy. That’s another reason why I like New York so much. In New York I’m normal. You work so much. In LA, it’s like, ‘Yo, you need to take a vacation.’ I’m like, ‘No I’d rather not.’
Monica Burton is an assistant editor at Eater.