A renowned chef explains the link between cuisine and national identity
Watching Chef Margarita Forés dart around Lusso, her jewel box of a restaurant in Greenbelt 5, greeting diners, instructing wait staff to add more citronella to the alfresco tables and dishing out reminders to her assistant Bianca, leaves me simply breathless.
The petite but vivid woman – a cancer survivor twice over and founding spirit of Margarita Forés Concepts & Style, her ever growing concern that includes a chain of popular restaurants (Lusso, Cibo and lately, Alta at The Ascott BGC) high-profile catering commissions (nuptials of actors Dingdong and Marian Dantes for 1,200 heads, 30th Anniversary of the SM Group for 2,000 heads and 13 APEC events, some simultaneously, co-split with catering veteran Glenda Barretto) flower arrangements, food concepts and lately, franchise holder of Casa Artusi Philippines, the only Asian campus of the renowned culinary center – knows there are only so many hours in a day to achieve her checklist, and as usual, she is racing against time. She is also set to fly to Singapore, followed soon after by a Department of Agriculture-sponsored event in Hong Kong to promote Philippine food and cuisine to the business community.
Loving the local
Thank goodness, it doesn’t take much to get her to settle down to reflect on developments that have shaped her unique space in recent years. She is more than happy to do that; she practically brims. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, starting in 1987. That’s a long time, but now every day that I wake up presents a very welcome challenge to grow the business by answering the needs of a new market, as well as a new opportunity to learn.
“Once I say I know everything, then I’m in trouble,” she says.
Fortunately, Forés’ only child Amado, 26, is around to alert her, in particular, to current dining preferences of customers nearer his age. He and some friends also work on strengthening Forés’ iconic Cibo restaurant brand on social media.
But what really has given second wind to Forés’ enduring commitment to promoting Filipino culinary talent is the new-found admiration for native produce and the communities responsible for supplying them. “It has taken us a while to love our own – or even identify what was our own,” she observes. “I think that has been a result of how we see ourselves. We are a very young country, and having been colonized and influenced by so many outside cultures, we developed a bit of a colonial mentality.
“We realize now that we should stop putting our cuisine in a box and accept the fact that it is a combination of all these beautiful cultures that have touched our history at one point or another. At the same time, we should celebrate what was there before all these outside influences.”
In seeking the roots of Filipino food, Forés believes that kinilaw, best represents what is authentically ours, devoid of foreign affectation. The preparation is found in varying forms throughout the archipelago and works with whatever viand is available: seafood most frequently, meats and sometimes, even just vegetables.
Proof that the art of souring existed in pre-colonial times, Forés cites caves in Cotabato, containing ancient relics of fish bones and a hard nut found only in Mindanao used to clean seafood as well rubbed on it to protect the diner’s stomach lining when eating raw. “The fact is kinilaw is done in every place in the Philippines. Papaitan is a version. It’s the souring agent that differs,” she adds. “If anyone asks me what our national dish should be it should really be kinilaw more than adobo.”
The “loving the local” movement that Fores and like-minded peers (think Amy Besa of Purple Yam, Tony Boy Escalante and Miko Aspiras of Antonio’s in Tagaytay and Jordy Navarra of Toyo among many others) have been trying to get off the ground is finally making sense in a significant way.
Whether it was because of “Pacman’s” (legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao) series of successful bouts or visits by a string of high-profile Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan donors from Pope Francis to David Beckham to King Carl Gustav XVI, who all raved about the Filipino resilience, as well as social media news about Filipino cuisine being the next big trend in chi chi New York City and Paris, feeling-good-about-being-Filipino has just been on the up and up this past decade.
The sentiment has bubbled up as well in Forés’ F&B field. She says: “There is a real resolve among chefs in the industry to want to work with local ingredients. Thanks to the Department of Agriculture, we are now informed about what the farmers are growing. The Department of Tourism has gotten us to participate into the more influential food events abroad such the slow food fair in Torino and Gruene-Volk in Berlin, the largest organic food show in the world, where the Philippines had a booth showcasing our exporters.
“These developments have had a snowball effect on young chefs, who are involved in using more local ingredients. We, more senior chefs, love the fact that all these young people are doing really creative and crazy ingenious things in the kitchen.
“We’ve avoided falling prey to the crab mentality and just come together. The private sector has also solidly supported the whole exercise of pushing Filipino cuisine.”
Back to the farm
The farmers have likewise benefited, receiving increased, if not new orders for once moribund crops such as heirloom rice and vegetables. Chefs and restaurateurs have been finding themselves more involved in the supply chain. In ensuring their produce are the freshest and juiciest – as their customers demand them to be – they have established direct relationships with the growers and market providers. It’s harking back to the old days when the innkeeper, who was oftentimes his establishment’s cook, went to the market to do daily battle with his favorite vendor for quality produce. This explains the diminishing presence of the middle man.
“Our farmers are also becoming creative,” Forés says, “They’re getting seeds from other parts of the world, using our terroir to produce hybrids.” The Alvarez family in Palawan, for example, are growing and exporting figs, which Forés claims, comes close to fruit she has munched on in Italy. “Not as sweet, but it’s a start!”
Farming, itself, has gained new cachet, attracting millennials like Forés’ 29-year-old niece Anna and her even younger friends. “It’s now the coolest thing – to be a farmer,” says Forés. That should allay the previous depressing auguries of agriculture officials, who painted a stark scenario of abandoned farms since rural youngsters seemed more inclined to be call center employees than producers. There are signs that situation is being reversed, especially with supply orders, not only being made locally but overseas.
“There is a future again for agriculture,” Forés beams.
Her fraternity of chefs and hospitality providers have also learned that in this all-too-connected world sharing is a better – and more practical – option than not. “The food world has gotten so much smaller. We used to hold information about our suppliers close to our chest.
“Now, it’s the reverse. If you don’t share, the farmers are going to stop growing because their market will be limited to just a few. We need to get them to grow into a critical mass and organize themselves. That way, supplies will always be assured.” Exchange of supplier database has become so common place, it’s usually the first point of conversation between two chefs.
Awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2016 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants of William Reed Business Media, Forés has enjoyed the prestige and praise that come with the prize. But she is an unlikely one to rest on this laurel. Her work ethic, drive despite her two bouts with cancer, including thyroid cancer some years ago – which made her lose her sense of taste for a day – and entrepreneurial mojo is well known. She isn’t the apo of J. Amado Araneta for nothing. It was this visionary gentleman, who carved Cubao out of talahib, erected the Araneta Dome, where hot bands at the time, the Beatles, Gary Lewis and the Playboys and Herman’s Hermits performed, and even brought over the Japanese department store Matzusakaya to cater to an imported goods-hungry populace.
“Gaita (her pet name) is simply amazing,” Appetite editor-in-chief Nina Daza Puyat sums up Forés’ essence.
And the woman just won’t stop conceptualizing…creating…doing. She just introduced Italian street food Cibo di Strada exclusively at Cibo SM Aura, something she already did 17 years ago with risotto balls and porchetta sandwiches. Unfortunately, the idea was ahead of its time and had to be shelved until this year.
Openings and closures of outlets,, she has learned from all those experiences. Anyway, there is always something to plan for: a permanent venue for her Casa Artusi courses; there is always something to be revived: perhaps Pepato – her catering showcase restaurant, which lasted eight years in Greenbelt and was famous for its adobo lamb shank and roasted bulalo or Café Bola, which used to sell rice toppings at the Coliseum; and there is always something to follow up: more training and nurturing of the next generation of chefs..
Yes, it’s been a dramatic 30 years for Forés. With her verve and appetite for life, the next 30 should be just as riveting.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN AND GEORGE TAPAN