ESQ&A

Margarita Forés

Being named Asia's Best Female Chef 2016 as the inevitable outcome of a prolific career, not just as a restaurateur, but as an advocate for local cuisine and homegrown ingredients.
IMAGE Sonny Thakur
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ESQUIRE: How are you feeling a week after the announcement?

MARGARITA FORÉS: I’m still totally flustered. My sister called my attention because she saw my two posts on Instagram on the second and the third days, and they were both pictures of me still in shock. She said, “Can you stop with this disbelief thing?” But I’m still feeling that way. Maybe because it really came as such a surprise. For Antonio’s to get into the list last year was really a door opener for us in the industry. The reason why we haven’t gotten into the list any earlier than that is also because people didn’t come to Manila very much. Breakthroughs in tourism really only happened in the last two or three years, so it’s really been kind of like a steady climb to get to Philippine cuisine.

ESQ: Since you mentioned it, why do you think that now is the time that [more] people-maybe the world-are receptive to Filipino cuisine?

MF: I think that largely it’s because all of us Filipinos have decided to just be united in this whole effort to bring the country forward. For the longest time, our sense of identity was always muddled and we all felt very differently. But I think that consciously we all just decided to become one, and to feel strongly about ourselves, about how great our country is, and about how wonderful we are as a people. That’s why there’s been a turnaround. It has affected pretty much all aspects.

ESQ: Part of the official description of the Asia’s Best Female Chef award states, “This award celebrates and rewards successful women who have risen to the top of the gastronomic world. The winner’s cooking must impress the world’s toughest critics and venerated chefs.” That’s a very lofty description but I want to ask you, Margarita: Why do you think you won?

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MF: Apart from just having done quite a number of successful food concepts and quite a bit of catering for 30 years, I think it’s really partly also the advocacies that I’ve been working on in the last decade. It also started with my work helping the Filipino farmer get his products noticed, get our ingredients more globally known. And aside from that, I think it’s also helping the awareness even just here in our own country with pushing for organic produce and sustainability. It’s largely that as well, that got a lot of attention. Maybe my work also with pushing Filipino cuisine forward abroad, at global fairs and events. It’s pretty much like going up the ladder with that the opportunity to wave the flag at those events, and I think that that’s really what helped. I guess the judges take notice. The judges are from all over Asia. I don’t think that the population of Filipino judges is very large in the group, so it’s really quite overwhelming.

ESQ: Has winning the award proven something to you? Like, “Okay, Margarita, time to slow down,” or “Yes! Mission accomplished!”

MF: I guess, mission accomplished. It’s starting out without having had any formal training. That says a lot about how far my team and I have reached and that you can actually take a different path to success. It doesn’t have to be the normal route. I’ve always said that I’m not a planner. Things kind of just fall into place all because I just follow my passion. From the days that I was just cooking with one or two assistants, carrying pots for myself and starting to cook in people’s homes, starting out that way, it just says that you can do things in a very untraditional way and get to the top of any industry.

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ESQ: You are a female and the first Filipino to win this award, and just winning the award is a hugely empowering statement that you make. Is it easier now to be a female in the kitchen or are there challenges still?

MF: Thirty years after I started, I think that the playing field for women in the industry now is [even]. They’re equally as successful as the men. And judging from how the industry is in the Philippines alone, there are more female culinary students now than there are male. That’s been a fact in the last two years. And for women to choose that industry, it’s because the doors have opened for them. It’s really the females that allows us to be successful in this industry. After all, the industry is about feeding, and this is what we’re made of. We’re nurturing and that’s what makes us different from men.

ESQ: Why is it that you felt this attraction to Italian cuisine as opposed to New York, where you spent a lot of your formative years, or even Hong Kong? Why not Chinese cuisine or New York cuisine?

MF: It’s really funny, but the time for me that was most memorable growing up in New York was the early ’80s. It was just maybe providential that it was the Italianization of New York. There was a mushrooming of very nice modern Italian restaurants that were untraditional. They were more Milanese in style, no longer the red and white plaid tablecloths and the Chianti bottles and the ceiling concepts. And I think those were the ones that really made an impression on me. There were little pizzerias that were very modern. It was the first time I had a cream-based pasta with truffle and salmon and it was a very fresh spinach pasta. It was a very memorable experience trying it for the first time. This was a restaurant that my grandfather would take us to almost every Sunday. It was in midtown and it was that kind of experience that made me want to go and learn more about Italian cooking, but from the parts that were not so known. And I was also having the best time of my life in New York. My mother had a really wonderful circle of friends that made an impression on me. It was that whole sort of Studio 54 vibe in the ’80s. It made me feel like this kind of lifestyle was something that I wanted to bring back home and share with Manila. I guess going to the root, going to Italy and really doing an immersion was the best way to do that. I was in Italy those four months-it was a very short time but I was by myself so it allowed me to be a sponge. I had no Filipino friends at that time so I was also forced to learn the language.

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ESQ: What made you come back? You could’ve stayed in New York.

MF: It was largely that feeling that I had where I wanted to bring what I enjoyed most from my Italian experience and bring it to the Filipino market. And I remember when I started Cibo in 1997, putting the concept together, I was very clear: I wanted it to be in a mall setting. I wanted it to offer value for money and I wanted the food to be really authentic-the way they do it in Italy. At the same time, I also wanted it to be able to offer a concept that was homegrown, created by a Filipino. Because at that time, in 1997, the TGIFriday’ses and the Hard Rock Cafés were making a killing, and people were paying a premium for these businesses that were making money in the Philippines but basically sending out their franchise fees abroad. So I wanted to be able to give them a run for their money at that time. Eighteen years down the road, I feel that that’s mission accomplished.

ESQ: They say that the best restaurants are the ones that not only offer good food, but also offer the diner new perspectives and an education in that regard. In [all your] years as a restaurateur, how has the Filipino diner changed, and is there anything else you wish they could be?

MF: I’m glad that I was a purist when I started, when I was introducing something new to the Filipino diner. But I think that, because the Filipino diner is so well-traveled now, the level of sophistication and expectation of the Filipino diner is absolutely world-class. So it’s a great time to be in the industry and it has also forced me to re-engineer my whole way of thinking. I remember when I started with Cibo, the menu had a notation in the bottom that said, “No substitutions please,” for the ingredients that were put together in every [dish]. Nowadays, all the more the diner is so educated. Do whatever you want! I’ve had to rebrief the staff in Cibo. It’s been 30 years from when I started working, and then 18 years with my first restaurant. And the way the industry has boomed in the last decade... I’m proud that I’m part of the industry and that I was part of it from 30 years ago. And if you think about it, the most celebrated chefs from 30 years ago are mostly female. The famous chefs are [people like] Tita Glenda Barretto, or food personalities that influenced our thinking then-people like Tita Nora Daza, and Doreen [Fernandez] with her writing. Maybe if Filipino cuisine had a gender, she would be female. It’s the nanay’s and the lola’s cooking that encapsulates what Filipino cuisine is all about. It’s home cooking, much in the same way that Italian cooking is. I remember when I started, the first opportunities I had to cook in Malacañang, at that time the side vegetables were carrots, green beans, and frozen peas. Because those were the vegetables that appeared in every plate that came out of a hotel restaurant. So Filipino restaurants took the cue. You would never find heirloom rice for that matter, or sigarilyas, or bulaklak ng kalabasa, or our native talong...

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ESQ: I think we might even accuse you of being bakya back then if you used those things.

MF: Exactly. And it dawned on me that maybe that appreciation came after my Italian experience. Because then, you have this newfound awareness that, “Hey, our vegetables are exotic for a foreign palate.”

ESQ: And even to some Filipinos as well.

MF: Exactly. As a matter of fact, I think that that’s what’s also driving the new discoveries in the ingredients side for all of us Filipino chefs. You know, the alugbati flowers, the pansit-pansitan, the wood sorrel that Noma used to use a lot, we realize it grows like weeds in our garden! I think that is also partly what has caused this newfound attention that Filipino cuisine and Philippine produce is getting.

ESQ: Margarita, how has your being a mighty two-time cancer conqueror reflected on your food, particularly at Grace Park?

MF: It’s really the newfound respect for clean ingredients, finding the purveyors and the farmers who have chosen to take a path that’s a little bit more difficult. I mean, it’s more costly, your product comes out more expensive than others, but I think choosing to promote those ingredients very early on... I started it actually in Cibo 10 years ago, soon after my thyroid cancer episode and it was really the choice to go that path even if it affected the bottom line because I always felt that success and the benefits from the business don’t always have to come in the form of peso signs. The goodwill that Cibo received through the years when we started first doing our squash soup with organic squash from Negros. We would have it brought in by boat and really take a stand and say, “Okay, we’re gonna use the clean squash.” And we are now at 80 percent organic greens, organic herbs, and organic vegetables whenever we can at Cibo. It was hard to defend that with my co-owners and family in the beginning, because they knew that the food cost jumped a little bit because of it, but it was worth sticking our necks out and being pioneers with that kind of movement. Because nowadays, everybody’s doing it and it’s great because it also helped the farmer sustain their businesses and at the same time, allowed the prices to come down a bit.

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ESQ: Okay, I’m gonna put you on the hot seat for a while by asking, what is your favorite region in Italy?

MF: Oh boy. Oh dear... Although I started my love affair in Tuscany, I think that it’s the work that I do with Emilia-Romagna that is closest to my heart at the moment. Because I guess that they have the monopoly on the best ingredients and the iconic products that Italy is known for are from that region. And Artusi hails from there.

ESQ: Okay, let’s jump the fence. What is your favorite province in the Philippines?

MF: I guess it would have to be my home. It would have to be Negros... Being able to give homage to our heritage and to really be proud of that part of me, it says a lot. Negros has always been the pioneer for pushing organic produce. Not only do other regions in the Philippines look up to them for what they’ve done in that aspect, but even other Asian countries have taken notice of what Negros has done.

ESQ: How would you describe yourself as an eater? What kind of food do you like to eat?

MF: I’m actually a creature of habit. I really love good Chinese food. Apart from a good bowl of pasta, I’d always have to say that my most favorite dish is still buttered rice and talangka. I appreciate that as much as a perfectly executed pasta. But maybe Chinese cuisine [also], because it’s such an old culture. What I know of it mostly is Cantonese food and Shanghainese food but I guess, just like Italy and just like the Philippines, there are also so many other parts of China that would be nice to discover food-wise. What else? A good burger! I love a good burger patty.

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ESQ: Is there anything that you don’t eat? Or don’t like to eat?

MF: Umm, abalone, maybe? A little bit. I guess I eat pretty much everything but maybe that and sea cucumber.

ESQ: What about what Margarita wants to do next? Not the female chef who just won an accolade. What do you want to do? Do you want to just rest?

MF: Yes! (laughs) That too. Maybe go on an eating trip with my son. We haven’t done my one-on-one trip with him to Italy yet. I had to put that on hold when I got sick. The most wonderful thing was that he just wanted to come home and be with me so that I could get well as quickly as possible. So that’s what I wanna do. That’s really what I want to do this year with him. And one more dream: open a Filipino restaurant abroad.

ESQ: When you cook, what is the creative process for you like?

MF: It’s in my mind. I create the flavors in my head. I imagine the tastes in my head and then I have the team help me execute it. Because I’m not a technician in the kitchen. I don’t even measure. That was very difficult when I started Cibo, because in the end it’s a business. When I cook, I’m like that. It all starts in the head. I always say this, maybe the eurekas, it’s like God whispers them to me. Because the combinations of the ingredients, you try to think, how could you have thought of that without some help from the heavens? When you imagine the flavors together, it can blow your mind.

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About The Author
Lori Baltazar
Lori Baltazar is a food writer, cancer conqueror, and one of the country’s top food bloggers. Her website Dessert Comes First also spawned a book of the same title.
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