“Chefs are the new rock stars. Can you believe it?” From the mouth of just about any other celebrity chef, such a statement might be met with a sideways glance. But coming from Filipina chef Margarita Forés, Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016 according to the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant awards, it's hard not to share in her awe. There's the gleam of a groupie in her eye when Joan Roca, legendary chef of El Celler de Can Roca, often ranked the best restaurant in the world, appears onstage at Madrid Fusión Manila, an event she played an instrumental part in bringing to her home country. She can barely contain her excitement.
Forés may have the culinary equivalent of a schoolgirl crush on her fellow chefs, but the rock star label could just as easily fit her, too. More often than not she is the one onstage, not in the mosh pit. Fans rush up to her asking for selfies. She’s a regular in glossy magazines and on TV talk show sets that feature the lives of sosyal personalities – shorthand in Filipino for the rich and famous – when she's not jetting off to Madrid, Bangkok, Berlin or Turin in her role as unofficial ambassador of her country's cuisine.
Being a passionate defender of Filipino food is a cause close to Forés' heart. One minute she is demonstrating how to eat balut or fertilised duck eggs, the next she is waxing lyrical about upcountry heirloom rice or spicy food in Bicol. She is a firm believer in supporting local growers and was one of the first chefs in the Philippines to see the value of organic produce, long before others jumped on the bandwagon. She embraces the multi-cultural influences in Filipino cuisine. “Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American all left something that forms a national identity and a national cuisine that is uniquely Filipino. We're Asian and Latin. That's the history of our country and of our food.”
Margarita Forés didn't set out to be a chef. The family left the martial law of Marcos' Philippines for a comfortable exile on New York's Park Avenue when she was just 11. One of her first jobs was in fashion, a glorified gofer for the designer Valentino, a position she landed thanks to the connections of her socialite mother. It was during Forés' time in New York that she developed a taste for Italian food and began to throw dinner parties where she'd cook pasta and other Italian dishes.
When her grandfather passed away in 1985, the family returned to give him a proper burial in his homeland. By that time, the political winds had changed and the dictatorship was coming to a close. But young Gaita, as Forés is known to her friends, was still restless and decided to explore food in Italy to see if there was something in it for her. Though her time there was brief – all of four months – she threw herself into learning everything she could about Italian food, culture and language.
When she returned to Manila, she began working as a private chef and then moved into catering. She likes to recall that things were very different back when she was commissioned for her first big hotel job. “There were no women in the kitchen and having a woman in charge was more of a novelty, a gimmick than anything else. I was a woman, and given my background, no one expected me to work, not hard work, not physical work in a kitchen.” She proved them wrong.
Forés started a catering business in 1987 but it took her a few years to get grounded and find her way. She recalls bungled orders and the indulgent customers who gave her a second chance with equal parts amusement and embarrassment. The birth of her son Amado in 1990 was the turning point that gave her life more focus. In 1997 she opened her first Cibo restaurant, the hugely successful Italian-dining chain that now counts 10 outlets. The concept updated people's vision of stodgy Italian food and transformed it into something light and modern. “It's affordable, but we don't scrimp on quality. We use the best products we can find, both from Italy and locally. That's the key to my approach to cooking. The cuisine at Cibo is classic Italian, so our pasta, olive oil, cheeses, coffee come from the best purveyors in Italy, but we have local squash flowers to put on our pasta and pizza, or beautiful mangoes to enhance our panna cotta. This is (my) philosophy in all that I do: never compromise the authenticity of the cuisine and showcase the best of my own country with the best of the world.”
Other restaurants followed. Lusso is a high-end wine bar serving luxurious dishes like white truffle cream omelettes and foie gras on burgers. And Grace Park is Forés' fine dining restaurant where the accent is firmly placed on organic farm-to-table produce in both Filipino and international recipes. Over the years, Forés has expanded her empire to include everything from floral arrangements to prepared foods. She is also behind Casa Artusi Philippines, the only outpost of the Italian cooking school in Asia.
What's next for dynamic Chef Forés? “(I'll) just continue what I’m doing, but of course this will always involve sharing the food from our country with more and more people. Maybe a Filipino restaurant in New York or in my favourite European cities? Who knows? Dreams are free!”