Chef Margarita Forés was recently in town for BFM Enterprise Takeaway, and I had the amazing opportunity to sit down to have a chat with Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016. Admittedly, as someone who only goes to the kitchen to get a glass of water, it was extremely intimidating to be in the presence of such a formidable force in the F&B industry. But Chef Margarita personally called me on my mobile to let me know where to meet her and I was greeted by a diminutive lady with an infectious smile. Her passion is palpable, and her energy certainly rubbed off on me – albeit not into the direction of a kitchen!
Chef Margarita Forés comes from the prominent Araneta family in the Philippines. Her family members include J. Amado Araneta, who established a real estate empire in the commercial centre of Cubao in Quezon City, Salvador Araneta who founded Araneta University (now De La Salle Araneta University) and served as Cabinet Secretary for two presidents, amongst others. But, Chef Margarita has achieved no mean feat of her own. Her food empire includes her Cibo restaurant chain, champagne bar Lusso, and farm-to-table restaurant Grace Park. In addition to this, she also runs a catering company and dabbles in floristry.
Her amazing journey started when she was inspired by the Italian food in New York. Having no formal culinary training, she packed her bags, left her degree in accountancy behind, and went to Italy for 4 months for an intensive and immersive training in Italian cuisine. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Araneta family name carries a lot of weight, having made influential waves in the political and business scene. Was it more difficult for you to stand out as an individual amongst your family members, in the eyes of the public?
Being an Araneta in the Philippines could actually have been a handicap for me! It would have been easier for me to relax and just rely on doing what the family was doing. So I always say that whatever I’ve done, I did because of – and in spite of – who I am [laughs]. I think it actually forced me to be more persistent in doing my own things. And at the same time my family has always been really nurturing and supportive. The initial efforts that I put in and the challenges I faced; they were there to catch me and to make sure I would continue to have a support system.
Looking back, 30 years since I started my work, I find myself in such a good place. I think it all worked out for the best!
Did you ever feel that people discredited you because of who you are?
In the beginning, people were actually amused that somebody from my background would strike out and do something where one had to use her hands and be in a very challenging environment, something not anyone from my background would do at that time; 30 years ago. Even from a media standpoint, I think they really played up who I was! They had really glamourous photographs taken of me and used that as a marketing ploy. At the hotel where I did at the Hyatt then, it was a restaurant called Hugo’s. That was my first professional gig. They asked me to do a food festival after I had just arrived from Italy. The General Manager of the hotel invited me to do a food festival there.
At that time, there were no women in the kitchen at all! All the staff in the kitchen were either European or Filipino men, and the women in the hotel were only at the front of house, wearing long skirts with high slits, handling reception or doing marketing. And I knew that they knew it was going to be a really good marketing thing to have me there – a pretty face in the newspaper.
And one incident in the kitchen that happened was that I came back one day to find my cream sauce overly thick! I didn’t have any formal culinary training so I asked the Filipino chef, “Why is my sauce so thick?” In Filipino, he said the chef put some “roux”. So I asked what is “roux”? He answered that it was a mixture of butter and flour that they use to thicken sauces. So of course I went ballistic! I went up to the Executive Chef and I said, “Chef, what did you do with my sauce?” And he said, “You know, we have to watch our food costs!” Obviously if I did the cream sauce just pure from butter and cream it would really hike up their food cost but I said, Chef you can’t shortcut on this. So then they realised, she knows what she’s doing. [laughs] And they put back my sauce the way I wanted it!
That purist behaviour is something that I always am upfront with in my work – no shortcuts, the home style I learned in Italy. It’s been a real blessing because it has helped me make my mark in the food industry very early on. People in the food business at that time in the Philippines had a very detached way of looking at the industry, and here I came, totally immersed and very passionate, not afraid of making mistakes. It was very exciting in the beginning, maybe because of all the attention and the adulation. Some people might thinks it’s glamourous (the food industry). But actually it’s not! What you see is front of house, and that may look glamourous.
But it’s not about people just telling you how good your food is. In the end, to be successful, one must have structure, discipline, sticking to your commitments.
And as a very young 24-year-old girl that was something I learned the hard way because in my early 20s, I was still in party mode! It was nice cooking for people at night but the more important part was having the discipline to be there on time for the back of house stuff. I was really lucky that people were very kind and forgiving because I would do catering jobs and sometimes be very late! It was not a good way to do business [laughs]. I’m just lucky that people were very supportive because they knew it wasn’t my comfort zone. It took me a while to make a decision because I said, “Wait, is this just a hobby, a plaything, or am I really going to do this professionally?” I had to take a step back some time in 1990. What really helped me was I had my son – that brought me back down to earth. Knowing I was responsible for another life; that really made me buckle down and do things with a bigger sense of responsibility.
You’re known for Italian cooking fusing Filipino ingredients and styles. Was that a conscious, deliberate decision, to give voice to a cuisine that hasn’t been in the limelight much?
What was a real blessing was to have learnt about the food in Italy because the cuisine is really a home-style cuisine. At the same time, they have this absolutely obsessive respect for their ingredients. They are very proud of it and they’ve always felt that to be able to produce great food, one needs to use the best ingredients and they’re very proud of what grows in specific areas. There’s a lot of history that goes behind making every single product, like generations of families are the ones are responsible for carrying a product through up to the present heritage.
When I went back to Manila and I tried to produce Italian food, it was really challenging. In the Philippines, our tomatoes are generally sour. I had to learn how to use our Filipino tomatoes and get them from a market when they were nearly overripe, just so I could get a tomato that came even slightly close to what they had in Italy.
So, it’s not really a fusion of Italian and Filipino but I think what I’d like to think is using the best of Filipino ingredients, elevating them and using them side-by-side with the best from the world and there’s really the philosophy that I’ve been carrying through, all throughout my career.
Now, I think the produce in the Philippines has gotten a bit of attention and we are hoping more and more of our ingredients make it to other more important restaurants’ tables all over the world. So like our heirloom rice, of course the Philippines mango, calamansi. And what’s nice to see is that the chefs from the West, whether from the Americas or from Europe, they are really looking to Asia for inspiration. There is still so much that they can discover in Asia and from my country as well! So I think there’s still a lot of room to be able to advocate Filipino cuisine and produce.
Why do you think it’s taken so long for Filipino cuisine to get attention?
I think that it really has a lot to do with the way we (Filipinos) saw ourselves before and the way we see ourselves now. We are very young country – we only became independent in 1945 and it took us a while to really feel strongly about what we felt was our own. And I think that the fact that we were a Spanish colony for 333 years and again an American colony for 45 years – that made us have a bit of a confused sense of national identity for many years. I think that it took us a while to realise that the essence of our culture is really Malay. And at the same time because we were the gateway towards the West, we also were doing so much trade with the Chinese traders that were passing through our islands.
So just imagine a very Malay base with some influence from China, and then all of the sudden you get this influx of Spanish culture coupled with a lot of the influences from Mexico because of the Galleon Trade. So just imagine the kind of of cuisine that evolved in our country! And then you get 45 years Coca-Cola, hamburgers, spaghetti with meatballs, and all of that – we really became more of a confused culture that we couldn’t pin point ourselves.
So for the longest time we have been trying like put our cuisine in the box, but the minute we realised that “Hey, we should celebrate the fact that we are a combination of all these influences, right?” That’s what makes us unique.
We are the only Latin-Asians in the world, right? And that is also adds a new dimension to our being Asian. So it’s a very unique placement in Asia for the Philippines and the minute we celebrated this uniqueness, I think there when it started to become positive. You know, we have an iconic dessert in the Philippines that called halo-halo. It’s a little bit like cendol and bubur chacha. It means “mix mix” – I think it best represents what our culture is.
There’s no award for Asia’s Best Male Chef. Does that matter to you?
In the end, the food industry in general has really been male-driven from the start. Male chefs were always the ones who got the attention. The industry today is now focusing on the female chefs on making the mark. Some people think, “Why do you have to single the women out?” I think to precisely honour female chefs to make their mark in a male industry is a start. At the same time, deep down inside, we know male chefs are influenced by mother or grandmothers. We know the truth of what drives this industry [laughs].
What sort of support do you think helped you get to where you are today – mentally, emotionally?
The most important part has been my team that has been with me for 30 years. Without them, I can’t achieve what I have. There have been so many amazing people on my team – those that started with me that are still with me, they helped propel the group of restaurants.
They feel a sense of family we’ve built through the years. They’ve grown with the business and appreciate the fact that they feel a sense of accomplishment – that they’ve been a large part of the success of the group. For Cibo, the café chain, the management team is made up of people who started as waiters and dishwashers and cashiers. It’s nice that they have grown the business!
My family is also supportive, and my son has always been my source of inspiration!
A person who says he knows it all – that’s the start of your downfall.
You once suffered from bulimia, and you got over it by seeking professional help and of course, your love of food and cooking. Are you “healed” now?
That was in my early 20s, when I went to Italy to study. It’s a problem that has to do with my self-image. What helped me get over it is immersing myself into food and learning to respect food. [People] find it strange because I’m outgoing and I seem to be confident. But I think we all have journeys as young people. We go through different things and part of that journey helped me get to where I am today.
Your problems change as your grow older. I’ve overcome it – moving forward has helped me.
Finally, any tips for Malaysian foodies on how to find authentic Filipino food?
To make Filipino food, a Filipino would say adobo – which is a braised dish – is the easiest. Unique dishes that best represents Filipino cuisine before all the influences is kilinaw – our version of the ceviche. Then there’s the sinigang – which is a little bit like tomyam. “Sour” is a prominent flavour profile! We balance it with fish sauce, or salty, shrimp paste that’s a bit sweet.
It’s nice to be able to discover what connects our countries. I want to come back here and study the cuisines and find the similarities. I want to come back and eat!
There are Filipino restaurants all over the world but they are created just for their own community. It’s time to do a Filipino concept for the foreign palate without compromising the flavours, while putting a lot of importance on how to present philosophy of Filipino cuisine.
All photos courtesy of Chef Margarita Forés.
See also: Why We L.O.V.E. BFM Enterprise Takeaway
Learn more from Chef Margarita Forés and other F&B experts in our roundup of the recent BFM Enterprise Takeaway. Click here!