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"A true leader in her country’s restaurant sector, her dedication, culinary skills and pioneering efforts have elevated the dining scene in the Philippines and set a new benchmark for other chefs and restaurateurs to follow"
For these reasons and many more Margarita Forés was awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016 earlier this year. Forés runs small restaurant empire in the Philippines that began when she opened her first restaurant, Cibo, back in 1997. That was followed by many other food-related ventures where Italian and Filipino culture intertwine. In 2012, Forés opened the first ever Asian Campus of the renewed Italian culinary school Casa Artusi.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Forés during her appearance at Identità Golose Milano, where she gave a compelling speech about life. Here is what she told Fine Dining Lovers:
How did you pick up the theme for your speech?
The role of giving life is our role as women, and I think it's the role that has most fulfilled me, in my personal life and in my career. Also from an eating stand point, I love eating ingredients that have to do with production, whether is crab roe, eggs or the chicken that leads to the eggs.
Our culture is a very maternal one. There are big similarities with Italian culture and it’s the reason why, through the years, I found it's very easy for us Filipinos to get along with Italians. The lives of Filipinos and Italians revolve around the dining table and around the maternal figure: our families are always very big.
How did you get started cooking? And why Italian?
Maybe I was Italian in my past life! All jokes aside, in the early 80s I worked two years with Valentino house in New York. There were so many Italians at the time in New York, setting up businesses and opening restaurants. I was an impressionable young girl in my 20s and all of that amazed me. That's when my love affair with the Italian way of doing things started. There was something burning inside me about cooking and feeding people.
Me and my family were there in political exile: when my grandfather passed away we moved back to Manila, and I decided to spend some months in Italy, in 1985, between Rome, Milano and Florence. I found old Italian "signora" to teach me and I got exposed to cuisine in different regions.
So why did it take you so long - 10 years - before actually opening your own place?
When I came back I basically wanted to share with everybody what I had learned. In 1987, I was invited to a big food festival in Manila called Italian in Bocca. There weren't many Filipino female chefs at the time, so I was a good PR story, "the new thing in town". They took really nice pictures of me and put it in the newspapers, but the attention gave me a high. I was in a non-stop party mode, there were days where I was supposed to go to an event but I woke up too late or forgot ingredients.
What made you change?
I woke up when I had my son in 1990. It made me think that I was responsible for another life. I started asking myself "Do I really want to build a career in cuisine?" Prizes and the adulation are just the surface in the life of chefs. What makes you really successful are discipline and structure and regimen. It took me 10 years to finally open my restaurant.
When I spent some time in Milan I was really impressed by Panino Giusto. At the time in Manila, the only fast food concepts we had were American imported concepts. I wanted a modern Italian concept but homegrown in Philippines, and so I opened Cibo. Now there are ten branches of it in town: I guess I must have done something right!
Did you have some difficulties in the beginning?
It was a bit challenging to find the ingredients: the tomatoes, for example, were very sour at the time. I couldn't even make a tomato sauce! We didn't have the herbs, or access to good olive oil or good Parmesan. Little by little through the years it started being easy to import products and I started growing things as basil or rucola...
Why did you decide to open a Filipino campus of Casa Artusi?
I want to share the beauty of Italian culture and the philosophy of Pellegrino Artusi, which is actually Italian philosophy: he did things with passion, practice is the best teacher, find beautiful ingredients, use the correct techniques ... now I'm able to promote both cultures, Filipino and Italian one.
Take my Adobo as an example: instead of our vinegar, which is too strong, I tried to use balsamic vinegar, and I found out that its mild flavor just pairs perfectly with our traditional recipe.