The life, times, and passions of Asia’s best female chef Margarita Forés

‘Buckling down, learning responsibility, being disciplined, making sure you honor your commitments.’


WORDS  TEODORO Y. MONTELIBANO | PHOTOGRAPHY  LANCER SALVA

Margarita Araneta Forés looks none the worse for wear after 30 long years in the food business, this grueling occupation she chose to embrace subsequent to spending a heady luxe life in New York, working for Valentino while alternately partying in Studio 54 where her ultra-glam mom, Maria, reigned along with the rest of New York café society for a period of time,  or spending more relaxed, laidback times cooking for friends and relations at the family’s tony Park Avenue domicile or at her maternal grandparent’s place in  Mt. Kisco, Westchester County during the Marcos martial law years.

The trajectory of her life was pretty much ordained after a period of immersion in Italy in 1986, learning authentic Italian home cooking in the kitchen of Italian signorinas Jo Bettoja in Rome, Masha Innocenti in Florence, and Ada Parasiliti in Milan.

Back home, after a change of dispensation had taken over the country, an acquaintance, Bubut Quicho, then the first Filipino general manager of a major international hotel chain, Hyatt Regency, invited her to join the hotel’s executive chef Anton Weursch and Hyatt’s Hugo restaurant chef Martin Kaspar in the Italia in Bocca (Italy in the Palate) food festival in April 1986. The festival was a hit, and the Hyatt invited her to do Italia in Bocca part two six months later, in October.

Forés’ successful debut in the food business spurred her to go into the catering business. “I was in my mid-20s, and those were still party days for me. It took a while — nearly three years — to wake up to the fact that if I really wanted to be in the food business and build a profession out of it, I needed to really get my act together.”

Looking back, Forés says the most important thing she learned about what allows one to succeed in this business “is not just about cooking well and getting  your picture in the papers and getting people to tell you how good your food is. It is really about buckling down, learning responsibility, being disciplined, making sure you honor your commitments, and the learning process was a slow burn for me.”

It took 10 years from when she joined Italia in Bocca at the Hyatt to opening Cibo, the first modern Italian café in the country serving as close to genuine Italian comfort food as anyone can get in this part of the world.

When she opened Cibo at the then just-established Glorietta in September 1997, Forés was already conscious of the essential role that ingredients play in the food she wanted to serve. For instance: “My biggest challenge was finding a way to work with our local tomatoes, because our home-grown ones are a world of difference from tomatoes in Italy. Our soil is acidic so our tomatoes will never be as sweet as Italian tomatoes. That was the first big challenge I had, and I had to work with my market suki whom I asked for tomatoes when they would already be a bit overripe, then learning how to cook them into sauce approximating the way tomato sauce was done in Italy.”

The other challenge, then, for Forés, was being able to find the best brands of ingredients from Italy to use for Cibo. “That’s why we had to have Lavazza (for coffee), and De Cecco for the pasta we use in the restaurant, in the same way that our parmigiano had to be of a certain quality — you cannot replace it — it needs to be produced in Parma; the same way that we had to have a certain olive oil the quality of which there is no compromise.”

Then, and now, this uncompromising use of quality ingredients for the food she serves has sealed the reputation of all 10 or so branches of Cibo, as well as those of Forés’ other dining establishments, Grace Park, Alta, and the luxe marbled-wall Lusso with its Murano chandelier which used to brighten up the ballroom at the Manila Peninsula — as dependable establishments where the food is consistently topnotch.

The luxe interior of Lusso, one of many dining establishments opened by Margarita Forés.

Cibo di Marghi, and Fiori di Marghi, Forés’ catering and florist businesses remain, today, top of mind favorites in A-list weddings and social events.  Forés was also official Malacanang caterer, particularly for dinners hosted by the Palace for visiting chiefs of state during the administrations of former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno C. Aquino III.

She marked 25 years as a chef and restaurateur by donning another hat — that of a culinary educator, when she forged an agreement in 2012 with Casa Artusi, Italy’s first center of gastronomic culture devoted entirely to Italian home cookery, to open Casa Artusi in the Philippines. The original center, based in Forlimpopoli in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, is named after Pellegrino Artusi, author of La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), and considered the father of Italian home cooking.

In February 2015, Forés played a significant role in a milestone event for Philippine cuisine  when she, along with chef Myrna Segismundo made history as the initial Filipino chefs representing the country’s first ever participation in the world’s most prestigious international gastronomic event, Madrid Fusion, held that year from February 2-4  at the Palacio Municipal de los Congresos de Madrid.

Earlier, Madrid Fusion Director Lourdes Plana Bellido visited the Philippines with Mielle Esteban, Gastronomy and Special Projects Manager for Arum Estrategias Internacionalización (Arum) and met with Forés and Segismundo whom they invited to present at Madrid Fusion.

At the international food congress in Madrid, Forés and Segismundo demonstrated the preparing of two versions of kinilaw (ceviche), a Filipino method of cooking using citric acid — well received by an audience which included rockstar chefs and icons in the international culinary world.

It was also during the 13th Madrid Fusion that the official launch of the initial Madrid Fusion Manila was announced. The holding of Madrid Fusion Manila in April 24-26, 2015 brought together eight noted Spanish chefs as well as culinary phenom, Taiwanese chef Andre Chiang of Restaurant Andre and Burnt Ends in Singapore; Raw in Taiwan and Porte 12 in France, and Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, among various others. Needless to say, it placed the Philippines solidly in the global culinary map since it was the first time ever that the gastronomy congress was brought outside of Madrid.

The following year, it was Forés’ turn to soar and shine when over 300 chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, well-traveled gourmets, and restaurant specialists in Asia voted her Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016.  The title was bestowed on Forés by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, a listing put together by the 150-year-old William Reed Business Media, publisher of the prestigious U.K.-based Restaurant Magazine, which also publishes The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants lists.

Forés was called “a worthy recipient of the award” by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants editor William Drew who went on to describe her as a “true leader in the Philippine restaurant sector with her dedication, culinary skills and pioneering efforts elevating the dining scene in the Philippines and setting a new benchmark for other chefs and restaurateurs to follow.”

For herself, a staggered Forés — who said she “nearly fell off the chair” when news of the award was announced — remarked that she was “totally surprised because I did not know people (outside the Philippines) even knew what we were doing here.”

She was particularly emotional about the fact that the award was “a real blessing” as it recognized her “advocacy of pushing my country’s cuisine forward, and a key validation that Philippine cuisine is finally in the limelight,” she told Laura Price, who interviewed her for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants

Said Forés, “It’s been a long struggle to get our cuisine out there. It’s something we’ve all been working for in the industry here and the award is providential because it feels like it’s our time – this is the best evidence that it is.”

Since winning the Asia’s Best Female Chef award, all sorts of opportunities have come her way, giving her stellar venues where she could effectively communicate to her peers in the international chefs community and the culinary world in general, her advocacies on Philippine cuisine and culture.

We asked her what have been the highlights in her career since she was conferred the prestigious award. “The doors that have opened for me have  really been life changing,” she said. “Being asked to speak in Harvard, for example. It happened last year and I’m leaving again next week to speak on a different topic.”

Forés was referring to the invitation from Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in October 2016 to take part in the SEAS’ Science and Cooking lecture series. The continuing series pairs Harvard professors with food experts and renowned chefs to showcase the science behind various culinary techniques. The lectures are based on the Harvard course “Science and Cooking:  From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.”

Forés, who gave a talk on “Heat Transfer,” joined a roster of demigods in the culinary world including Dan Barber, Joanne Chang, the Roca brothers — Joan and Jordi — Jose Andres and Ferran Adria who have been invited to talk in the lecture series.

Was she daunted by the technicality of the course topic, we asked. “Not really,” Forés replied. “It was very easy to find things in my work that I could connect with the topic. So last year, I highlighted pretty much the dishes that I presented (in February 2015) at Madrid Fusion to show what food goes through when you expose it to temperature. I did kinilaw (ceviche) where the heat comes from vinegar, from liquid fire. I also did something about cooking adobo with vinegar as well.”

And how did the class react to her talk? “I think they were pretty amused by my story. Also because there’s this new, very intense interest about Filipino cuisine and Filipino ingredients,” she said.

Harvard was apparently enthused by Forés’ presentation and asked her to deliver another talk in the same lecture series this year. At the time of the interview, she was scheduled to fly to Boston in a week to deliver her second talk on the course topic, “State Formation.” “I’m going to be doing an in-depth study on what a duck’s egg goes through until it becomes (the Pinoy delicacy) balut — what causes the duck egg to change its form.”

Also, sometime in October last year, Forés joined gastronomy luminaries like Massimo Bottura in the two-day symposium Food on the Edge, in Galway City, Ireland. The symposium, organized by EatGalway culinary and symposium director JP McMahon, gathers chefs and food enthusiasts from all over the world to talk, listen and debate about the future of food and the food industry on the planet.

Not long before we sat down to talk with her, Forés was at the World Food Summit in Copenhagen. “I was invited last year but I had to beg off because my dad was not well. I was invited again this year and I went and it was wonderful to hear all these leading lights in the international food industry discuss and present their points of view on important areas currently influencing our cuisine so much.”

Organized by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, the two day Summit held last August was participated in by international experts, frontrunners, influencers and decision makers in world gastronomy who presented their thoughts on food information, food safety, food diversity, and food waste.

“The talks gave me substantial insights from the advocacies of fellow chefs, the choices we make when we put dishes together, what we promote at our restaurants taking cognizance of the way climate change affects our planet, the same way that pollution is affecting that same planet.  More and more our cooking will consist of dishes using plant-based ingredients rather than ingredients from animal sources. That’s what I’ve been seeing all over, that’s the wave of the future,” she said.

Other than invitations to culinary fora abroad, the award has given Forés a chance to collaborate with all sorts of equally noted chefs, some of whose cooking is entirely different from hers. For instance, in early September, she was in tandem with strictly vegetarian chef Peggy Chan in the latter’s plant-based Grassroots Pantry’s Collective Table pop-up dinner in Hong Kong during which both collaborated on a multi-course menu celebrating seasonal native produce.

“Peggy Chan cooks not only vegan but Buddhist temple cuisine. That’s radically vegetarian food — no garlic, no onion. I have never cooked a dish without garlic or onion in my whole life. Filipino as well as Italian food use both ingredients a lot. The challenge was to create food and make sinamak (Filipino vinegar-based dip) without garlic for an eggplant inasal (grilled barbecue) we did in the collaboration dinner. That was a real challenge, but it also gave me an absolutely new learning,” related Forés who enthused about Chan’ introducing her to, among others, “this wonderful dehydrated mushroom powder which she used on food in lieu of MSG for food seasoning. That was so umami, and it was a really important new learning for me,” she related.

Forés was thrilled to get a call from Tokyo one day. On the line was chef Hiroyasu Kawate who owns the one-Michelin starred Florilege restaurant in Tokyo, renowned for its innovative French cuisine featuring Japanese ingredients. The Japanese chef asked if he could fly to Manila and do a collaborative dinner with Forés. The latter agreed, with much enthusiasm, and in June 22, the pair presented an eight-course menu in an exclusive dinner held at Raffles Makati’s beautiful Mireio restaurant.

The dinner courses included such local ingredients as young corn from La Union with polenta, blue crab with seaweed, lemon gelantina, pickled guso and
bottarga sabayon, Mirèio chef Nicholas Cegretin’s traditional foie gras with Abakka pineapple, young coconut and pain d’epices, river prawn by Forés which was wrapped in burnt lardo, head cream sauce, calamansi salt and edamame, as well as Kawate’s wagyu sirloin with Pangasinan vegetable alocon and parched rice.

The collaboration was a resounding success and Forés will fly to Tokyo this October to do another joint dinner with Kawate, in the latter’s Florilege, which was also conferred Asia’s Best Restaurants’ One to Watch award in 2016.

Since being named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016, Forés has also opened a new world of exciting flavors to the world, through her introduction of local ingredients heretofore unfamiliar to her fellow culinary luminaries in such places as Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States.

She uses the talks and forums she constantly gets invited to continue pushing for and promoting Philippine produce and ingredients which were never given any attention until the country’s hosting of Madrid Fusion Manila.

“Former Tourism Secretary Mon Gimenez’s pioneering efforts to host Madrid Fusion Manila was an absolute coup for the Philippine food industry and agriculture sector. It didn’t only boost tourism but has likewise helped Filipino farmers substantially. Our adlai, and heirloom rice varieties, our souring agents, the variety of our vinegars, all those now have become so much sexier for foreign chefs,” she said.

She, herself, has opened a new world of flavors heretofore unknown to her culinary counterparts overseas. “I have my favorite Filipino ingredient — taba ng talangka (crab fat) — which I carry with me in my luggage every time I travel so I could give it as a gift to chefs. And I’m very proud to say that there are now three chefs in Singapore that have, or are intending to have it on their restaurant menu: Andre Chang  (former head chef of three Michelin-star restaurant Le Jardin des Sens in France, who owns the Michelin two-star Restaurant André, named Best Restaurant in Singapore and second-best in Asia by Restaurant magazine), LG Han of Michelin one-star Labyrinth, and Jason Tan (chef owner of Corner House, 17th in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant 2017 listing) is also enamored by it and hopefully will use it in his restaurant as well.”

Forés relates that she has brought a bottle of taba ng talangka to chef Vicky Cheng, executive chef of Michelin-starred Vea in Hong Kong who, likewise, “fell in love with it.

She is particularly pleased to see one chef she reveres much, Missy Robbins, who holds a Michelin star for both A Voce (2009) and A Voce Columbus (2010)—two dining establishments where she had been in control of the kitchen before opening her currently self-owned Lilia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, take a liking to her (Fores’) favorite ingredient. “She’s one of the most remarkable American female chefs and I had a chance to bring taba ng talangka to Lilia and the minute she put it on pasta , she just begged me, how could you get this to me in New York?!!”

There is keen pleasure for Forés in likewise seeing other such local ingredients and produce like calamansi appearing in many noted restaurant menus all over the world,  “Philippine chocolates and coffee are being raved (about) as these are presented in food exhibits overseas, and we just did an event — Kain Na — in Hong Kong with the Department of Agriculture and we are so happy that the most important chefs there showed up along with prominent figures in the Filipino community and some very important influencers in the food industry in Hong Kong as well.”

For Forés, what it means to be Asia’s Best Female Chef is being able to command attention when she speaks out on behalf of Philippine cuisine and culture, and the country’s positive attributes. “I’d like to continue with this joint advocacy along with my peers in Philippine industry. And the great thing about winning this award is that I have been given a slightly larger platform where I can actually have a bit of a louder voice when it comes to pushing for Filipino cuisine, local ingredients. And because of the award, too, I have many opportunities for people to listen and learn more about us, our cuisine, our culture.”

Beyond food, who and what is Margarita Forés, we were curious to know. She laughed heartily, saying, “It’s a Margarita that’s forever on a plane. I find that traveling, whether to destinations here or abroad, are the best sources of inspiration for me.”

It is nothing short of amazing to see one who has gone through three long decades in an intensely stressful business, in the process, surviving — apparently very well — two life-threatening ailments, remain buoyant and be as the Italians would say, pieno di gioia per la vita — so full of joy for life.