Margarita Forés – the chef behind Cibo, Lusso, Grace Park and countless other culinary ventures in the Philippines – has just been voted Asia's Best Female Chef 2016. We caught up with her in Manila to find out her reaction.
Congratulations on winning the award! How are you feeling?
I’m still flustered and in shock. Thank you so much! My knees are weak and I’m still pinching myself. I’m totally blown away – this was so unexpected. I’m thrilled to death.
This award was voted for by restaurant industry experts across Asia. How does it feel to be recognised by your peers?
I’m just totally surprised because I didn’t know people knew what we were doing back home. I’m really thankful and happy. When I found out, I nearly fell off the chair.
You said the award made you feel like Miss Universe…
I really did feel like Miss Universe – I said “make sure you’re not going to take this away from me”. But winning the award also makes me feel like there’s so much more to do now.
What’s your next challenge?
This is so incredibly huge and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it – to make sure everything I do is my best. It’s also a real blessing to be able to continue the advocacy for my country and to push our cuisine forward. This is a key validation that Philippine cuisine is finally in the limelight.
It’s been a long struggle for us to get our cuisine out there. It's something we’ve all been working towards in the industry here and this award is providential because it feels like it's our time – this is the best evidence of it. It really makes me realise there’s so much more that I want to do and this is going to be my inspiration for that.
Where is Philippine gastronomy right now and what needs to be done to increase the country’s reputation as a foodie destination?
All of a sudden, Philippine cuisine is in everyone’s awareness, globally. There’s a real mushrooming of restaurants serving Philippine cuisine all over the world – I’ve seen it in New York, Los Angeles and now one of our heirloom restaurants, Romulo, is opening in London. There’s a new market and a new interest in our cuisine and it’s also been appearing as a food trend for 2016 in a lot of reports. We’re very happy that we can continue to uplift the cuisine and our ingredients and share all the richness of our cuisine, our produce, our traditions, with the rest of the world.
How would you define Philippine cuisine?
Its uniqueness is that it’s a real melting pot cuisine with so many influences that are part of our heritage – you can’t box it into one cuisine. There’s a wonderful, iconic dessert called Halo-Halo, which translates as Mix, Mix, and I think that’s the best representation of what our cuisine is about. There’s also so much to discover. Every time I travel somewhere else in my country there’s always something new to learn, something new to taste.
Your cooking is mostly Italian with a Philippine touch. How are you helping to promote local ingredients?
My latest restaurant, Grace Park, does some Filipino cuisine and some Italian cuisine but what’s great about it is it’s a real showcase for great ingredients that are grown organically or sustainably and are uniquely Filipino, from our farmers all over the country. I know that in the restaurant business using organic produce can affect one’s bottom line but I’ve really trudged along because I think the benefits that come from advocating something like that can never be measured in dollars – it’s about the energy that comes back to you.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs – both male and female – in the Philippines?
Filipino chefs, especially the young ones, should feel strongly about their heritage and discover what makes their cuisine unique. They need to be passionate and feel strongly about being Filipino.
Do you have a motivational mantra for life or for cooking?
Over the last 30 years I’ve always told myself I should never forget how I started and where I came from. I started my work with Italian cuisine and that was what started me with this passion. My time in Italy was great because it allowed me to learn about traditions and great produce and to rekindle my love and passion for my own cooking. It made me more of a passionate advocate to push what is Filipino and what’s great about our people and our country.
Finally, if you were Miss Universe, what would your talent be?
If I were Miss Universe, my talent would be the ability to make something from the simplest ingredients on the fly. Also, I’ve developed a real resilience in an industry that has a lot of challenges. I’ve been working in this industry for 30 years and I feel like I have a doctorate in crisis management!
Now see the moment when we broke the news to Margarita...