With a career spanning 28 years, marked by signature catering business Cibo di M and restaurant concepts like Cibo, Café Bola, Lusso, and the now-defunct Pepato, it is safe to say that Margarita “Gaita” Forés is a culinary powerhouse.
Forés added another feather to her well-decorated cap when she became the first Filipino chef to be named in January as Asia's Best Female Chef for 2016, according to the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list published by William Reed Business Media. The award, which gathered votes from more than 300 industry experts from the region, recognizes exceptional female chefs along with other individual awards.
And now, the self-styled ambassadress of Italian cuisine in the Philippines is using her hard-won reputation to promote Filipino cuisine and local produce here and abroad.
‘Filipino pride with our produce’
Forés has always sought perfection in sourcing her ingredients, and she has found that, beyond the artisanal Italian fare that she has grown to love, the best ingredients can also be found at home. “It’s Filipino pride with our produce,” said Forés, whose latest concept, Grace Park, is not only a showcase of her love for organic local produce, but also of her relationship with organic farmers, which she started building 10 years ago. “If you look at our menu, at the back, we list all our suppliers: Farmers, purveyors, and friends,” she pointed out.
Her interest in organic food grew, in part, due to her travels to Bacolod and Negros, both of which are seats of organic produce. “I used to go to Bacolod a lot and I met a lot of the organic farmers there, or purveyors that were doing things in a natural, artisanal way,” she recalled. A bout with thyroid cancer spurred her interest as she tried to source, with difficulty, organic vegetables for herself.
Helping local organic farmers
She recalled that at first, the farmers did not really know what to do with their produce. “I gave them ideas and also started to give them a small market.”
At Grace Park, the menu revolves around the latest organic produce that farmers bring in, which is why the menu tends to change weekly. “We make it a point to put in whatever interesting things are there from our farmer friends,” said Forés.
For Cibo, which now has 10 stores, 75% of the ingredients used are organic, including their chicken, pork, and vegetables such as the capsicums, leeks, asparagus, and squashes, among others. Forés also prioritizes buying organic for her catering business Cibo di M.
And Forés is keen to share her produce suppliers with other restaurateurs, as she sees it would be more beneficial to the farmers in the long run. “We need to be more inclusive and to work in the same direction in the industry as a whole; otherwise, the organic farmers won’t survive. We need to help them develop their market, so that their prices will drop a bit and it actually becomes more sustainable,” she explained.
Forés sees that a renewed focus on local produce can also help put the Philippines on the map, especially as a good source of “nicely exotic ingredients.” “Many chefs from Europe are starting to look this way for unique ingredients.” She is enthusiastic about old-fashioned fare like kulitis (a bitter green usually mixed with munggo); batuan (a souring agent); and wood sorrel, often mistaken as a weed, but is actually edible and can be used as a souring agent for sinigang.
‘The future of food is in the Philippines’
As her career would show, Forés is not one to shy away from opportunities to represent the Philippines and its cuisine. “She has become quite the ambassador for Philippine cuisine, hosting dinners for VIPs abroad, as well as talking about our food in the global stage.
She has become also one of the go-to chefs for those kinds of events, as well as a consultant for anything food-related, said food critic and cookbook author Angelo Comsti, who regularly works with Forés.
In February 2015, Forés, together with Chef Myrna Segismundo, represented the Philippines in the Madrid Fusion International Gastronomic Summit, where they presented three versions of kinilaw. The showcase, which highlighted one of the oldest Philippine cooking techniques, piqued the interest of Madrid Fusion participants, with the chefs’ use of local fruit vinegars and sour fruits as souring agents.
And thanks to Forés, the Philippines was finally able to host the Madrid Fusion in Manila in April 2015. Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. said Forés convinced the Department of Tourism not only to participate in the Madrid event, but also to bring it to the Philippines to make Manila “the center of culinary excellence in this region.”
It was the first time that Madrid Fusion was held in Asia, and it will have another run in the Philippines this year. Madrid Fusion Manila showcases local cuisine and Filipino chefs’ skills to “prove that the future of food is in the Philippines,” said Verna Buensuceso, tourism director and project head. Forés was also one of the speakers at Madrid Fusion Manila last year.
Although nearing the third decade of her career, Forés said it still feels new to her. “The industry has changed so much since I started. It also has become a lot more challenging because the industry is so vibrant—everybody wants to be part of it,” she said.
Still, it is a good time as any to think of new things to do—to either reinvent herself, or go into areas that might be a little different from what she has been doing.
And if her foray into floral arrangements (Fiori di M) and home accessories (Casa di M) is any indication, she will probably do it with ease. “That’s the junction that I’m at. It’s a good thing. It’s a welcome challenge.”— with a report by Johanna Poblete
This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur Philippines magazine.