At the start of her catering venture, Margarita Forés earned a reputation for being “fashionably late.” It was her Ilongga charm and the unforgettable Italian meals she prepared that invariably would calm down the hostesses. They understood that their friend was just doing it as a hobby.
In 1991, however, Forés realized she had to fend for herself and her infant son. To turn her passion into a profession, she had to get everything right about catering: good rapport with the client, punctuality, pricing, food safety, the logistics of transporting food safely.
In the past two decades, she’s learned to run her catering business like an army on the move.
Her first corporate account was the launch of lingerie designer Josie Natori’s atelier in Malate. Since then, Forés has been a sought-after caterer.
She has served food at three presidential weddings, many state dinners in Malacañang, and functions here and abroad as far away as Spain and France.
Her company, Cibo di M (the food of Margarita), has a repertoire of Italian, French, British and elegant Filipino (think sinigang in demitasse cups, served in Paris, or lechon and adobo rice at a Vin d’honneur dinner at the Palace).
She pioneered the concept of “interactive food stations” which ranged from continental—prosciutto ham stations, Iberico jamon stations, mozzarrela bars, beef tagliatalia bars—to local dish stations with pancit, lugaw, lumpia and inasal.
Guests enjoy the tiramisu-making stations, or a scotch whiskey station with a fountain.
The flambé in a wheel of parmigiano was an attention-grabber. The pasta and sauce were tossed in a hollowed out parmesan wheel. Alcohol was poured and lit to yield a hot and cheesy meal.
In 2005, when celebrity chef Mario Batali visited Forés’ restaurant, he was fascinated with the version of the flambé on the parmigiano wheel. He ended up doing a similar version on his show.
Aside from her name being synonymous with Italian cuisine, Forés also innovated on Filipino dishes. She adapted Italian recipes to local context, ending up with such dishes as balsamico lamb adobo, puso ng saging dips instead of artichokes, and kangkong spreads instead of spinach and sapodilla sherbet with prosciutto ham.
One of her favorites is the spinach ravioli with Negros cross crab in a calamansi cream sauce drizzled with taba ng talangka.
The fresh pappardelle panuelos with asparagus has the delicate truffle oil in Italian cuisine melding with the robust flavor of the salted red egg yolk.
Her childhood memories become inspirations for such dishes as macaroni and cheese with chorizo. She recalls her father eating barquillos with caviar, so Forés concocted barquillos with caprino mousse topped with lamb adobo flakes or salmon roe. It was a winning combination of salty and sweet.
During former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s visit to Madrid, Forés did the catering for the reception of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at the Ritz Hotel. She highlighted jams and jellies made from native Philippine fruits.
Last year, Forés felt privileged to bring Philippine cuisine to Italy upon the invitation of Ambassador Virgilio Reyes.
For 10 days in a food festival, her team won the hearts of the Italians and the Filipino community. The Filipinos taught the Italian chefs how to prepare lumpia.
“In Rome, you could get saluyot, kangkong and our kalabasa,” says Forés. In the marketplace, she met the son of a Filipino vendor who sold beef and pork cuts, Pinoy-style.
Forés also charmed the press when she explained her kinilaw recipe in broken Italian.
On the Casa Artusi campus in Forlimpopoli, Northern Italy, she and her team conducted a class on Filipino dishes such as pancit molo, lumpia and pancit.
In Turino, they joined the Salone del Gusto artisan food fair, where they sold lechon, pancit and pakbet.
Last April, Forés did the catering for the opening of the exhibit of Philippine artifacts at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. She decorated the tables with tinalak and sinamay and used fresh flowers from the market.
For the press conference, Forés collaborated with the museum’s chef to serve grilled tenderloin a la bistek Tagalog.
Forés’ humility and willingness to learn have helped her achieve success after success. Her mentors were discerning and well-traveled grand dames such as Cecile Locsin, wife of National Artist Leandro Locsin; Rose Agustines, her mother Baby, and hostesses with style such as Lizzie Zobel and Virgie Ramos.
“They taught me refinement, subtlety and keeping to a high level of quality. Catering shouldn’t look ‘catered,’ especially if the venue is home,” she says.
Forés further honed her VIP catering skills when Bettina Aboitiz, President Arroyo’s social secretary, tapped her for some Malacañang dinners.
Aside from learning protocol, Forés observed how Aboitiz stuck to a tight budget without compromising style and aesthetics.
President Aquino’s Social Secretary Susan Reyes, she adds, has maintained that standard. But because this is a bachelor president, the events now have a more masculine touch.
Forés also looks up to restaurateur Glenda Barretto, whose most famous client, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, requested her to make Filipino food attractive to foreign VIPs. “She’s everybody’s mentor. She highlighted the uniqueness of Filipino cuisine and brought it out to the world. That inspired me when I started working.”
Forés’ expertise has earned her a spot among the country’s top chefs who are featured in “Kulinarya,” a definitive book on popular native dishes. She will also be part of “Kulinarya” Volume 2.
She continues to discover new things along the way, such as when preparing a recipe book for the international market. She cites how the quantity of eggs in the leche flan are based on the small eggs of the Philippines. The eggs in Italy are bigger, thereby requiring adjustments.
In time, Fores’ food business spawned other interests. Gastrotecca di M started out as packaged foods for Christmas—potato chips, sauces, dips, mango jams, mayonnaise and other delicatessen items that originated from her menus.
When Cardinal Ceramics, the source of her dinnerware, closed shop, Forés worked with a branding company to design her own home line. The contemporary designs were inspired by architect Jorge Yulo who had designed all her restaurants.
In floral arrangements, her company has been known for its organic look.
“Fiori di M has always advocated the use of living plants, vegetables and fruits, reusable items or found objects in at least 40 percent of any arrangement,” she explains.
In catering, Forés is known for her understated, elegant touch. The appetizers or nibblers are anchored visually on an arrangement she has styled herself. The main course is garnished with herbs and decorated with sidings and sauces, which all come in fashionable bowls, platters and silver-plated or wooden serving utensils.
“They are themed according to the aesthetic direction of the occasion,” she explains. “I even decorate the carving lamp with foliage, vines, tree or flower pods to match my floral theme.”
Guests appreciate the attention-grabbing qualities of her food and flower groupings.
“The strength of our business is that the food is prepared on site. The keystone is the pasta. It has to be boiled on the spot. That became the standard for work. People comment that our food feels and looks fresh,” says Forés.
Her team is composed of veterans. “If you’ve been doing something for many years, you understand the challenges and what to expect,” she says. Our staffers are willing to go the extra mile.”