Discover, in their own words, how these five celebrity chefs developed a taste for the good life in the toasty confines of their kitchens.
How did these culinary wizards get so good at what they do? Was it mama’s cooking that got them started? What was the baptism of fire that tested their mettle in the craft? Any cooking shortcut they can share? Is there a secret recipe for a robust, full-flavored life?
Let these celebrity chefs tell you, in their own words, how they got started and flourished in a career that’s often defined by the abundance and the rarity, the freshness and the age, as well as the purity and multiplicity of all we eat.—Ruel S. De Vera
Margarita “Gaita” Fores
Famous for her expert hand at modern Italian cooking, Fores runs a culinary empire with her immensely successful Cibo restaurants and its catering arm Cibo di M. Another showcase for her cooking skill is the posh restaurant Lusso in Greenbelt 5.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? While I was in New York in 1982, I worked at the corporate office of Valentino, the fashion house, and fell in love with everything Italian. New York was also mushrooming with many new Italian restaurants, cafes, and bars at that time, and experiencing them encouraged me to try my own hand at making pasta and more, in my mom’s kitchen. I spent many evenings cooking for friends and with friends, till I realized that I was becoming more passionate about the cooking and entertaining, than the fashion world where I worked. I never really consciously wanted to be a “chef” per se, (I just loved to cook for others and set the table) but I came to the realization in 1986, soon after my family came back to Manila after self-exile, that I wanted to go to Italy and learn about Italian cuisine and culture. When I arrived in Florence in the fall of 1986 to take a short cooking course with an Italian signora at her home and take language courses too, I instantly felt like a homing pigeon. It almost seemed like I could have been Italian in a past life. It just felt right that whole time in Italy 25 years ago, and I guess the rest is history… although I still cringe when they call me “Chef Gaita”… Kusinera or cook feels more correct since I never really studied formally, or put on a chef’s jacket or toque.
Your biggest influence? I guess the three Italian signoras I did short courses with in 1986 (Masha Innoscenti in Florence, Jo Bettoja in Rome, and Ada Parasiliti in Milano) influenced me a lot, since what I learned from them was a more home-style approach to Italian cooking, the real heart of the cuisine. Apart from time spent with them, just immersing myself in the country, alone, with no Filipino friends, in late 1986, I must have been like a sponge, eating out with friends, seeking out the markets, learning about the produce… This was the most influential for me, because this deep kind of appreciation of a country and its culture stays with you forever. Apart from that, perhaps Martha Stewart’s work and her early books inspired me too. She was the craze at that time when I was most impressionable, and her work was exactly what I wanted to do.
On a more personal level, spending time with my mentor and idol, Tita Toni Parsons, whose sense of aesthetics and elegance is unmatched, made such a mark on me. Having the chance to spend time with her in Rome and travel through parts of Tuscany with her was a bonus and a priceless experience. Building a friendship with the ultimate, creative, Inno Sotto also taught me a lot, much more than just about fashion but more about restraint, friendship, and life’s lessons.
But perhaps the earliest and most influential is my exposure to both my parents and their families. The best and most memorable times were always around the dining table, real proof that my love for eating has always been the most major pre-requisite for this 25-year passion (of) working with food. Both my mother’s and father’s style, taste, and most importantly, their values influence me every day, keep me grounded, and hopefully keep my heart, my mind, and my taste buds in the right place always.
Your favorite dish? It’s difficult to just choose one. A good batchoy (soupy noodle) with marrow, my lola’s Bahay na Puti adobo, a perfectly done Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. And from those I’ve created, my Pappardelle with cream, red eggs and truffle oil, prosciutto di Parma with chico sorbetto, lamb shank Balsamico adobo, with cambozola foam and mostarda of santol, guava and kalamansi and cerveza negro gelato.
Guilty pleasure? Again, it’s difficult to single out just one thing. A few of them are bone marrow or lamb marrow from a lamb shank, cream-based pasta, white truffles shaved on eggs, the yema of a Vargas Kitchen brazo de Mercedes eaten with a spoon, butter cream icing eaten off my finger.
Your favorite food shop? Can’t help it! Have a lot of favorites. In Manila, Bacchus Epicerie, Farmer’s Market. In Bacolod, Fresh Start at Robinson’s. In Paris, Epicerie at Bon Marche, Mariage Freres. In Milano, Peck, Excelsior Food Hall, Pescheria Spadari. In Rome, Norcineria Viola and all around Campo dei Fiori, Roscioli, Volpetti. In New York, Kalustyan’s, Zabar’s, Murray’s Cheese Shop, Fairways Supermarket. In Singapore, Takashimaya Food Hall.
What would you consider your secret ingredient/s? I can’t single out just one. My secret ingredients would be: lemon peel or rind, good for lightening a cream sauce, or for steeping in a cup of hot water when you’ve had too much to eat (a canarino); pasta water, the best for reheating a pasta that’s dried up when latecomers arrive, or still boiling, perfect for cooking up a fresh batch of pasta quickly when surprise guests show up; parmigiano rind. Italians never waste anything; a piece of it is a great way to season a hearty soup with, or flavor a risotto; frozen batuan (a small fruit used as souring agent), I always have some in my freezer so that any sinigang at home or at work is never a shortcut; no-iodine Philippine sea salts, Pangasinan, Pulupandan, Bago, Mindoro and especially dul-dul (solid table salt) from Capiz; and pepper and nutmeg that make a world of difference when freshly ground.
Your favorite kitchen gadget? A peppermill. I think my collection is now up to about 180; passa-salsa, a manual food mill, that processes tomato sauce and other things just right, leaving some pulp and body to whatever you run through it; an electric one will inevitably over-process sauces; my pair of forchettoni or over-sized tossing forks, helps me toss pasta in huge portions without bruising the noodles; wooden ones made in the Philippines are perfect for tossing pasta too, not just salads; and my Thermomix, a new toy, I’m just getting to know. It can do wonders.
What is the cookbook you’d recommend? Please allow me to recommend a few: “Kulinarya”: I am proud to have worked with Doris Magsaysay-Ho who spearheaded the project, and the other chefs, our mentor in the industry, Tita Glenda Barretto, Tito Conrad Calalang, Myrna Segismundo, Claude Tayag, and Jessie Sincioco , of course Michaela Fenix, who edited the book, and Neal Oshima who made the dishes come to life. I always say I’ve come full circle being a part of the book, re-discovering my own heritage cuisine, via my journey through Italian cuisine. For all of us Filipinos, “Kulinarya” is indeed a good effort at presenting our cuisine to the world, but it is clearly still a work in progress. Thus, we urge you to use the book, and give the authors and publishers feedback on the recipes, the text, etc., and share your inputs on how we can make it even better. As it is still a challenge to bring forth our national identity, the same goes for our own cuisine. It is only in unity and cooperation that we can present our true, rich Philippine Cuisine, with all its nuances, and bring it to the forefront for the rest of the world to discover and appreciate.
“Artusi: Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well” by Pellegrino Artusi: This is a compilation of heritage recipes from the 1800s compiled by Pellegrino Artusi from contributions of home-cooks from all over Italy. It is an interesting representation of regional Italian cuisine, heirloom recipes, and interesting notes on the culture and the people.
“Modernist Cuisine” by Dr. Nathan Myhrvold: For serious chefs who want to understand the science behind cooking, who want to discover new ways to prepare food, and who love great food photography and amazing scientific phenomena (five volumes plus a kitchen manual, in an acrylic case).
What’s always in your fridge? A wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano, good extra-virgin olive oil, Bottarga di Muggine, good butter, fat-free mayonnaise, a secret stash of very pure taba ng talangka from a friend, ripe tomatoes, frozen batuan for making sinigang the Ilonggo way, baking soda…
Your favorite TV chef or cooking show? Even before cooking shows became fashionable, I’ve followed the shows of Biba Caggiano and Mario Batali religiously; lots of very basic and useful tips from both of them that I still use today. Seeing one very specific episode of the long gone “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” (believe it or not) changed my life forever. Seeing the episode that featured Lorenza di Medici and her cooking school in her family’s gorgeous estate somewhere in Tuscany made me decide to ask my mom if she could allow me to go to Tuscany to learn how to cook. I never made it to Lorenza di Medici’s estate, but I did end up in Tuscany that fall of 1986, and so my story goes…
Of course I love watching the shows that bring you all over the world like Anthony Bourdain’s shows, Todd English’s and Jamie Oliver’s series that feature different places or restaurants, then feature their own interpretations of what they focused on.
Your favorite street food? In Manila, I love nilagang mani (boiled peanuts). In Bacolod, I love the inasal parts from the small markets, and scramble, especially in the tiny market of Ma-ao. I love the native white corn sold on the road going up to Tagaytay. In Cubao, by the MRT station or Farmer’s Market, the kwek-kwek (battered egg and day-old chick) stands are pretty good. In the village where I live, the guy who comes around with taho has a super silky one. In New York, I can’t resist a Sabrett, or Halal rice, something my son Amado turned me on to. In Rome, I would consider pizza bianca or a good tramezzino street food, bought quickly while walking city streets. Filleto di Baccala, a batter-fried cod fish fillet, bought in a secret pocket off Campo di Fiori is THE ultimate street food.
What food would you never eat? Dog or cat meat. I am starting to think twice about shark’s fin.
What would you consider to be your comfort food? At any time, buttered white rice and super pure taba ng talangka, or when I am watching my weight, an agnello stufato panino on pane arabo from Cibo.
Your favorite cheat cooking method or cooking shortcut? Because it takes so much time to make a risotto, pre-cooking the rice halfway using a good broth, and finishing off only the portions ordered by adding your other ingredients right before you serve is my favorite shortcut. I learned this while interning 27 years ago at Petaluma restaurant in New York City.
Your worst kitchen disaster or fiasco? Catering on a yacht for Neal Oshima and Susan Roxas’ wedding reception and being invited also as a guest, and my two female chefs getting seasick. I had to help get the food out all dressed up, over a very rough sea, and our new stove exploding when we tested it the first time at our catering commissary, The Commissary @ Whitespace.
What was/were the most exotic ingredient/s you’ve ever used? Baby goats, (grilled) pork lungs, bayawak (monitor lizard) eggs on hot rice, sizzling cow boobs, angel wings, horse bresaola (air dried salted meat), Davao beach sand crickets on pasta, compacted dul-dul salt rocks from Capiz, Zambales wild boar or baboy damo (what a scent) for a stew, wild ducks in Pawling, New York, raw foie gras at Lusso.
Who is the guest you’d like to ask most for dinner? From people deceased, my grandparents, Pellegrino Artusi and Isidro, our family cook in Cubao. From those still alive, my three Italian Signora teachers, Mario Batali again, Italian chef Massimo Bottura, Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio and American restaurateur Danny Mayer.
What would be your last meal? I would start with good crusty French bread, French butter and honey, then two fried eggs with an overload of white Albanese truffles, buttered rice with pure taba ng talangka (crab roe), bone marrow with patis and white rice, a super cotoletta (breaded veal cutlet) Milanese, and end with a mille-feuille (a vanilla slice or napoleon) from chez Josephine Dumonet and a strawberry Tiramisu from Vecchia Roma in Rome, topped off with a tablespoon of Brazo de Mercedes yema, all washed down by an ice-cold Diet Sarsi, and a Sassicaia 2005.
Your best kept cooking secret? Always cook with love, good energy, and positive feelings in your heart.
Your favorite food trip and food discoveries? Bacolod is always a foodie trip in my home province and full of new discoveries about my heritage as well as new finds of sources for organic or artisan produce; trips to other parts of the Philippines; The Chefs Congress circuit in the dead of winter, late January; Madrid Fusion in Madrid, Identita Golose in Milano to see what’s up ahead for our industry; visiting Casa Artusi in Forlimpopoli outside Bologna, and re-learning how to make fresh pasta and more.
Any trip to Europe that includes various cities of Spain, France, England with my eating friends; San Sebastian for a tapas run and visiting as many Michelin-starred chef restaurants and hole-in-the-wall places as I can; New York restaurant hopping with my son, Amado, Alvin, my significant other, and my friend Rodolfo; and family junkets to Hong Kong for Christmas or Easter.
If you hadn’t been a chef, what would you have been? I can’t think of anything I would rather do than be making good food for others and working with those who work with me today. But if I hadn’t chosen this path, I still would have been using my hands and my creativity to make other beautiful things, maybe home things, flowers, graphics, still to make life and living more beautiful and better for others.
Roberto “Rob” Pengson:
The football-crazy and much-awarded Rob trained in the United States, Singapore and Japan before hosting the QTV cooking show “Chef To Go” and GMA News TV’s “Del Monte Kitchenomics,” Aside from running The Goose Station in Bonifacio Global City with wife Sunshine, he also co- founded the Global Culinary and Hospitality Academy. In 2010, SPOT.ph named him Manila’s No. 1 cutest chef.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? My teenage years.
Your biggest influence? My mother was my first teacher. My professors second, my bosses third (the best in the world), and my fourth-my non food-related life experiences.
Your favorite dish? Adobo and ginataang kalabasa (squash cooked in coconut milk), the Roca Brothers’ suckling pig, The Goose Station’s burger.
Your guilty pleasure? PF Chang’s, Krispy Kreme, 36 Tempuras, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Café Juanita Karinderia, and carbs, lots of it.
Your favorite food shop? La Boqueria, Barcelona.
Your secret ingredient/s? Salt is my favorite ingredient. I have no secrets.
Your favorite kitchen gadget? Thermomix immersion blender, yet I dream of owning a combi oven.
What is the cookbook you’d recommend? “The Joy of Cooking,” “Cooking with Nora Daza” and “Modernist Cuisine.”
What’s always in your fridge? Eggs, vegetables, softdrinks, chocolate, butter, cheese and mustard.
Your favorite TV chef or cooking show? International: Mario Batali, Jose Andres, Nigella Lawson, and Giada de Laurentiis. “Top Chef” as well as “Junior Masterchef Australia.” Local: “Curiosity Got the Chef.”
Your favorite street food? Ice scramble and squid balls.
What food would you never eat? Papaitan, bopis (innards) and kuti pai (goat fetus.
Your favorite comfort food? Rice, bread, pasta, sugar, Chowking Chicharap and Via Mare bibingka.
What is your favorite cheat cooking method or cooking shortcut? Steamed tilapia in the microwave. It’s unhealthy but just takes two minutes.
What was your worst kitchen disaster or fiasco? I managed to feed an egg to a goose and it chickened out.
What was/were the most exotic ingredient/s you’ve ever used? I once used MSG for my family and they all hated me for it. Never again.
Who is the guest you’d like to ask most for dinner? Jesus, Jose Rizal, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, footballers Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba, football manager Jose Mouruinho, Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein. I would cook my Heras family cocido for them with Jasponica rice and toasted baguette with olive oil and sea salt.
What would be your last meal? Japanese, Korean, Café Juanita Karinderia, my mother’s cocido, El Celler de Can Roca, Joel Robuchon, Hawkers Market and Soup Restaurant in Singapore.
What is your best kept cooking secret? My secret is that I have no secrets. Everything anyone wants to know, I share and that is the one true secret.
What is/are your favorite food trip and food discoveries? Paris, Italy, Bacolod, Japan, Dampa in Roxas, Café Juanita Karinderia.
If you hadn’t been a chef, what would you have been? I would have designed the Guggenheim and painted like Picasso.
After training in prestigious culinary schools in San Francisco and Paris, Sunshine runs The Goose Station with husband Rob and teaches at the Global Culinary and Hospitality Academy. She heads her own catering company, Gourmandise Catering Services. In 2010, SPOT.ph named her Manila’s No. 1 prettiest chef.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? I’ve always loved eating and enjoy creating something delicious. I was helping my mom in the kitchen and going to summer cooking classes when I was 7, but I realized I was completely hooked and wanted to be in (cooking) for real during my first time in French Laundry over a dozen years ago.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My mom then and my mom now. She’s actually got a great palate and she’s supported me from Day One.
Your favorite dish? It’s impossible to choose only one and (my taste) keeps evolving. Some standouts: my grandmother’s Chinese spaghetti, Guy Savoy’s colors of caviar, The Goose Station’s 24-hour steak, Berasetegui’s basil dessert, my mom’s tapa, Roca’s apple and foie, Robuchon’s carpaccio, Kaito’s katsu-curry, my mom-in-law’s cocido, Cicou’s salted caramel ice cream, Antonio’s steak tartar, Ryugin’s sukiyaki, Rob’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Fauchon’s Paris Brest, Blondie’s pizza and my son’s toes.
Your guilty pleasure? Carbs and sweets.
Your favorite food shop? Mitsukoshi basement, La Boqueria and Gallerie Lafayette food hall.
Your secret ingredient/s? I like adding a dash of pimenton (paprika) in almost everything for that special kick.
Your favorite kitchen gadget? Right now, my immersion blender which is perfect for pureeing my son’s food. Also, I can’t live without my stand mixer, food processor and steaming baskets.
What is the cookbook you’d recommend? Anything by Thomas Keller or Pierre Herme.
What’s always in your fridge? Chocolate, eggs and cheese.
Your favorite TV chef or cooking show? Chef Rob Pengson.
Your favorite street food? Dirty ice cream in pandesal and taho (soy curd).
What food would you never eat? I’m not particularly fond of offal and I wouldn’t like to eat anything still “kicking.”
Your favorite comfort food? Adobo, spaghetti, ice cream, cocido, chocolate, tuna melt and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Your favorite cheat cooking method or cooking shortcut? Sorry, but I don’t believe in taking shortcuts.
Your worst kitchen disaster or fiasco? Running out of Gasul (LPG) in the middle of dinner, not having enough food, and meat that dried out-all from past catering gigs.
What was/were the most exotic ingredient/s you’ve ever used? Nothing that exotic but I do enjoy unusual combinations like vegetables in my desserts, chocolate with my meat, and duck fat or lardo with almost anything.
Who is the guest you’d like to ask most for dinner? My grandmother, Paz.
What would be your last meal? Anything cooked by Joel Robuchon.
What is your best kept cooking secret? The husband does all the cooking at home.
What is/are your favorite food trip and food discoveries? In no particular order, Tokyo, Paris and San Sebastian are my absolute favorite food destinations. Everything from hole-in-the-wall eateries to Michelin-starred restaurants, I would be a happy goose if I could go at least once a year.
If you hadn’t been a chef, what would you have been? A food critic.
Best known for her cakes, among them what many consider the definitive Sans Rival, Sandique floods the senses with her innovative pastries from her kitchen Délize by Jill Sandique.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? I never thought that I would become a chef. In fact, my career path was directed towards a degree in the medical field. Becoming a chef was not even an option back then. Cooking and baking were just hobbies that I enjoyed since was a child.
Who or what was your biggest influence? The love for food! Julia Child, Peter Kump, Nick Malgieri and Sylvia Reynoso-Gala.
Your favorite dish? I have several. It really depends on my mood.
Your guilty pleasure? A cup of hot “tsokolate.” Thank heavens I found the best tablea in the world and have access to it, thanks to Tito Ric and Tita El Acorda. It is simply the best!
What is your favorite food shop? I have a lot. Zabar’s in New York, Food Emporium in Bangkok, specialty shops that sell Jamon de Bellota in San Sebastian, the stalls that sell argan oil and olives at Djemaa el-Fna in Morocco, and many more!
What would you consider your secret ingredient/s? Nothing really.
What is your favorite kitchen gadget? I have two: wire whisk and offset spatula.
What is the cookbook you’d recommend? Any book written by Nick Malgieri and James Peterson.
What’s always in your fridge? Lots of cheese and chocolate!
Your favorite TV chef or cooking show? I hardly watch any so I don’t have a favorite one.
What is your favorite street food? Sai Grok Esarn (grilled sausage from Northern Thailand).
What food would you never eat? Bugs, worms and mice!
Your favorite comfort food? Fabada.
Your favorite cheat cooking method or cooking shortcut? I really don’t cheat-I teach so that is an absolute no-no! One has to plan ahead so there is enough time to prepare the food properly. If cooking meat in a pressure cooker is recommended, then I will use it.
What was your worst kitchen disaster or fiasco? Hope this never happens.
What was/were the most exotic ingredient/s you’ve ever used? Merken (a hot seasoning), a gift from a good friend and teacher, Chef Ruth Van Waerebeek.
Who is the guest you’d like to ask most for dinner? Food writers Harold McGee and Simone “Simca” Beck.
What would be your last meal? Foie gras and truffles.
Your best kept cooking secret? I teach so I have no culinary secrets.
Your favorite food trip and food discoveries? Food trips, whether here or abroad, are always memorable and exciting. There is a lot to learn about food and culture, and being able to visit different places makes me realize how blessed I am to have such an opportunity. And I am truly grateful for that.
If you hadn’t been a chef, what would you have been? A doctor and most probably, an anesthesiologist, just like my mom.
A pastry chef by training, the pixie-faced Jessie made Le Soufflé a formidable and cozy name in the annals of Manila’s best places to dine. Though her academic background is in finance, she is often described as one of the best Filipino chefs around. She now helms her eponymous Chef Jessie at Rockwell.
When and how did you know you wanted to be a chef? This actually came kinda late, after I finished college. I got bored with what I was doing and had to look for something more interesting to do and I ended up joining a baking competition!
Who or what was your biggest influence? My Auntie Lita. She was my first trainor who taught me my first ever baking lesson at home in preparation for the baking contest. We made an original Mango Cake entry and we hit the Gold Prize!
What is your favorite dish? I have a lot! Pasta a la Jessie.
Your guilty pleasure? Macadamia nuts with chocolate.
Your favorite food shop? Santi’s & Rustan’s.
What would you consider your secret ingredient/s? Attention to details and only the freshest, best quality ingredients.
Your favorite kitchen gadget? A sharp knife.
What is the cookbook you’d recommend? For local cuisine, “Kulinarya,” and for international cuisine, “Larousse Gastronomique.”
What’s always in your fridge? Fresh eggs, butter and milk.
Your favorite TV chef or cooking show? “Iron Chef.”
Your favorite street food? Banana-Cue.
What food would you never eat? Fried scorpions and the like!
Your favorite comfort food? Arroz caldo.
Your favorite cheat cooking method or cooking shortcut? No shortcuts, please! If you want good food, you have to be really patient!
What was your worst kitchen disaster or fiasco? When I was putting out a fully baked soufflé and somebody bumped me and the whole thing fell on the floor!
What was/were the most exotic ingredient/s you’ve ever used? Alugbati.
Who is the guest you’d like to ask most for dinner? Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle.
What would be your last meal? My Aunt’s super delicious fruit salad!
Your best kept cooking secret? The LOVE that I put into whatever I cook.
Your favorite food trip and food discoveries? When we had a delicious steamed fish head in a restaurant under the MRT road in Tokyo.
If you hadn’t been a chef, what would you have been? A nun doing mission work.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.