Her color-block, Costume National five-inch heels make a brisk, clicking sound on the concrete floor, in the unmistakable pace of a woman used to a frenetic workday. She has come from a meeting—one that typically ended past its schedule—and quickly murmurs her apologies.
It’s business as usual for Elizabeth “Beng” Dee, who runs the fast-food side and purchasing division of Food Link, the restaurant chain she runs with husband Enrico “Rikki” Dee, and which includes brands such as Inihaw Express and Chin’s Express (with 80 branches), Mesa, La Mesa, Cerveseria, Kitchen, Kai, Toss! Salad Bar, Krokodile Grille and the just-opened Michelin-star Hong Kong franchise of Tim Ho Wan.
The restaurateur meets with the Inquirer Lifestyle team at Todd English Food Hall, another recent addition to the Food Link portfolio. The Dees are the first to introduce the celebrity chef restaurant concept in the country, and the SM Aura restaurant is the first of chef Todd English outside New York.
The Dee matriarch doesn’t dilly-dally and takes her place in the makeup chair right away. Aside from her stilettos—a daily uniform for this
self-confessed shoe addict—she’s casual-chic in white cotton tank and a royal-blue pencil skirt. She likes skirts, she says, in varied lengths and styles, and wide-legged pants.
Her daughter Erika, 23, says people think her mother doesn’t work because she’s always dressed nice—and is always in high heels at that.
The petite Dee, who’s about 5’3,” has the frame of a woman who could get away with almost any outfit, a perfect size 2 at 105 lbs, and not an inch of fat to pinch. Dieting is an alien word, since the family is in the food business.
She can’t not eat. When they travel, “It’s all eat, eat, eat!” Dee says. And yet she stays trim. It must be genes, since she doesn’t even work out.
“I can get up to 120 lbs,” she says. When you were pregnant? I ask. She laughs. “Yes. I gained very little whenever I was pregnant… Maybe because I married very young, so I don’t look my age.”
Dee turns 50 this year, though she could easily pass for Erika’s sophisticated older sister. She’s now a grandmother—eldest son, Eric, 30, has a toddler. But she’d rather the little one doesn’t call her Lola.
“He’s learning to talk, and calls me ‘ami,’” she says of her grandchild. It’s a bastardization of ama, the Chinese word for grandmother, which she prefers.
Dee married at 18, had her first child at 19, and began running the business with her husband at 20. The Dees are slowly passing on the responsibilities of the business to their four children. Rikki, who thrived on creating his own restaurant concepts, has given in to Eric’s prodding to bring in franchises. The first was Todd English, then Tim Ho Wan, introduced to the family by Erika. Second son JR handles the family’s provincial malls, while Erika is her mom’s assistant. The youngest, Cheena, is 17.
“If it were up to me, I’d like to retire. Gusto ko GRO na lang ako,” the mom says in mock exasperation. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years.”
But her husband isn’t likely to relinquish control of their businesses any day yet. “Go, go, go pa rin,” she says of him.
Running restaurants is hard and very detail-oriented, Dee says. When she’s stressed and can’t sleep, she shops—on Farfetch, Net-a-porter, My Theresa, Luisa Via Roma, Shopbop—“up to what my conscience can afford,” she says.
“I can buy up to 10 shoes a month—but I don’t!” she adds.
Dee says she gets to shop only online since there’s hardly ever time to do it when she’s traveling with her husband. She also doesn’t like the process of having custom dresses from
designers; fittings are tedious, she says.
Dee brings her own rack of clothes to this shoot, a high-low mix of Prada, moderately priced labels like Raoul, and brands from the high street like H&M, Asos, Mango. Notably, there are trendy midriff-baring tops, though she rolls her eyes when asked if she still dresses for her husband.
“It has no effect! He just makes a comment when he thinks the dress is too sexy. That one earlier,” she says, referring to the Clover Canyon dress with cutouts on the waist that she wore for the shoot, “that’s just for pictorials.”
Though not a bag hound, she carried a well-worn tan Birkin, and also brought several clutches—YSL, Valentino, Givenchy, Miu Miu, Goyard.
Then the shoes: several Brian Atwood, Alexander Wang, Emilio Pucci, Donna Karan, Casadei, Pollini, all stilettos.
“That must be why people think I don’t work,” she says with a laugh. “My back hurts when I wear flats.”
She has, however, experienced the perils of wearing heels.
“I actually fractured my left foot once while I was in platforms. I had to wear an orthopedic boot. Then we had to go to a formal event, which would have been fine since they couldn’t see underneath the dress. But then I’d have to cut the hem of my gown since it was too long for the boot.”
As a compromise, “I ended up wearing wedge heels,” she adds with a sheepish grin.
Members of Dee’s staff are the lucky recipients when she cleans out her vast size-6 shoe closet. She doesn’t give them for free, but asks for the token P20/pair, adhering to the superstition that it’s bad luck to gift footwear.
Her entire wardrobe and shoe closet she shares with older daughter, who wears the same size as Mom, though some three inches taller.
“I don’t have any clothes!” Erika says. “She dresses me. I’m worried that if I move out, I don’t have anything. When I need something, I just ask her to shop for me.”
This woman isn’t a big fan of costume jewelry, though she doesn’t splurge on diamonds either. “She can’t afford them!” her daughter says. Dee points to her diamond studs, the only jewelry she’s wearing: “My husband buys for me.”
Apart from an enviable physique, this restaurateur also has fine skin, and hardly wears makeup. On a daily basis, she simply uses powder and eyeliner, and not much else. She recalls one photo shoot where her makeup was so airbrushed she felt it looked too unnatural. “It’s like my face was Botoxed,” she says, frowning.
Dee switches between Clarins and SKII skincare, and has also recently discovered a Taiwan brand called Coni. She swears by its serum essence and eye gel mask.
With a face that’s practically line-free, it may take years before this woman actually needs a Botox injection. Even then, don’t expect her to be making that Botox appointment.
“I’ve seen many bad results… But it’s not that I’m against it,” she says, carefully choosing her words. “It’s like makeup, it’s not for everybody.”