Never did it cross celebrity chef Gene Gonzalez’s mind that one of his students, who seemed like the typical girl next door, would emerge as the “confidently beautiful” Miss Universe of 2015.
Even back then, when he first met Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach in November 2007, she had no “superstar complex,” recalled Gonzalez, president and chef-instructor at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies in San Juan City.
“She was very nice but you can see in her eyes that there was a bit of uncertainty,” he said of Wurtzbach, who took up a one-year diploma course in professional culinary and pastry arts, with restaurant operation.
Gonzalez surmised that the uncertainty in Wurtzbach’s eyes might be due to the beauty queen’s doubts about going into culinary arts. She had already costarred in at least three movies and five ABS-CBN shows, so the course was “exploratory” for her, a “good way to get a job.”
But the uncertainty eventually faded, as the then 19-year-old Wurtzbach started excelling in her course, even finishing as a silver medalist.
She was a “team player” and a “friend of everybody,” said Gonzalez’s son Gino, who was also Wurtzbach’s teacher in the course.
Despite her skills, however, it took some time before her leadership quality manifested itself, the younger Gonzalez said of the Cagayan de Oro lass.
It was only toward the end of the course that Wurtzbach ably led her class as executive chef during one of their activities, since “her classmates saw something in her.”
She was a competitive student, said the younger Gonzalez, but “she showed her competitive (spirit) in a very subtle and graceful way.”
“There are those who are very vocal, but in Wurtzbach’s case, it comes out in her work. She was very calm,” Gino said, adding that Wurtzbach handled well the strong personalities of her 15 classmates during their class’ four-day buffet preparation test.
Wurtzbach impressed her mentors further when a restaurant in England hired her only weeks after her graduation. But Gonzalez said he was “surprised” when he later found out that Wurtzbach worked as a line cook, a “very challenging” job, he said. Line cooks are in charge of preparing the ingredients to be used in the kitchen for the day.
“It’s very challenging to start at the bottom, especially if you’re in a foreign land. You don’t have any ally, people there don’t care about you,” the chef added.
Barely a year into her work, however, Wurtzbach returned to the country because people were urging her to resume her career in show business, Gonzalez said.
He didn’t take Wurtzbach’s decision against her, the chef said, adding that he always told his students that they could find a food connection in whatever they do in the future. As a beauty queen, Wurtzbach could have used her culinary skills to come up with a diet that would help her achieve the slim figure that made her a standout in the pageant.
It was during the run-up to the 50th edition of the Binibining Pilipinas in 2013 when Gonzalez saw his student transform from being a simpleng nene (girl next door) to a beauty queen who had a fighting chance on the world’s stage. That year, Wurtzbach won as first runner-up.
Gonzalez recalled how, months before Wurtzbach’s second attempt to win the Binibining Pilipinas crown, he had a chat with astrologer-friend, Henry Palacios, who told him that the beauty queen was “destined for greatness.” The chef later arranged a meeting between his friend and former student at his restaurant in San Juan City where the two “talked for hours.”
To Gonzalez’s dismay, Wurtzbach lost in her second crack at the beauty crown in 2014. But the astrologer maintained what he saw as Wurtzbach’s destiny. The beauty queen seemed unfazed as well, saying she took the astrologer’s words just as a guide.
Months before the start of the 2015 edition of Binibining Pilipinas, Wurtzbach told Gonzalez of her third attempt at the crown. “I think I’m going to get it this time. I’m prepared, and everybody’s telling me I can do this,” Gonzalez recalled the beauty queen telling him.
True enough, Wurtzbach won the Binibining Pilipinas-Universe title, and on Dec. 20, was crowned Miss Universe 2015 in Las Vegas under circumstances that have since been parodied on US talk shows and comedy skits, and posted countless times on social media.
People still talk of how pageant host Steve Harvey mistakenly announced Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo as this year’s Miss Universe, before apologizing and finally admitting that he had misread the card with the winner’s name. Miss Philippines was Miss Universe, and Miss Colombia was, in fact, first runner-up.
The mistake might have cost her her first iconic walk onstage as Miss Universe, but she would definitely be remembered, Wurtzbach has been told.
To local viewers who might have wondered why Wurtzbach’s culinary background was not highlighted as much as her being a model and actress, her former mentor, chef Junjun de Guzman, said it was no big deal for them.
“It’s up to us to tell people that she was one of our students,” said Wurtzbach’s pastry and chocolates mentor.
For Gonzalez, what mattered more was Wurtzbach’s perseverance despite the initial hardships that had her depending on the support of friends at the start of her career.
“To be good at what you’re doing, you have to go through rocky (times),” the chef said. “Being in a beauty contest is just like being in our world, where being dedicated and persevering (are) really good qualities. Long after (Wurtzbach) has relinquished her crown, [those] qualities will still be there,” Gonzalez said.