Harvest with Margarita Fores
A new show on CNN takes us a journey with 2016's Asia's Best Female Chef
Just about a year ago, Margarita Fores was named Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016. From that day, many things had changed for her. She hasn’t changed though. She still wants to feed you. She still has a way of talking, a passion for what she is doing, a vibrancy that draws you in and infects you to be just as excited as she is, over whatever it is that she is talking about. Usually, those things are the things close to her heart—organically grown produce, slow food, and Filipino food.
It wasn’t always so though; when her first restaurants Cibo, and then Pepato opened, many of the ingredients she used were imported. “I kept trying to find local alternatives at the onset. When I first got back to Manila, the biggest challenge for me was finding tomatoes that were like the tomatoes in Italy!” Her challenge at the time, she says, was discovering how different local tomatoes were, and finding the herbs that she got used to using in Italy. “There was nothing in Manila except a little bit of basil and maybe some rucola (arugula) that my uncle was growing in the house in Cubao,” she explained. Margarita worked closely with Old Man Kano (he has since passed away, but he was the first to grow different lettuce varieties and herbs in Tagaytay) to be able to get hold of the ingredients that she needed. “What was nice was that although he was the one who started it, and Gourmet Farms came next, little by little the industry opened up. During that time, in the late ‘80s, chefs were a little bit more selfish in wanting to keep these special ingredients to themselves.” Now, she says, things are different. “We chefs have realized that if we don’t share among ourselves in the industry, the farmers will never survive. We need to create larger markets for them, and for the industry, so that prices drop and more people are encouraged to go into farming,” she pointed out.
Her words, in support of our farmers and producers, are quite apt given that the name of her new culinary travel show with CNN Philippines is Harvest with Margarita Fores. The fourpart, 30-minute series premieres on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. on CNN Philippines, and will follow Margarita as she explores key destinations in the Philippines and the unique ingredients they are known for.
The series comes at just the right time. In the past two or three years, there has been so much interest in Filipino food and ingredients, both locally and internationally. Some of it is because of culinary and travel-related international shows that have come to the Philippines to film episodes, or new restaurants owned by Filipino chefs that have begun to make waves in the US, or even Madrid Fusion Manila, which will be on its third year this 2017. But Margarita also believes that it is because of Filipinos themselves. “I think it took us falling in love with our food. Now the world loves our food, too,” she said.
When I asked her what her next chapter would be after her Asia’s Best Female Chef win and her new Harvest series with CNN, she replied, “Well, I think continuing to sort of go with this new groundswell of loving our own ingredients and loving our own produce. And discovering as well, maybe old ways of cooking that we never knew about because they were so isolated in the different regions. Her face lights up as she talks about the new discoveries that will be featured on her show, “Every time I travel there’s always a new dish that blows my mind that I didn’t know existed. On recent trips to Mindanao, I’ve just learned about tribal cooking, which, I think, is just incredible because then there are so many more things to learn from these communities that we didn’t really know about. So I think that there’s so much more that we’ll be able to discover and I think that the chance to do Harvest with CNN is giving me so much more of an opportunity to do that.” During the launch for Harvest
with Margarita Fores we were given a sneak preview of one episode that was filmed in Bicol. The show is engaging and very personal, pretty much just the same as Margarita in real life. She shows a genuine interest in the people she talks to, and on screen, she is just as excited as she is in real life to learn about new dishes and cooking methods. “It’s like snow!” she exclaimed in one scene, when she learns how to open up a coconut and scrape out the coconut meat. “The dishes that I cook on the show were not planned,” she says, “they depended on what I saw and learned on-site.” All in all, her show is a sign of good things to come. I hope that our local culinary shows will continue to be as well produced as this one is. Some of the episodes include visits to farms. To Margarita, much of the future of the culinary industry lies in agriculture, and she is happy that the next generation is very much into farming. “Like I always say, maybe it’s a blessing that we never got industrialized as far as farming is concerned, because today the fact that we are so backward, we’re in fact quite advanced because we don’t need to undo anything—we are still doing it (farming) in a very honest way.”
She is also happy that younger people are being more creative and adventurous, as she tells me people experimenting with cheeses, butter, smoking eggs, and making bacon with organic pigs. Cibo, she tells me proudly, is now close to 80 percent organic after 12 years in the business. From squash she uses at the restaurant’s popular squash soup, to organic chickens, free range eggs, and the herbs and vegetables that are purchased from many different organic farmers. Now she wants to move beyond markets to find farmers who have unearthed longforgotten ingredients. “Farm to table has helped to unify the food community in the fight to promote our cuisine worldwide,” she says. “And there’s a real wealth of all these undiscovered ingredients that we chefs are going crazy over. We are all learning from each other.”
What about all the famous chefs she has been able to meet because of the attention she has been receiving, I asked. “I used to be like a fan girl, you know!” she exclaims. “I used to be a super fan girl wanting their autographs and getting a picture with them. But it’s super heartwarming and mind-blowing that they look at me as a peer.” She laughs as she continues: “I think that the best thing about this is that it’s so much easier to get a table at any of their restaurants all over the world! It’s made the industry so much smaller!”
She recalls the day almost a year ago when she was announced as Asia’s Best Female Chef. “It turned my life around and really changed everything. I think that’s going to stay with me forever. It’s a really great honor, but at the same time it also comes with a lot of responsibility. I have to continue to trudge along to really share this passion and infect a lot of people in the industry and even outside the industry to feel just as strongly as me about all these things.”
“There’s this wonderful wealth of heritage in our cuisine that we have taken for granted. But all of us in the industry feel very strongly about how beautiful our cuisine is, how rich we are in ingredients, how wonderful we are as a people, and it’s an infectious advocacy. It’s great that people are now realizing that the Philippines has all of these wonderful treasures.”
Harvest with Margarita Fores will premiere on Feb. 18, Saturday, 7 p.m., on CNN Philippines Free TV Channel 9 or via live streaming on cnnphilippines.com/video.
‘I think it took us falling in love with our food. Now the world loves our food, too.’