The cuisine of the Philippines has been seeing something of a rise in popularity over the last two years, and one of the top names know to know in the country's culinary landscape is Margarita Forés. More than a chef, she has built an empire of restaurants that includes the Cibo chain, Lusso and Grace Park; runs a successful home-delivery service and a catering business; launched the first Asian arm of Italian cooking school Casa Artusi; has designed her own homewares line; and owns a floral design outfit. It's probably not surprising that Forés didn't start her career in the kitchen – she was trained as an accountant, but after a bout with bulimia and a sojourn in Italy, she found that working with food helped her rediscover a respect for sustenance, and hasn't looked back since.
We chatted to the chef, world traveller and Asia's 50 Best 2016 Best Female Chef about her time in Hong Kong, the business of food and what it means today to be a woman in the culinary world.
You lived in Hong Kong for some time – how did the city inspire you?
You know, living in Hong Kong really was the start of my culinary journey. In Hong Kong, you can get the best of every cuisine. At night, I would go to the Japanese department stores and buy these frozen croquettes and fry them at home because I couldn’t eat out every night, I was on a budget. But I think that was probably when I got started. And that was a real golden age; a good time to be in Hong Kong. I loved my apartment there, I had a little hole-in-the-wall on Robinson Road, the lowest part of Robinson Road. It was nice and I have a lot of good memories – it’s where I met [my son] Amado’s father. That’s why it’s very special me.
Your life has been so multi-faceted — you’ve worked in finance, fashion, fur, flowers – all before you came to food. Does it make you appreciate where you are even more?
Definitely. Especially because I know that if I didn’t persist, I probably would not have gotten to where I am today. It’s a lot of successes as well as failures. I’ve had to close a few restaurants — actually my signature restaurant, called Kapato, I built it in 2003, and it was a fine-dining place that had 100 seats. And if you think about that now, you will never fill up a fine-dining restaurant with 100 seats in this day and age. People are no longer eating fine dining — all the chefs have done their bridge lines and their more casual concepts. So it was a time when trends were changing. The learning I got from closing that is one of the more valuable lessons I always look back to.
You’re not just a successful chef, you’ve got a successful restaurant business, which is not always the same thing. Given you didn’t grow up going to culinary school or work your way up the restaurant ladder, how do you think you learned the ways of the restaurant business?
It’s funny because I’m more a creative mind than a business person. But when I was still in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I just remembered one piece of advice that my grandfather told me, and he said if you don’t know and you’re not sure about what you want to do in college or the future, just make sure you know a little bit about accounting. So that’s why I got a CPA, and that’s why, even though I’m not a numbers person, the little I learned taking that course has helped me a little bit in the business side of the food industry, and up to this day, I’m hitting 30 years, there’s still a lot to fix, and a lot of it is in the business side of the whole equation, because the business has grown from a small mom-and-pop thing. I’ve done flowers, I’ve done a little bit of a home line. And sometimes, you need a certain determination and gumption of someone who’s more attuned to the business side, to see things through. Currently i”m in the process of incorporating that so that I can really concentrate on the creative side.
Did you have to make sacrifices in your business because of motherhood?
I think so. In the long run, yes, and through the years, it’s a lot of learning. I think that what I’m beginning to see with a lot of the young women that are going into food is that they’re coming in with better awareness of what the physical demands are of the industry. So there are more of them who are more decided early on, and they’re willing to go through the struggle. One of the people interviewed me earlier brought that awareness to me earlier – she was saying that in your 20s, when it’s prime for you to have a child, that’s also the time for you to start your career. It’s being able to juggle the two and make the decision.
You were named Best Female Chef earlier this year at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards. Do you think there's still a substantial gap between male and females in the kitchen?
We were talking about it earlier and it’s not so much that there aren’t as many female chefs in the industry, because I think as of late, it’s become a little more balanced. There are just as many women in the kitchen, but I think what needs a little bit of a push is to have more women who are willing to start up concepts on their own. And that’s probably why there is this distinction of having to have Best Female Chef, because there are fewer female-driven and female-owned food concepts, so maybe that’s where this award can really more motivating and encouraging. From my standpoint, I’m thinking maybe the reason why they took notice of me wasn’t because of one restaurant, but the body of work that I’ve done over 30 years. It’s that; it’s also the determination of a woman in the industry to really make her mark.
Most of your work has been in Italian cuisine. With the rise of Filipino cuisine around the world, how do you represent your culture internationally?
Although I started doing mostly Italian cuisine and that’s what I’m known for, I think through the years, and especially because I’ve been blessed with opportunities like cooking for the Presidential palace, or cooking abroad and representing the Philippines, I think if I look at my work now, I’m doing just as much of our own food as Italian. I'm celebrating local ingredients, and incorporating local ingredients into Italian food. That’s also a large part of my work. It’s come full circle. Pushing Filipino cuisine when I’m abroad, and cooking Italian cuisine and more when I’m in the Philippines. I think it’s struck a perfect balance so my work is also being noticed for dealing with both cuisines.
Let's head back to Hong Kong for our last question. What are some of the best things you ate while you lived here?
I had a chance to get to know some local Hong Kong people, and although most of your experiences in Hong Kong would be eating out with friends, I think some of the best dishes that I learned were the ones people cooked at home – steaming meat patties with salted fish, or doing winter rice in your rice cooker with the lap cheung and lap ngap (Chinese sausage and duck). The home-style dishes, for me, evoke a lot of good memories. I remember as well, Sun Tung Lok, and there was a person I met who knew the owner, and they had absolutely the most delicious chicken wings, where they would cut the wing into its three segments. It was marinated in shrimp paste and lemon, that’s it, then deep-fried. I still do that at home, and it brings back memories of that particular dish. Oh, and crispy fried milk! Where can I get crispy fried milk nowadays?