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Margarita Forés: How the country’s foremost proponent of Italian cuisine fell deeply in love with Filipino flavors

August 18, 2019

“Margarita Forés is a woman who wears many hats. She is a chef, entrepreneur, mother, a respected high society figure, and while she primarily trained in Italian cooking, she is nevertheless a staunch champion of Filipino cuisine and local ingredients. Arguably and expectedly, of all these hats, her toque remains the most decorated.”

Indeed, Forés is celebrated for numerous feats in the food industry, both locally and internationally.

Margarita Forés: How the country’s foremost proponent of Italian cuisine fell deeply in love with Filipino flavors 1

Besides always given the honor of preparing menus for world leaders like US President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Prince Albert of Monaco at state dinners in Malacañang, Forés — and this is only in the last five years — proudly raised the flag anew when she and Chef Myrna Segismundo presented the local dish “kinilaw” at the largest gathering of global chefs in Madrid Fusion in 2015.

On a high from the Philippines’ triumph, she then actively participated in efforts to mount what historically became the first edition of the global culinary event outside Spain via Madrid Fusion Manila.

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Born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, Margarita Forés — daughter of socialite Maria Lourdes Araneta and renowned surgeon Raul Forés — could have chosen a variety of fields to pursue but fell in love with home style Italian cooking and turned it into one of the most successful restaurant chains in the country. ADDITIONAL INSIDE PHOTOS FROM CHEF MARGARITA FORÉS’ INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT @MARGARITAFORES

Never idle, especially with her go local food advocacy, she also devotes much of her time in running and constantly innovating her landmark restaurants Lusso, Grace Park, Las Casas Manila, (Alta) and of course her “eldest” venture Cibo di M.

As such, for her endless well of ideas in the restaurant business, Forés was named 2016’s Best Female Chef at the Asia 50 Best Restaurants Awards. A truly significant feat, the recognition meant more than 300 restaurant industry experts from the continent voted for Forés to receive the plum that year.

But even before putting the Philippines on the world’s culinary map with her victories, Forés will always be considered the foremost pioneer in bringing authentic and modern Italian cuisine to the Filipino palate.

In the beginning

At a time when Italian cuisine was restricted in the Philippines to high brow candle-lit restaurants, the most formal of setups and associated only with pastas and breads, it was Forés who put up Cibo. Basically the Italian word for “food,” this venture served as the beginning of the modern, Italian caffé concept in the Philippines that is accessible to all — 22 years and counting.

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She may have started a restaurant empire on Italian cooking but in embracing the ways of the European nation in respecting and valuing their local ingredients, Forés formed a genuine appreciation for Filipino produce and cuisine and has since advocated its awareness globally.

Grateful for Cibo’s success, Forés says the resto was never just a business for her from the start. Among others, it provided a sense of balance in her personal life and the very awakening that led her to discover and champion Filipino food.

As the brand celebrates its latest milestone, The Sunday Times Magazine sits down with the formidable Margarita Forés and looks back at her unique journey from Italy and back in building the delicious success story that Filipinos have come to know and love in Cibo.

Favored origin

Fores was born with the proverbial silver spoon — a favored origin through her mother Maria Lourdes “Baby” Araneta — youngest child of industrialist J. Amado Araneta, who developed the iconic Araneta Center in Quezon City — and her father Dr. Raul Geronimo Forés — the celebrated surgeon who is among the founding fathers of Makati Medical Center.

Given her family stature, Forés could have chosen any career to pursue, which could well have been the reason why it took her some time to discover her passion in food.

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‘Maybe because I was Italian in my past life,’ the chef answered in jest when asked why she chose to learn Italian cuisine.

Early on, she chose Accountancy for a college course — partly in the US and the Philippines — which eventually landed her a job at a financial firm in Hong Kong in the ‘80s.

However, Hong Kong’s economy took a downturn during her stint, forcing her to return to the United States where her family was based at the time.

Still, a culinary career was farthest from Forés’ mind at this crossroads, which took her from finance to fashion.

Through her mother’s connections, the Big Apple returnee found herself working at Valentino’s fur licensee, and eventually at the fashion house’s main office in the fashion capital.

On hindsight, Forés realizes the Italian bug bit her during this exposure.

“Living in New York and working for an Italian fashion house, Valentino, I fell in love with everything Italian. Outside work, there were also a lot of new Italian restaurants that opened in New York that were doing very different things from traditional Italian,” Forés recalled for The Sunday Times Magazine.

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For the past 22 years, Forés, through her restaurant Cibo — the Italian word for ‘food’ — has given Filipinos access to modern authentic Italian cuisine.

Almost immediately, she grew fond of eating risotto, thin crust pizzas and “a lot of cream based pasta” in these new Italian eateries.

Soon enough, Forés found herself cooking away her Italian obsession for family and friends, her dishes, becoming the star of the gatherings.

“I was got happily caught in the middle of all the cooking, the table setting —parang Martha Stewart! I‘d cook for my friends from what I learned eating out.”

Rich with experience from the corporate and fashion worlds, and of course, her new found talent for cooking Italian food, Forés eventually relocated with her family to Manila when her grandfather, J. Amado Araneta, passed away in 1985.

As the family settled, it also became clear to Forés what she finally wanted to pursue.

“I said to myself, ‘Wait, this is really what I want to do!’ Maybe it’s also partly because I was Italian in my past life that I fell in love the cuisine,” she added in jest. “So I asked my mom if I could go to Italy.”

Italian immersion

Upon beginning her Italian immersion, Forés admitted, “I was just passionate about cooking for people. I had no plans [to open up a restaurant] then. I just thought it would make me happy — that going to Italy would be a good way to develop my passion and thankfully it just grew from there.”

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For her invaluable contribution and continued innovation in the food and beverage industry, Forés was named Best Female Chef in 2016 by Asia 50 Best Restaurants. She is the first-ever Filipino to wiin the award.

After all, Forés received training not from a single source, but three signoras or madams, right in the middle of one of the world’s culinary capitals.

“I think that was providential rather than going to a proper cooking school because they taught me so much more — [I] was learning [to cook] Italian food the way it should be learned in a home-style approach.”

In Cibo’s website, Forés describes the four-month immersion as follows: “With sessions in their kitchens in the mornings, lessons about the best and freshest ingredients in the markets over lunch, and dinners at different restaurants in the evenings, they shared priceless knowledge and wisdom about the country’s cuisine and culture with me.”

Armed with new knowledge and a more fervent love for Italian cuisine than before, Forés came home to the Philippines truly inspired.

Hello, Hugo

With her return — and her Italian immersion — the talk of the town, it wasn’t long before Hugo’s — one of the metro’s most popular fine dining restaurants at the former Hyatt Regency Manila — knocked on Forés door.

“The general manager of Hyatt [Perfecto “Bubut” Quicho] invited me [f[for a sample of my cooking]hen I had just come back. He tasted my food and he was, I think, excited that somebody from my background would actually be able to cook! And that was definitely a good way to showcase something new, to be the featured chef at Hugo’s.

“[F[For the promotion] did lot of the dishes that I learned when I travelled around Florence, Milan and Rome, and it was very successful so they asked me to do a second run. It was all very exciting because I was like, talagang thrust into the limelight at that time,” Forés happily recalled.

Nevertheless, the very food festival that triumphantly introduced Forés in the local culinary scene also turned out to be the experience that opened her eyes to the disadvantages of youth.

“After Hugo’s I started doing really small catering jobs for people I know. [B[But the set up]as a little bit distracting because of all the attention I was getting. I was enjoying it too much and partying so much.

“So, it took me a while to realize, wait a minute, it’s not just about people telling you your food is good. You really have to be super responsible and disciplined to become successful in the food business.”

Forés humbly admits her youthful ways were the reason why it took her 10 years after Italy before she finally opened Cibo in 1997.

“It really took 10 years and a lot of introspection to decide kung laro-laro lang ba ito. Was it just a hobby or do I really want to build a business out of it? That was a good baptism of fire for me.”

Still, the uncertain decade did not go to waste because without knowing it, Forés was actually building her confidence all the while until she realized she had more than just passion for cooking but the requisite discipline vital in every restaurateur.

“Because you know when you’re in catering, you can choose the nights you work but when it’s restaurant, you open the doors and that’s it! It’s like a marriage, whether you like it or not, you have to be open!”

Cibo for all

With the help of her ever-supportive mother, Forés opened the very first Cibo in then newly opened mall Glorietta in Makati. Finally ready for the challenge, what got her going is the fact she had a very clear direction for her restaurant.

First, she wanted the restaurant to bring “newness” to the classic cuisine, a fast-service casual restaurant in tune with changing lifestyle of the city.

“The other Italian restaurants that were around at that time were doing the very classic or the more American-Italian style of cuisine, while others were sticking to the authentic. But I think from being exposed in Milano, where I found this whole Panini [s[sandwiches on-the-go]ulture growing because they were becoming cosmopolitan, I knew it was exactly the newness I wanted to bring to Manila.”

Secondly, Forés was also bent on making her own mark in the food scene rather than going with a franchise, which is a quicker and safer route for a first-time entrepreneur like her.

“I wanted to to establish my own [b[brand]ecause of love for country. You see, at the time, most of the successful restaurants in the malls were American franchises and I felt I can build a [h[homegrown]rand even if it’s an Italian restaurant.

“I can still do things authentically but as a Filipina [e[entrepreneur]o [t[the restaurant]oesn’t have to be a US franchise where whatever you earn mostly ends up being sent out. In Cibo’s case, all the benefits to economy stay in the Philippines and that’s why I felt strongly about building a homegrown Filipino brand.”

Last but not the least, it was clear to Forés she wanted an Italian restaurant that’s accessible to every day Filipinos.

“I wanted it be a mall-based concept, very quick, with good value for money. I just really wanted to give Manila an option that was authentic Italian but not intimidating. That’s why our first store was actually a common area because we started in a little island in Glorietta.”

Back in 2017, Forés shared on her Instagram account an architectural sketch of the original Cibo. Featuring an open kitchen, the design was not common for most restaurants in the Philippines in the late ‘90s.

“As a matter of fact, the mall told me, ‘ You’ll only have this space for one year because we’re going to open the Landmark bridge way,’ and I said, ‘Never mind, let’s just do it for a year and then you move me to another space.’ I was just really eager to go.”

Makings of an icon

All set with her concept and direction, the next wave of challenges Forés encountered for Cibo was finding Italian ingredients to cook authentic Italian food.

“They’re more accessible now but it was a totally different story in the ‘90s. There are ingredients that we can’t compromise — the oil, cheese, flour, pasta — so looking back, I’m so happy that we invested in working with the biggest Italian brands from the start, such as De Cecco for pasta and Lavazza coffee.”

Next up was getting the Filipino market to adapt to the tastes and textures of cosmopolitan Italian dishes.

“For example, people were not used to eating pasta al dente, and then others were asking, ‘Why is your Bolognese not sweet?’

“But I stood my ground and said, ‘You know this is really the way I learned it in Italy and this is what I want share with Manila.’”

Eventually, people embraced Forés’ determination and ingenuity as the lines that formed outside the quaint Cibo in Glorietta got longer and longer.

“I was happily surprised [w[with the success]I didn’t think people would actually line up and be willing to sit in communal tables kasi di’ba it was so small, but people really wanted to try it because it was new.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Cibo was a veritable hit and after a year, relocated to a bigger branch in Glorietta where the branch remains open to this very day. Currently, the restaurant also boasts of 12 branches Metro Manila and will soon open its very first out of town branch in Forés’ hometown of Bacolod, Negros Occidental.

Beyond the menu

On Cibo’s 22nd year, Forés feels a significant sense of pride because her venture not only led to the Filipinos’ appreciation of genuine Italian cooking and flavors but also because despite the years and throughout its growth, the chain’s standards have neither changed nor faltered.

“I think the gift of being able do it consistently in 12 locations, I think that’s the best thing that people have said about Cibo — that wherever location you are, more often than not, the service and the food is the same. That’s the legacy that I feel Cibo has brought to the industry. How people don’t talk only about our food, but they also talk about the level of service and I’m proudest about that.”

There is also immense fulfillment in the fact that Cibo has endured two decades of tough competition in the food industry.

“To stay in the industry for five years is already such a feat. Everyone can see how competition is so stiff; how the industry is evolving so fast with a lot of new brands coming in. So if you can build something that’s enduring and still feels young after two decades then that’s the way to go!” Forés rightly beamed.

As Cibo begins counting down to its silver anniversary, Forés further shared she is already bringing the next generation of family members into the business, who in turn also help her keep up with a market that is getting younger by the minute.

“My son, my niece and nephew, they have their inputs na rin. In fact, that spinach dip pizza [t[the best-selling Pizza Spinaci Zola]s my son’s idea already.”

Unfortunately, for entrepreneurial fans who are hoping to have their own Cibo franchise one day, Forés remains determined to protect the brand and thereby keep it in the family.

“I’m not really considering franchising Cibo out. I think it’s a cuisine that’s very difficult to franchise unlike maybe Japanese or Filipino — they’re easier to teach. But there are a lot of nuances in preparing Italian food that I’m not sure everyone can easily learn.”

Fores elaborated that preparing Italian food the way Cibo has all these years doesn’t start and end by supplying the same ingredients to franchisee for example.

“There’s just really so much detail in the way the food is prepared that one needs to be very careful about to make it all happen,” she noted.

After all, one of the most important lessons Forés learned through her long journey is never compromise.

“You have to know exactly what you want and stay true to the brand. I also learned that you have to challenge yourself at the same time, even if you fail. I always say my failures are my biggest lessons and they’ve helped me to be better and to be more successful later. So don’t be afraid to fail, just pick yourself up and go on again.”

Fil-Italian exchange

Rounding up the interview, Forés finally imparted how her journey in building Cibo — from the time she fell in love with the Italian cafes in New York through her Italian immersion — actually brought about her renewed appreciation for Filipino food.

“I am happy that I learned about working with food in Italy first because I think the best lesson I learned there was about respect for ingredients and learning things in an authentic way. And I think in that learning, I came back with a new found appreciation for Filipino food,” she explained.

“I now have that mentality to respect and value Filipino ingredients that neither I nor many others ever paid attention to. I was inspired to look for more Filipino ingredients that I could use in my work and even that practice gave me a fresh point of view on our own cuisine. So no matter how ironic it sounds, Italian food made me love Filipino food all the more,” she smiled in ending.

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net

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