Filipino Food—How Can We Go Further? Margarita Forés, Chele Gonzàlez, And More Speak Out
Food has always been a fundamental facet of Filipino culture. When we encounter fellow Filipinos abroad, our spirit of bayanihan instinctively comes alive. “The common language is food”, notes Catherine Feliciano-Chon, founder of CatchOn - the marketing and PR agency that’s represented Asia’s 50 Best since 2014. Since its launch (and the introduction of offshoot awards), it has spotlighted some of the Philippines' finest food and beverage titans, inspiring pride and determination throughout our culinary community.
Fervently discussing the lasting “desire to bring Filipino cuisine to the forefront”, Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016 Margarita Forés says “It’s been a movement [...] a vibrant new movement and the pandemic is not gonna stop it”. Chef Chele González, whose restaurant Gallery by Chele was named No. 90 in 2021, met Forés’ remarks enthusiastically, powerfully declaring “it’s a revolution”. Together with honourees Jordy Navarra and David Ong, Feliciano-Chon, Forés, and González came together to discuss Filipino cuisine, the local revolution, and how we can move forward.
The Core Of Our Cuisine: Hospitality, Diversity And Evolution
For David Ong, the barista and managing partner behind this year’s Asia’s No.38 bar The Curator, it’s all about “Pinoy hospitality”, expressing that Filipino cuisine is “not only [about] the food, but the people, the surroundings”. Similarly, chef Jordy Navarra believes that it’s very natural for Filipinos to be great hosts, as it’s “very innate in us that we always want the best for our guests” - a sentiment that certainly shines at his restaurant Toyo Eatery, which placed No. 49 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021. Ultimately, as Forés beautifully put it, Filipino hospitality is “the warmth that’s unique to the world”.
The Philippines showcases a rich diversity of culture, both as a multicultural nation with persisting influences from around the world and as a country boasting pockets of unique traditions across different regions. Recounting their travels throughout our sprawling archipelago, González and Forés echo each other's sentiments: “Every time that I travel I see a new ingredient, a new technique” and “there’s so much to learn [...] so much to discover”. At Toyo Eatery, this all-important “celebration of diversity” even translates beyond the food, and is articulated in the unique stories the staff members share with their diners. “They have a personal connection with the food that we serve [...] they talk about it in the way they understand it,” says Navarra.
Although these industry professionals are surely experts in Filipino cuisine, even they feel like they’ve yet to fully master it entirely. While this is in large part due to the variety of cultures we represent, Navarra says “Filipino food is constantly evolving [...] it’s never stagnant”. “I feel like I know nothing when it comes to what we have” he continues, “this is really just the beginning”. González concurs, sharing that Filipinos have a “very particular palette” distinguished by a pronounced preference for saltiness, sweetness, and bold flavours - yet it’s one that continues to evolve.
See Also: Chef's Table With Jordy Navarra
The Local Revolution
Alongside the evolution of our cuisine, another transformation that these hospitality giants attest to is our thriving love for local. Forés admits we’ve “always had an identity crisis with how we love ourselves”, but celebrates the “new love affair that we ourselves as Filipinos are having with our own cuisine”.
González reflects on his earlier experiences in the industry, recalling a time when his restaurant lost a staggering customer base when they embarked on pursuing Filipino-focused menus.
Likewise, Feliciano-Chon expresses that many international chefs of Filipino heritage would never have attempted to cook Filipino food or even identify their food as Filipino ten years ago, but “the context we’re in is different, we’re proud”, beaming with a desire to express our Filipino identity.
Yet, there is an overwhelming, exciting notion that this is but the dawn of our cuisine’s movement. Energised by the local revolution, González declares “we are in a beautiful moment". Navarra also comments on how campaigning for local food has even bestowed producers with “more courage to try and keep growing different things”, contributing to our endlessly evolving understanding of what Filipino cuisine is. This “resurgence of discovering new things”, Forés shares, “makes the cuisine more attractive, not just for ourselves locally but for people out there who are watching what we’re doing”.
On taking our cuisine to the international stage, Ong emphasises the power of combining a chef’s refined expertise with Filipino ingredients, citing González’ octopus inasal aka Octopus That Wants To Be A Chicken as a prime example. For Feliciano-Chon, Navarra’s Bahay Kubo dish is an apt metaphor for the movement. “[To] take something so traditional, so much part of our folklore, and then reinterpret it into a very sophisticated and intellectual gift”, while keeping it ripe with tenets of our food - warmth, nostalgia, memory, and identity - is talent. However, she also notes that we’re still at the tip of the iceberg on showing the world “what our cuisine is about”.
How Can We Go Even Further?
“The success of Jordy, the success of Margarita, is ours as well,” says González, proclaiming that every win for a Filipino gastronome is a win for the entire industry. But how do we move forward?
With the future in mind, Forés calls fellow Filipinos to action - “keep pushing for the advocacy, there’s still so much we can share with the world”. Feliciano-Chon looks to the government, voicing that it “takes a lot of initiative to really catalyse a movement”, using Singapore’s booming hospitality market as a standard.
Appealing to others in the culinary circle, Navarra says “let’s constantly keep learning, keep trying, and never underestimate the strength of community”, as we can only share with others what we know ourselves. In parallel, Ong addresses the many Filipinos in the hospitality industry around the globe, with a succinct “we’re waiting for you”, inviting them back home.
Finally, as the person who has delighted in breaking the incredible news to many of these award-winners, Feliciano-Chon brought the roundtable to a close by pleading to industry leaders past, present, and future - “when you make it, make sure you pull somebody up with you”.
Content from this feature was sourced from the Kain Na webinar series, by the Department Of Tourism.