Just hours after stepping off a non-stop flight from New York to Manila, the seemingly indefatigable lifestyle and food celebrity Martha Stewart managed a quick tour of Intramuros before joining nearly 30 guests for lunch at the National Museum of Natural History, hosted by Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno. Catered by Chef Margarita Fores, with food specialties also provided by other purveyors, it was a welcome lunch oozing with the best traits of Filipino hospitality.
Ms. Stewart is in town to speak at the ANC Leadership Series about her experiences as an entrepreneur, author, and food and lifestyle expert. She graduated from Barnard College and worked as a stockbroker for several years, before moving to Westport, Connecticut, to begin restoration of her Turkey Hill property. She set up a catering business in 1976 and in the succeeding decades grew into a publishing, television, multi-media lifestyle, food and entertaining powerhouse. She led one of the of the earliest and largest female-owned and managed corporations in the U.S.
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The setting for lunch, in the interior covered courtyard of the newly refurbished museum near Luneta Park was, in a word, stunning. The soaring atrium was light-filled, airy and bright. Hanging tapestries featuring Philippine species like tarsiers and tamaraws draped the multi-storied walls. Thankfully, the museum is closed on Mondays, so the event had the place all to itself. The multi-tabled buffet catered by Chef Margarita Fores was the height of elegance and restraint, yet featured the best of Philippine craft and materials: huge wooden vessels that cradled seasonal fruit and flowers and foliage, natural fibers like piña and chargers of nito, wooden serving platters, local ceramics and an abundance of mother of pearl. These items were paired with stunning silver serving pieces, cutlery and crystal. Each dish on the buffet was given ample space, their names penned in Margarita’s signature flourish on mother of pearl plates. The menu included a Binakol na Manok, followed by lumpiang ubod, salads, laing, Ulang at Talangka, Bistek Tagalog, Lamb Adobo, roasted sustainably-raised farm Apahap, and lechons from Pepita’s Kitchen and Zubuchon.
Conversation at Martha’s table was lively, with the Mayor providing lighthearted anecdotes and even singing some lines from the Yoyoy Villame song about Magellan discovering the Philippine islands in 1521. Secretary Puyat was the consummate host and Margarita understandably fussed over the food, making sure everything was perfectly done. Martha asked about the binakol, which we explained was an excellent starter as coconut water is reputed to settle one’s equilibrium after a long journey. She marveled at the richness and depth of flavor of the laing, and was curious about the less familiar ingredients pointed out to her like sayote tendrils, blue ternate flowers, ulang or river prawns, and crab fat sauce. She enjoyed the lechons and seemed momentarily smitten by the bamboo shoot achara that we paired with lechon and liver sauce. Her interest in ingredients, sustainable sourcing, farmers and purveyors, and history behind the dish kept table mates on their toes, trying to answer all of the questions that arose over the course of a leisurely, almost two-hour lunch.
A second gorgeous buffet featuring desserts was set up outdoors, to allow freshly cooked bibingkas and puto bumbong by Roast, Murron and chocolates by Risa Chocolates, and Coffee and Lemongrass Tea by El Union. If I am not mistaken, Martha tasted just about every single dish on the buffet, both savory and sweet. She was gracious, complementary and most importantly, seemed genuinely interested in the way the dishes were made. But my favorite anecdote from lunch was when she described how you take the atis fruit, separate the pulp from the seeds, add milk and sugar and freeze it for a dessert treat… we told her we had atis ice cream here and she clearly approved of it!
As the meal was wrapping up, Margarita took one of the earliest published books of Martha Stewart, published in 1982 I believe (she has published nearly 100 books since then), and asked Martha to autograph it for her. The Filipina chef explained that it was one of the books she cherished before she shifted gears and decided to focus on food, just before her life-changing trip to Italy that started her own culinary and entertaining career—which led to her own legendary status as well, including being named Best Female Chef in Asia. Margarita welled up in tears at this point, and she would later confide “It was bit like a revalida for me.” She meant a “revalidation” that the paths she took were the right ones, and that they had now led her back to where it had all began, full circle so to speak. It was a poignant moment.
Photographs courtesy of the author