Food & Drink Features

Hanging out with Glenda Barretto, the unstoppable queen of Via Mare and Pinoy fine dining

A peek into the formidable personality (and humor) behind Via Mare’s 40-plus years of innovation and acclaim
Michaela Fenix | Aug 25 2019

When people attach a “the” to a name, it means that this person is important, respected, a one and only. 

She was already “the” Glenda Barretto of Via Mare fame when I met her—established restaurant owner, caterer to go to, an officer of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines. She once was a judge at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition, a culinary contest created by the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse held in Lyon, France. In a photo of that event, she was the only woman in a sea of male chefs. 

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Glenda Barretto with Paul Bocuse

When I told her about that business-like distant persona she had before I came to know her, she gave me an unbelieving look. Then she let out a quiet laugh—and there was the Glenda Rosales Barretto when she hangs out with friends.

A young Barretto just starting out in the restaurant industry.

We did just that recently, hang out at the Via Mare branch at St. Luke’s Medical Center in BGC. She didn’t want it to be a formal interview, just catching up with friends. But because she was at her workplace, I would catch her eye flitting from end to end of the room, observing the food, the service, the customers. Then she said with a sigh that the new service people don’t have what Via Mare veterans were trained to have—non-verbal communication. A look from a customer or a manager was enough for them to know what was needed.

Barretto with her Via Mare family

While her eyes are skilled at detecting potential problems, so is her nose. A waiter with his tray of orders is sometimes stopped from serving when she smells something wrong with the food.

 

Refining the cuisine

Before us were dishes that can be defined as Via Mare specialties—Oysters Rockefeller, Fresh Lumpiang Ubod, Sinigang of Bangus Belly with Shrimps, Crispy Pata. After all that, we couldn’t say “no” to the cool shooters of Halo-halo, Guinumis and Mais con Hielo, or even to Bibingka and Puto Bumbong.

Halo-halo, Guinumis, and Mais con Hielo in shooters.

The Via Mare menu is filled with Filipino food but served with presentation. With friends, she will say it as “pree-sen-tay-shan,” just to remove the pretension. But Barretto is a master of that, both in the food and the dining setting. She considers it a challenge to present adobo but not to make it far removed from its flavor. “I am trying to refine our cuisine,” is how she explained her efforts to noted American food writer and culinary historian Raymond Sokolov, author of Why We Eat What We Eat (Summit Books, New York, 1991).

Via Mare is famous for its Pancit Luglog and Puto Bumbong.

While Café Via Mare keeps the dishes simple and neat, the refinement she talks about is mainly done for her many Via Mare catering jobs. Apart from international conferences and high-end corporate events locally, there are the expositions abroad. For one expo in Japan, she recounted how she made the lumpiang Shanghai longer, even had a paper holder made to contain three of them, and was rewarded with the sight of expo visitors holding those long lumpia. And then she laughed as she recalled one long-time foreign resident in the Philippines who said the Lumpiang Binondo as she had named it was really lumpiang Shanghai. “Why will I promote another country?” she retorted.

That was just one innovation and there have been many more. For instance, very few people know that she was the one who created the Paella-stuffed Lechon which she did for the first Filipino food dinner of the international gastronomy group, La Chaîne de Rôtisseurs. The Balut Surprise, duck egg in white wine sauce under a pastry crust, was first done for a dinner with expat hotel general managers who couldn’t believe they had eaten what they wouldn’t even consider having.

Balut Surprise with the “Fear Factor-esque” balut presented in high style.

She applies techniques from other cuisines like her Tinola Flan inspired by the Japanese chawan mushi, a different texture, but retaining the unmistakable taste of the ginger-flavored chicken soup we know.

Filipinos’ humble chicken soup transformed into an elegant Chicken Tinola Flan.

 

Creating ambiance

While Via Mare catering utilizes high quality china and crystal, Barretto also uses carved fruit and vegetable containers to serve soups. For example, desserts may feature sliced fruit artistically arranged on the side. But Barretto is also practical when, for buffets, she serves desserts in small individual containers, so the buffet line can move quickly and the food on display isn’t in disarray.

Squash Soup presented in an intricately carved and hollowed-out squash.
Barretto catered many state dinners for former First Lady Imelda Marcos.

The atmosphere created is also important to Glenda Barretto. Plates ringed with sampaguita leis introduce foreign guests to our beautiful native flower and fills the air with their sweet aroma. Banig-covers dining chairs start a conversation on how these woven mats are made and where (from Samar, her home province). Mantones de Manila or embroidered Spanish shawls cover tables and chairs for a recreation of a 19th century dinner. One wedding had cocktail food in baskets tied to ribbons hanging from a huge tree in the garden.

Using sampaguita to add a Filipino touch to a formal table setting.

These ideas come to Barretto suddenly, sometimes at night in a dream where she forces herself to wake up and write them down, she said. She does not charge extra if she dreams or thinks of a new idea after a catering contract is signed—she just wants to see it happen, whether it enhances the food or the setting.

 

Tracing back

Glenda grew up eating good food cooked by her mother, father, and aunts in Samar. Because she was interested, she learned to cook. Her first business, though, was a flower shop that must have taught her the artistry of arrangement. Her husband urged her to open a restaurant, and the rest is recorded in the book, Via Mare: 40 Years of Iconic events through menus, recipes and memories (Anvil Publishing, 2016). We worked on this book together but it came out a year after Via Mare’s 40th anniversary because the company was too busy catering for international conferences, plus all the small affairs of anniversaries, birthdays, and weddings.

To illustrate how she can hardly keep up with her many catering jobs, at an exhibit launch at the National Museum, she asked the waiters who the caterer was and when she was told it was Via Mare, she let out that giggle again.

Once committed to finishing her anniversary book project, she made time, conducted food testing and tasting sessions, attended the photo shoots, and supervised the recipe writing.

I was familiar with her work ethic, having been involved in writing and editing several of her books. She also taught me to be patient when the book, Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine (Anvil Publishing, 2008) had to be redone. And she was right because the book was better for it.

Barretto is in no rush to retire as she continues to oversee her catering and restaurant operations.

What amazes me is her energy in researching about our cooking and even looking for and learning about ingredients. She recently traveled to Capiz to look for the best source of crabs. She was amused to learn that crabs change their sex as they grow older. She is curious about other restaurants and will make it a point to dine there, whether here or abroad.

Barretto ever so hands on in the kitchen.

Half a century of running her business enterprise can daunt many people younger than her. But that energy is tempered by her ability to relax when she can. She reads while waiting; she keeps up with the local teleseryes; she enjoys the company of her patud or Waray cousins whether eating, playing mahjong, or traveling together. And she loves to just hang out with friends, sometimes to watch the waves silently at a beach for hours, to sing along with her singing artist group, or to simulate synchronized swimming à la Esther Williams. And that makes you understand why she won’t have pictures taken while she hangs out.

 

Photos by Pat Mateo used with permission from Via Mare: 40 Years of iconic events through menus, recipes and memories (Anvil Publishing, 2016)