When news of Nicole “Colette” dela Cruz’s death broke online, many netizens were only then introduced to the passionate pastry chef from Laguna. Many also found out for the first time that one of the country’s most popular buko pie brands got its name from this affable, well-loved lady.
Laguna’s famous Colette’s Buko Pie was named after Nicole by her mother, Atty. Regina Bulatao dela Cruz. This is according to Socorro Bulatao, the lawyer Regina’s younger sister. Colette, however, would carve her own path and eventually leave her own imprint in the world of Filipino food heritage. She championed local flavors via her humble shop, Hiraya Bakery, which she co-founded with friend Likha Babay in 2016.
Hiraya was a dream project for Colette, a passionate purveyor of the locavore movement. Through her bakery, she advocated for the use of locally grown produce. She combined ingredients from Laguna and Quezon such as sampinit, lipote, bignay, makopa, passion fruit, dalandan, and calumpit into Hiraya Bakery’s unique pastry creations.
It was through this advocacy that ANCX first came to know Colette, when our team visited her quaint café in Maginhawa Street in 2019. The café ceased operations because of the pandemic—the pandemic that also led to the pastry chef’s passing. The 46-year-old died from Covid on Sunday in San Pablo City.
A baker in the family
While born in Manila and raised in San Pablo, Colette spent most of her Christmases and holidays at the house of her maternal aunt and godmother, Socorro, in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig. “She was the baker in the family,” Colette said of Socorro, who the former referred to as her Ninang Bembi.
“The smell of my freshly baked brownies grabbed [Colette’s] attention as early as age six,” Socorro tells ANCX. While an accountant by profession, Ninang Bembi was a passionate baker. The young Colette would join her in the kitchen and insist on beating the eggs and measuring ingredients herself. These baking sessions would leave a lasting impact on Colette who would later take up Food Technology in UP Los Baños.
Socorro and Colette’s closeness never wavered through the years, even after Atty. Regina passed away in 1994 when Colette was only 18. “I am also deeply connected to my sister. Kaya din naging ganon ako ka-close kay Colette,” she says.
Even after 2008, when Colette moved to the US and Socorro to Canada, aunt and niece made sure to stay in touch. It was during her time in Boston when Colette honed her culinary skills working in a French restaurant called Sel de la Terre, and its upscale counterpart, L’espalier.
“I had followed Colette (and became her confidante as well) as she navigated her path to culinary, teaching, mentorship, content creation, writing,” Socorro shares. “She traversed each path with a sense of ease because of her innate talent, strong commitment, and pure passion. To her, it was not a career pursuit, but a channel of her creativity and social commitment.”
Colette had dreamt of putting up Hiraya Bakery even prior to her move to the US. So when she returned home in 2016, she made sure to realize this dream. “There was no idle time for her. She was always on the go, testing pastry products, using local seasonal fruits, herbs, liqueurs,” shares Socorro.
“In every travel she does she loved to mingle and listen from ordinary townsfolk and share the gems from such adventures,” adds Socorro. Colette had a soft spot for rural and farm communities, particularly the small farmers of Quezon and Laguna. “Their lives, stories, and most of all their grit are showcased by Colette in the innovative pastries she crafted for Hiraya Bakery patrons.”
It was because of her passion for promoting local flavors that Colette developed a close connection with fellow culinary heritage advocate and Casa San Pablo owner An Mercado Alcantara. The two women first met in the early 2000s via Viaje del Sol, a travel group whose goal is to promote the tourist destinations and products of San Pablo, Laguna.
An recalls meeting a shy and simple Colette who was then in her mid-20s. She remembers the young lady preferred to be called Nicole, noting how she wanted to stay low-key despite the popularity of the food brand named after her.
An would later find out about Colette’s exciting culinary journey—training at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies under Chef Gene Gonzalez, working as a pastry cook helper at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, and later moving to Boston.
Colette and An would reconnect in 2014, after the former’s culinary stints abroad. “She knew about the advocacy that I was doing in Casa San Pablo,” An tells ANCX. “She sent me a message saying she wanted us to work together.”
What followed were exchanges of ideas and a sharing of what each of them had been discovering along the way. Prior to opening Hiraya Bakery in Maginhawa, Colette would hold pop-ups at Casa San Pablo, allowing the former to use her space because An believed more people should know about Colette’s pastries.
What brought the two closer, aside from a love for the culinary arts, is their passion for the written word. “She’s also a fantastic writer,” An shares. “So we also had that bond with each other—we talk about the writing that we do.”
The two had actually been planning on a passion project—documenting and vlogging about native San Pablo ingredients and food. “We said we would get together soon to learn from each other as we faced the operational challenges of being in the dying food tourism business,” An wrote in a Facebook post. “We said we would pursue more Casa San Pablo and Hiraya tie-ups. We also said we would be fellow writers together, egging each other to get the stories in our hearts written before the freelance writing jobs take up all our energy.”
Both were busy trying to keep their businesses afloat amid the pandemic, and only had time to catch up on each other’s lives around February this year. “We talked for hours, finishing each other’s sentences, and laughing at how we mirrored each other’s thoughts,” An said in her Facebook post, addressing her friend. “As always with you,” An wrote, “I felt my spirits lift and soar because we were such kindred souls.”