Asia's Best Female Chef on the origins of Filipino ‘slow food’

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For the first time, Margarita Forés, Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016, hosts a television show called "Harvest," which newly-premiered on CNN Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — How well do you know your food?

The question sums up what “Harvest” — Margarita Forés’ newly-premiered series on CNN Philippines — seeks to answer, as it makes its foray into the world of cooking shows and food documentaries, focusing on the wealth of Philippine ingredients found in the archipelago, and how best the momentum directed towards Philippine cuisine can be maximized to benefit those who need it most. "Harvest" has Forés, who was awarded as Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016, hosting a television show for the first time.

While Forés, however, may admit to be a “real novice on television,” when it comes to talking about food and knowing how best to advance local cuisine and ingredients, she is a long-time advocate. “Harvest,” for its part, is more than a cooking show or food documentary, and benefits from Forés’ role as one of Philippine cuisine’s biggest champions.

“'Harvest' aims to allow viewers to become more familiar with the wealth of culture and the richness of the cuisine and produce we have all over our 7,107 islands,” she says. “There is a newfound affection for Filipino cuisine and culture. My concern is how to help sustain this interest, so that it benefits a larger part of our population and encourages more development and gain most especially for our farmers and less-privileged communities nationwide.”

Gaita - Bicol - 3.jpg In its first two episodes, “Harvest” by Margarita Forés puts local ingredients, such as coconut sourced from the plantations of Bicol, into the spotlight, and shows us how to treat food the way it deserves: slowly, gently, and with a heart for where it came from.

Following this concern, the format of “Harvest” presumes that every encounter with food, ideally, must be followed with a curious exploration of where it came from (whether it be the coconut plantations of Bicol or the waters surrounding General Santos City) and that after the encounter and the discovery, it is an obligation to give back, by way of utilizing the ingredient in the most of innovative of ways. For Forés, this means serving up a new dish that generously borrows from local food traditions, as well as infusing her own love and experience into the plate.

Thus, in the first episode, Forés goes to Malilipot in Albay to encounter Fina, who cooks laing and weaves abaca cloth. After witnessing how Fina joyfully creates both a locally-celebrated dish and a native product, Forés goes out to meet coconut farmers as they harvest the produce and show Forés how to extract the coconut pulp from which the cream, or gata, is extracted. “I can smell the sweetness and silkiness of the gata,” Forés exclaims in the show, as she walks away from the plantation into the kitchen, excited to bring her coconut pulp from farm to table, as she readies to cook a dish for Fina and her family.

“Because each episode is highlighted by a dish I create, inspired by what I encounter during the filming,” says Forés, “there is much integrity and honesty in every episode.” For the two episodes that have aired so far — the second being a treatise on tuna and its hometown, General Santos City — there is an intent to educate, to focus on food not only as sustenance or part of dining culture, but also as anthropological artifact.

Gaita - Bicol - 4.jpg In the Bicol episode of "Harvest," Forés learns how to cook laing from Fina, a local from the region. Photo courtesy of HARVEST/CNN PHILIPPINES

Gaita - GenSan - 4.jpg The second episode of "Harvest" is a treatise on tuna and its hometown, General Santos City. Photo courtesy of HARVEST/CNN PHILIPPINES

It’s food, as exemplified by a specific ingredient, and what role it plays so far in helping Albay’s coconut farmers’ children go to school, and how it sustains the livelihood of General Santos’ fishermen. The backdrop is Forés’ gentle narrative voice, graceful in its depiction of both beauty and gravitas, of how a speedy urban lifestyle may have overcome a slow-paced appreciation of food at its core, and how this affects communities whose lives revolve around the harvest.

“Our fast-paced life may have made us forget the value of home-cooking, ‘slow food,’ and old-fashioned approaches to food preparation, and making a big effort to source clean and sustainably-grown ingredients,” says Forés. Not without hope, of course, does she state that a return to ‘slow food’ may still be had.

“This new awareness that now pervades our exciting culinary industry is so infectious, that it is inevitable that the distance and animosity with the things we eat, and how we eat, will now be a thing of the past,” Forés reassures us, in the same way she says with conviction, as she will, in “Harvest,” that the short distance between farm to table — a lifestyle choice for many of us, an everyday occurrence for the people of Albay or General Santos — is still the best thing.

 

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"Harvest" airs on CNN Philippines every Saturday at 7 p.m.