Updated 18:15 PM PHT Tue, March 7, 2017
Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “What a strange time to be doing this — in the middle of prep,” said a woman in a white chef’s jacket, whose black striped apron was dusted by splotches of flour. Uncaring of her tousled hair, she stood for a photo alongside three other women who were similarly garbed, all looking like they had somewhere else to be. The photo was necessary to break a story, they were told, for when London wakes up.
So four women were photographed in a line, pearly whites flashed, in the middle of a busy hotel lobby on a Saturday afternoon. Never mind the lack of background and the absence of coordination between outfits — having these four together, inches away from one another, was the money shot. Possibly unknown to the man who nursed his cup of coffee nearby, or the businessmen whose meeting turned into afternoon cocktails, the four ladies that stood right by them were each recipients of The Best Female Chef in Asia citation.
This photo was a piece of evidence, for the benefit of The World’s 50 Best group, who was to announce some semblance of history happening across the world, in the Philippines. What the image won’t show is the interplay of their individual grace and ferocity — their utmost ability to command a kitchen at its busiest times.
The chefs returned to their respective posts backstage; Forés to her troop, Chen to her team of three men, Lau to her two sets of extra hands, and Songvisava to her team of one (husband Dylan Jones, and consequently half of Bangkok’s famed Bo.Lan). That evening, Bo Songvisava, Lanshu Chen, Vicky Lau, and Margarita Forés were to cook up a four-course meal at a charity dinner for UNICEF, in partnership with LAJ-LEGO.
The amount collected from tickets to the dinner were to benefit UNICEF’s four proposed National Centers for Children with Disabilities, the first of which at the Philippine General Hospital is already underway. The dinner played on the idea of childhood dreams and memories, having the chefs create a dish inspired by a defining moment in their past. The outpour of generosity for the cause resulted in the expectation of 350 people at the ball.
Just a few hours on the clock before dinnertime meant it was time to hustle. Cooks scuttled around the room touting stacks of hot plates and trays of meat, while servers in another room were briefed on the right orientation of each dish, when laid out on the table. The long prep line that ran the length of the kitchen’s main pocket had cooks stationed on either side. Spread out on both lines were Songvisava, Chen, Lau, and Forés, tweezers and side towels on the ready.
First to bat for the appetizer was Bangkok’s Songvisava, the first of the four to be declared Best Female Chef in Asia, back in 2013. After working the kitchen in David Thompson’s Nahm in London, where she met husband Jones, Songvisava returned to Thailand where authentic Thai food was limited to street-side set-ups. Her determination to further the cuisine found her working closely with farmers, and advocating use of bio-diversified produce.
This allowed Songvisava to flourish as the purveyor of Thailand’s slow food movement. In the process, Bo.Lan became her ballad to the flavors of her country, with the distinct tastes of Thailand shining through in every bite. Songvisava’s dish for the evening was no exception to that: a trio of small bites consisted of a crisp roti triangle, grilled chicken penang, and sticky rice dumpling.
Margarita Forés was front and center in preparing the second course, a pool of guinataan blue crab with red rice and a single pan-roasted Bohol marlin on top, with corn husks and bamboo shoots, and a trickle of baby crab fat.
Her fondness for Italian dining is constantly incorporated into her dedication to Philippine flavors and produce. Forés’ advocacy in agriculture has also allowed locally grown harvest to become better recognized.
Through her ongoing efforts to create a larger awareness for Philippine cuisine, Forés has been invited to speak in internationally recognized conferences like Torino’s Salone del Gusto and Madrid Fusion in Spain. Of the four chefs, Forés is the only one who is accustomed to preparing grand, large-scale feasts.
“How do you even do this?” asked a bewildered Songvisava, champagne flute in hand, waiting for the next call to battle. “We’ve done a dinner with 2,000 covers, can you imagine?” Forés shares. “That many people, and all plates hot! I don’t know how that happened.” The minute-long chitchat was put on pause when the elements of the next meal were brought out.
Taking the reins for the meat course was Lanshu Chen of Taiwan’s Le Moût. Her curiosity for French cuisine led her to pursue a career in the mastery of its elements. A graduate of both Le Cordon Bleu and École Grégoire-Ferrandi, Chen went on to train at the elusive Relais d’Autuil and the acclaimed French Laundry. Establishing Le Moût in her own country was the culmination of her Taiwanese roots and her French culinary foundation.
“Do you feel the tension?” asked Chen’s husband from beside a trash bin, as I moved to avoid hot trays being passed to the main line. “Main course is where tension is highest,” he says, nodding to the other end of the room where Chen is huddled with her three other peers. Songvisava was assigned to the front of the line, while Forés and Lau were given command of the center.
Once the plating for a dish is green lighted, dishes moved from hand to hand. The dish was a Wagyu tenderloin with mushrooms, mustard greens, and a thick sauce made from Chen’s blend of rice porridge passed through a sieve. Chen patrolled the line, pacing back and forth, calling out even the most remote chances of a mistake on the plate.
At around 50 plates out, someone from the main dining room stepped into the flurry: Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2017, declared just a few weeks ago, May Chow of Little Bao. After paying respects to her busy predecessors, Chow pulled out her phone and documented the main course turmoil as it happened. “Hello from the Philippines!” went Chow to her live Instagram audience, before going into a full-blown coverage of the kitchen’s actions. “The next time you think preparing a meal is hard,” Chow says, “remember all these people and the 350 dishes they need to get out of the kitchen in 15 minutes.”
When the last plates were dispatched, the chefs made their way to the conference room next door. There, Lau stood watch over banquet tables filled from end to end with exquisitely plated desserts. She called it her lemon honey dessert, inspired by a hard candy she snacked on as a kid. Her creation, however, went above and beyond a simple lemon drop. A glassy yellow dome was filled with lemon jelly, Earl Grey mousse, citrus sponge, and a crumiel crisp, then adorned by a sugar bee and white chocolate wand. Surrounding the hive were curls of white chocolate, a sprinkling of edible flowers, dots of honey balm, and a pat of crumble.
The look of her creations are rooted, in part, to Lau’s prior career as a graphic designer in New York City. Though advertising was her first career path, Lau soon found herself in Bangkok’s Le Cordon Bleu, then Cépage in Hong Kong, then finally at the Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room & Bar.
As the backstage finale to the evening, all four chefs converged at various points of the long tables, where spoons sat in bowls of hot water, ready to be drawn out on command. Chow made her return to the group, sleeves rolled up, hands itching to get to work. “I’m ready for the party!” she said, as she took her spot and inspected the spoons closest to her. The finishing touch to Lau’s intricately built dessert plates was a single scoop of honey ice cream, shaped like a plump missile, by quick hands that could shape the perfect quenelle.
At this point, plates made their way out at record speed, and soon, Dylan Jones was handing them each a glass of champagne to celebrate. They laughed off the weight of earlier pressures, and toasted to the day’s work.
Being named the Best may have its celebrity factor, but it isn’t without the elbow grease that went into the success, which came upon the chefs when they least expected it. For one night, they managed to pull together a grand operation, alongside those they’ve never even worked with prior. If that isn’t justification for being the best, then what is?