Bringing the ‘sensual lure’ of Italian to Asia

Mount Holyoke College’s Margarita Fores is named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016. Photo courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016.

Story updated on August 1, 2016, at 4:50 pm. 

By Jill Kasiewicz Caseria ’96

Margarita Forés’s culinary “empire” of top Italian restaurants, home décor, floral artistry, and a cooking school has occupied the hearts and palates of fans in her hometown of Manila, Philippines, for more than 30 years.

Her hard work has made her a household name—not to mention the top purveyor of modern Italian cuisine in the Philippines—throughout Asia and beyond. And earlier this year, she earned the prestigious title of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016 as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Forés also will speak about her work at Mount Holyoke's Asian Alumnae Symposium, November 4-6 in Singapore.

For Forés, the sensual lure of Italian food and style began just after college, when she worked briefly at Valentino in New York City. The city introduced her to what she calls “real” Italian cuisine, made with genuine and fresh ingredients.

“I was taken with very creative pastas inspired by the many new Italian restaurants that mushroomed in the city at that time,” Forés remembered.

These early-1980s restaurants featured highly stylish Italian dishes made with fresh, high-quality ingredients—a departure from the heavy, sauce-laden Italian-American style fare that dominated for decades.

But it wasn’t until 1986, when Forés took a trip to Italy, that she discovered her true passion for authentic Italian cooking. She traveled for four months throughout Florence, Rome, and Milan, where she took cooking classes and spent time with many home cooks who taught her about local Italian ingredients and preparation techniques. Returning to the Philippines with her knowledge of how to make a spectrum of new-to-the-region dishes, she opened a catering business that specialized in Italian foods, but with a twist—some recipes incorporated local Filipino ingredients, such as crab fat and salted duck egg, into pasta sauces. It’s a technique that made—and continues to make—her dishes stand apart from the competition.

Her long-time friend and president of the Mount Holyoke College club in the Philippines Maria “Corina” Socorro Bautista ’78 notes that, over the years, she has seen Forés get lots of ideas from her travels.

“She experiences something abroad and immediately thinks about how she can offer it locally, give it her own take, and then successfully scale up,” Socorro Bautista said. “It’s amazing how Margarita can translate an exotic dish into something that ordinary people can relate to, access, and enjoy.”

Forés opened her first restaurant, Cibo, in 1997. Today, the menu features every savory and sweet Italian dish imaginable, and has ten locations throughout Manila. She also runs Cibo di M catering; the luxe champagne and gastrobar called Lusso; food and beverage operations at Ascott Bonifacio Global City hotel; the artisanal deli Gastroteca di M, and Grace Park, a new farm-to-table endeavor.

But she hasn’t limited herself only to restaurants. Forés opened the first Asian campus of the renowned Italian culinary school, Casa Artusi, in the Philippines. She has also expanded into elaborate floral design with Fiori di M; created a diet meal delivery service named M Healthline; and launched Casa di M, which features linen, serving platters, and sterling silverware. Although she has built and grown these businesses over the last 30 years, Forés said her career never feels stale.

“There is still a huge sense of wonder and excitement in what I do every day,” said Forés. “The industry is constantly changing, thus there is a huge amount of invaluable lessons to be learned.”

If the idea of a multi-faceted “culinary empire” seems a little familiar, it is. That’s because when Forés was in New York City, a relatively new Martha Stewart was on the rise, bringing light and popularity to the new domestic domain.

“Martha Stewart’s first book inspired me to want to create an ambiance at every dining experience that was as enjoyable as the food,” Forés recalled.

When Forés won Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016, Mount Holyoke alumnae in the Philippines celebrated their friend’s prestigious award and longtime success. The event was organized by Socorro Bautista and held at the home of Gianna Montinola ’80, and featured afternoon tea. More than 15 Mount Holyoke alumnae, along with about a dozen alumnae from other Seven Sister colleges, honored Forés.

“Manila is a small town, and almost everyone invited knew Margarita or knew her restaurants and her professional life,” Montinola noted. “The event was a huge success. The only challenge was preparing the food and flower arrangements for an icon in the industry.”

To mark the occasion, Socorro Bautista presented Forés with milk (in a Mount Holyoke-emblazoned jar) and cookies, a twist on the beloved nightly snacking tradition all alumnae of her alma mater remember.

Forés, who studied international economics, hasn’t been back to campus in decades. But she fondly remembers those evenings of milk and cookies in Torrey Hall with Socorro Bautista and other friends. And she still treasures all that she learned in her classes with Vincent A. Ferraro, recently retired Ruth Lawson Professor of International Politics.

“Classes with him were perhaps the most life-changing for me,” she said. “He was truly inspiring.” At that time, she craved inspiration and a distraction from thinking about her family’s situation: her family was in political exile from the then-Marcos regime. “The beautiful Mount Holyoke campus allowed me to stay focused on my studies. And being away from the comforts of our family cocoon in New York City forced me to grow up quickly and also allowed me to be more introspective.”

It’s that introspection that likely led her to make the jump from economics to fashion and then to Italian cuisine, her true passion.

“Margarita is a foodie and enjoys eating well,” Montinola said. “On top of that, she is very creative—and a perfectionist, too—not only in the plating of her food, but also in her table and flower arrangements. Her deep curiosity, her sense of adventure, and her passion for food are the reasons for her success.”

Socorro Bautista agreed. “Margarita’s life and career are really testaments to the value of a liberal arts education, where students are constantly learning, thinking critically, and being fearless about change and the need to innovate,” she says. “For example, with her current farm-to-table endeavor, Margarita is sourcing ingredients from all over the country. She is simultaneously helping farmers and teaching us to appreciate the variety and richness of our own Filipino culture and cuisine.”

Although she thrives on constantly learning and innovating, Forés admitted that she needs to “consciously ensure” that she achieves a work-life balance—every day.

“I am lucky that most of what I encounter doing my work can equally be a source of relaxation and enjoyment,” she said, adding that she always looks forward to her next trip, whether around the Philippines or abroad. “I use these opportunities to learn new things for my career, while finding moments to rest at the same time. It all works.”

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