Margarita Forés: Her lost years and unlikely ascent to Asia’s Best Female Chef

18 years after opening her first Cibo restaurant, she gave Rogue an intimate peek into her coming of age—the moment she found la dolce vita

by Raymond Ang

At 26, restaurateur Margarita Forés was far from the confident culinary goddess she is today. After living the fast life in New York, where she had a destructive bout with bulimia, she fled to Italy following the death of her grandfather, real estate tycoon J. Amado Araneta. Eighteen years after the opening of her first Cibo restaurant, she gave Rogue an intimate peek into her 1986 Florence journals and looked back on her coming of age—the moment she found la dolce vita

Margarita Forés, photographed by Neal Oshima for Rogue’s 2008 Appetite Issue, was recently named Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2016 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Forés will receive her award at a ceremony in Bangkok on February 29.

Having fallen in love with the food, the plazas, and the culture on her first trip to Italy, the young Margarita Forés approached one of Rome’s storied fountains, where many daydreaming youths had wished before her, pinned her hopes on coins, and threw them in. “I wished to come back to Italy again and often,” she says. “I just remember really loving Italy.”

Fate would be kind to her. That wish would be granted more than a few times, from periodic jaunts for vacations, to the seminal four months she spent in 1986, to the landmark trip she took this year—this time as a chef in the Westin Excelsior Hotel (the very hotel where she and her family had stayed at on that first trip), invited by the Italian ambassador himself for a food festival celebrating Filipino culture.
It ends and begins at the Excelsior, as a self-conscious girl from one of Manila’s most influential families in 1971, and as the self-possessed chef and caterer at the peak of her powers in 2012. Throughout her life, Forés has lived from city to city, forming her identity through fragments of different cultures. Today, she stands at the top of Manila’s food pyramid, beloved of society glossies, a cultural presence who has left her mark on everything from gourmet catering (Cibo di M) to casual dining (the ultra-successful Italian chain Cibo, now counting 10 branches) to floral arrangements (Fiori di M). But Forés—before Cibo—was anything but confident. Born into the Araneta family, she had trouble establishing an identity apart from her storied middle name. And from Manila to Hong Kong to New York to Florence, she found that she couldn’t outrun her demons.

“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. And for four months in 1986, on the Italy trip that serves as the fulcrum between 1971 and 2012, things would come to a head for Margarita Forés. Alone in a foreign country, trying to learn its language and cuisine from locals, for the first time without her family’s prominent name for a parachute, she had no choice but to confront her troubles head on. And in the unlikeliest of places, she found herself. “My whole life, I haven’t been a planner,” she says. “Everything happens to me because I’m brought there. Something happens to me and suddenly I’m there.”

 

Forés in her family’s 733 Park Avenue apartment with Bong Daza (hidden), brother Joe Forés, and Louie Ysmael.

Originally from the Basque region in Spain, the Aranetas arrived in the Philippines with the Galleon Trade. Through the centuries, through various political and financial endeavors, they gradually established themselves as a clan to be reckoned with—culminating with J. Amado Araneta putting together the real estate empire in Cubao from which the Araneta Center and the Araneta Coliseum sprang. That achievement made the family one of the city’s wealthiest and most influential. In 1971, however, as Ferdinand Marcos went on television to declare Martial Law, the family, with their various anti-Marcos ties, had to lie low and eventually relocate to New York.

“I was a freshman in Assumption San Lorenzo. I was class president and one day, in December, they told us, ‘You’re leaving tomorrow.’ You’re in high school, all your friends are here and you’re uprooted just like that. They had to literally carry us into the car because we were crying hysterically.” Eventually, the whole family found its way to the city. “It was like they uprooted Cubao and moved it all to New York.”

She eventually finished high school in the Marymount School of New York, later getting into the prestigious Mount Holyoke College. “I was [in Holyoke] for two years. But then I had a Filipino boyfriend,” she says. “And by the time I turned 21, I thought I wanted to get married.” And just like that, she asked her mother, Baby Araneta-Fores, permission to go back to Manila. “She got so pissed. She really got upset.”

Moving back to Manila and resuming her studies in Assumption, she found herself excelling in her academics. But by the time she graduated in 1981, the relationship she had come home for had run its course. “We were going on seven years, you know. Either you stay together and get married or you don’t—and I was feeling in the middle.”

 

In Mt. Kisco, Westchester County, New York with her mother Baby Araneta-Forés, cousins Ria Roxas-Ojeda and Mar Roxas, siblings Joe and Bledes, and friend Gina Santos, early 1980s.

So, as in childhood, Forés found escape in travel. On a trip to Hong Kong, she fell in love with the big city. “I said, ‘Oh, this feels like New York! The buzz is like New York. You have people walking around, skyscrapers.’ I thought, maybe I want to work in a bank, maybe I want to live here.” With a degree in accounting in hand, she got herself a job as a management trainee in Axona Holdings, a firm where a lot of bankers from Manila were working.

It was where the interest in cooking started. “The groceries in Hong Kong were open ’til late so I would buy this bulldog sauce and just fry katsu balls and whatever [was] in the house . . . I would just enjoy cooking for myself.”

The second reason was more complicated. She had unwittingly fallen in love with one of her superiors at work. “He was 15 years older . . . I mean, I was calling him ‘Tito’ at first,” she explains. “It was also coming from a mentoring stance.” And he was also married, with two kids.

“They were estranged but not yet annulled. It was a story that my family had a hard time accepting because I was single and this was a guy with two kids . . . It was the 80s, and it was not an easy thing to take . . . I know that people in Manila were shocked and surprised by things I may have done.” Geopolitics would once again be the deciding factor. “All of a sudden, Margaret Thatcher made her speech, reminding everyone in Hong Kong that, hey, it’s almost 1986 and Hong Kong’s going back to China . . . So the market collapsed. The company, Axona Holdings, was really going through a crisis. Our beautiful office became smaller and smaller.”

Now in her mid-twenties, Margarita made her way back to New York. “[My boyfriend then] was a lot older than me and he allowed me to explore what I wanted. So I was in New York and spent long periods of time away from him. As long as I’d keep in touch, he was okay.”

 

With her mom, Baby, and New York investment banker Joanne de Asis Benitez outside the Hassler Hotel in Rome, 1980s.

In New York, it seemed the wish she made in that fountain in Rome was a self-prophecy. Even when she wasn’t looking, Italy had a way of finding her. “When I came back, it was that whole Italianization of New York in the early 80s. The trend in New York was really the modern Italian restaurant. At the time, I think the economy in Italy wasn’t so good, so enterprising Italians would go and set up businesses.” Thinking she wanted to pursue a career in fashion, Forés found a job working in the offices of Valentino’s fur licensee, who was her mother’s friend.

The young girls in the office acted as gophers and, sometimes, models. “The only girls who really worked in the fur market were like 5’7” and above, blonde, beautiful girls who were models but could also be secretaries—because they had to fit the coats, right? So I here I was, this 5’ and a half [inch] Filipina and I was there basically because the owner was my mom’s friend and I could do secretarial work.” Eventually, she got a job at the main Valentino office in New York.

“If I think about the best time in my life, before having my child, it was from 1982 to 1985 in New York.” Her mother Baby, a personality on the international party scene, took to New York especially well. “New York was her playground. I got to meet Salvador Dali—can you imagine? He was friends with the friends of my mom. We would have people like Franco Rossellini and Margaux Hemingway in our house for dinner. When Tito Lindy [Leandro] Locsin went to New York to design the stage for Martha Graham, the after-party was in my mom’s house. Jacqueline Bisset came to our house.” On one weekend out of town, Forés­—together with friend Samantha Eduque and cousin Jorge Yulo—even met John Kennedy Jr., when he developed an interest in alternative herbal pursuits. “[We actually] gave John Kennedy Jr. backgammon lessons. What a time to be in New York, right?”

In the Araneta country home in Pawling, Dutchess County, upstate New York with cousin Jorge Yulo, Cara Wilson, and Doug Spooner (JFK Jr.’s best friend).

At the tail end of her second tryst with New York, she realized her priorities were shifting. “The fashion part was interesting and it was a nice way to learn and understand the strength of a brand. Valentino was always about the red, the look, and everything they did, they did to reinforce the brand wherever they were.”

But after hours, in the safety of her apartment, she would find her old hobby developing into a passion. “I started by just giving dinners for people. At one point, it was a Filipino dinner with menu cards, and melon and gata soup served in little melons. It was that whole Martha Stewart-ish thing,” she says. “And you know, that was the point I began to understand food. I saw that food was what really interested me . . . I saw that Italian restaurants didn’t have to be those Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling, with garlic, with red and white tablecloths. . .[It could be] modern and sleek-looking.”

 

At the kitchen of the Aranetas’ Pawling, New York home with Marissa Lopez.

In November 1985, her grandfather J. Amado Araneta passed away. To give him a proper burial, the family relocated back to Manila to bury the man in his homeland. After years of exile for political reasons, he had come home just three months before the dictatorship was toppled by the first EDSA revolution.

“They say when there are major changes in a family, when something happens to key members, it’s an opportunity for other members of the family to also make changes in their lives,” she continues. “It was a pivotal point. I was beginning to see that I was becoming more passionate about food than the fashion. It didn’t really get me in the gut as much as the food.”

In August 1986, 15 years after that first trip, Margarita Forés went back to Italy.

 

Wandering the streets of Florence in 1986 with, from left to right, cousin Ditas Escaler-Khouri, Yael Buencamino-Borromeo, Toni Parsons, and Louie Gonzalez.

For four months, Forés studied Italian cuisine and language under three signore—Masha Innoscenti in Florence, Jo Bettoja in Rome, and Ada Parasiliti in Milan. “At this point, I found something I felt I was passionate about. I really just needed to do a self-check. I needed to go to the root. I needed to go to Italy and see if this was what I really wanted to do.

“What’s nice also about Italy and the Italians is they’re very open when it comes to what they know about food and food culture. They’re not stingy about sharing information. If you go to a restaurant and ask how a dish is done, they’ll tell you. Even the waiters who don’t prepare food know what’s in it. Everybody goes to the market and everybody knows food.” It was in Italy that she learned to respect ingredients, and the people who worked with these ingredients and transformed them: apparently simple people doing apparently simple and yet very difficult things, like making pasta by hand and dressing a salad with less rather than more—aspects of Italian cuisine she would return to over and over in the next phase of her life.

“I just realized now that I was really daring,” she says, reflectively. “ There was one particular instance when friends in Genova had invited me for a weekend. I didn’t know that that highway [you take to get there] was one of the most dangerous highways in Italy. You pass through maybe a hundred tunnels and here I was in my early twenties, driving by myself, in my car,” she narrates. “And now that I think about it, how could I have done that?”

The trip, though dangerous, proved worth it. Known for their pesto, Genova was where she learned to make it the traditional way, with mortar and pestle. “It was really like an immersion, learning it from an Italian family and an Italian mother. How much better can your education in Italian food and culture get?”

 

Harvesting herbs outside Coy Jalbuena’s home in Monte Spertoli, Tuscany, 1986.

The period of Forés’s education in Italy was not long. It started in August and ended by December. Four months is nothing when compared to the years she spent in Hong Kong and New York. But because she was alone, because the only thing she could do was focus on her education and herself, it was the trip that taught her most about herself. “If there are things you’re working out within yourself at the time,” she says, “there’s a certain level of aloneness where you’re forced to go through things on your own.”

And in a country where she didn’t know anyone, she had to confront her demons. Forés had developed an eating disorder—“a bout with bulimia”—in New York. In Italy, she tried to take stock of it. “First, it was just to be slim but subconsciously, it must’ve been a lot more. I think a lot of it was also ‘second child’ syndrome, especially in my family where eight first cousins grew up in the same house. I was fourth in that order in age—it’s easy to disappear. . . . [To the point where, when I was younger] I would stay in school from eight in the morning to nine in the evening and overload on units just so I could stay in school and just be on study mode. I graduated with more credits than I needed.

“It’s the same thing with my feet. Everybody says, ‘My God, you ruined your feet by wearing tight shoes.’ I always had this feeling because I was short. If I had long feet, it wouldn’t be proportional to my height, so I’d wear shoes that were half a size smaller. It’s really bad and I ruined my feet,” she says. “Now, in hindsight, it’s all perception. It’s all in your head.”

Eventually, she sought professional help for the disease. But she admits that what really helped her deal with the problem was food itself. “Because it’s disrespect for food when you have an eating disorder, working with food allowed me to work at getting over whatever that weakness was,” she says.

Through all this, despite the murmurs from Manila, she was still with her older boyfriend. “It was one of those relationships that was very open ended,” she says. “He felt like if I found somebody single, it would’ve been difficult for him maybe, but he wouldn’t have stopped me from having a better future than what it was at that moment.

“I think I became more self-sufficient. All my life I was always in a relationship, but in this particular one with an older person, it didn’t have the controlling part that’s typical of other relationships [between younger people] . . . He was very open-minded and not a very conventional thinker, it also forced me to be less traditional, to be more . . . revolutionary in thinking,” she says, laughing. “It was a very cerebral relationship. When you’re Filipina and you come from a family that’s very into convention and what’s proper . . . it helped allow me to spread my wings.”

With friend Samantha Eduque inside the photo booth of Area, the popular 80s nightclub in Hudson St., Manhattan.

When Margarita Forés came home to Manila on the eve of 1987, she found a receptive market for her food. She was an overnight success, with the general manager of Hyatt Regency Manila asking her to do a food festival in Hugo’s, “which was then the hotel restaurant.” The festival was an astounding success. “Every night was booked, even lunch was booked. And you can get blown away by all the attention.

“I think more than just the food, I think that maybe [the general manager] thought it would be a good marketing slant. Here’s this girl who comes from this background. She doesn’t have to work but she wants to cook. It was something novel,” she explains. “At that time, kids from a background like mine didn’t really work with their hands.”

Being a woman, and being a woman from that certain background, didn’t make her popular with the other chefs in the kitchen. “There were no women in the kitchen at the time. The women were all in front, receptionists, waitresses, cashiers,” she says. “Here I was, with my bracelets on my wrists and my grandfather’s shirts—I never wore chef’s jackets.

“One day, in the kitchen, I said, ‘Bakit ang kapal ng cream sauce ko?’ One of the guys in the kitchen said, ‘Ma’am, nilagyan po ni chef ng roux,’ a thickener . . . They probably thought ‘she doesn’t know any better anyway. She’s just this sosyal girl and we’ll just help her through.’ I got really upset with them and said, ‘Please don’t shortcut my cream sauce.’”

It was to Forés’s advantage that she was entirely self-taught and that her aptitude as a cook was fuelled entirely by her passion; but the stigma of her cooking as a privileged woman’s hobby followed her for a long time. It didn’t help that, in the first few years, her emerging aptitude and fervor lacked a crucial third element: discipline. She was gradually improving her mastery over food, but was also caught up in a heavy partying lifestyle, characterized by reckless, drunken nights. She couldn’t concentrate on work properly. “Everything was disorganized,” she admits. “That kind of habit changes your perception, it becomes totally out of whack. I was catering already and it was heavy partying days. My perception was not balanced anymore.”

“I had one job . . . and my client will know this if she reads this . . . in the process of picking up my stock and loading it in my car, by the time I got to her house in Alabang, I realized the food had been left behind! You’re not all there and in all that confusion, I realized I’d put the wrong thing in the car. The food was in Makati. I’m just really lucky all my first clients were understanding and forgiving. Otherwise, I would’ve been out of this business a long time ago. I would’ve had court cases up to here for botched jobs.”

After she had her son, Amado, with her older boyfriend in 1990, she decided to clean up her act. “I said, ‘Okay, this is it. You have to be responsible for another life. Get your act together.’ It took about a year and a half to get my balance back. I was realizing that, it all looks really, really attractive from the outside, the high that you get when you’re in the dining room and everyone’s praising you because the food’s good, but you realize what’s important in the business to be successful is not that part. It’s the discipline. You realize that there has to be organization, structure—which is not me!”

Moving into her studio apartment in East 60th St. with aunt Judy Araneta-Roxas and mother Baby.

Six years after rock bottom, Margarita Forés got down to business. She says becoming a mother forced her to sort out her priorities. She decided she wanted to make something of herself, and be someone her son could depend on. “It’s hard being a single mom. You’re growing up at the same time as them and you try to compensate so much because you’re the only one . . . [I mean,] I took Amado to Europe when he was young because maybe it would make him different.”

Using seed money from her mother, the first Cibo opened in Glorietta in 1997 as a revolutionary concept. After years of dark, rustic Italian restaurants that played on stereotypes of Italy, Cibo’s take on modern Italian was something new—suddenly, Italian cuisine was casual, attainable, a lifestyle. “That time, the restaurants that were most full were Friday’s, Hard Rock, Fashion Café—all American franchises. I was always saying that we could do a locally-developed concept—and I knew I wanted it in the mall.”

Her mother had lent her the money on the condition that she work with her siblings. “When you’ve led a life of excess, it’s a lifelong problem. Once you’ve had the problem it haunts you. And if you’re not careful, it can attack . . . Working with my siblings has helped me in Cibo all these years. It’s given me balance. It’s a sense of control.

“You have to convince the people who are investing that you’re ready,” she says. “Catering is bad enough—but the restaurant? Whether you have a headache or a hangover or whatever, it has to open.
“Cibo was always meant to be a good value meal with really good quality food. The idea was to do modern Italian. People would not take long lunches anymore. That was the concept that I wanted to do—just take a panini and go.” Suddenly, eating Italian meant more than just pizza and spaghetti. With Cibo, she found a way to pay it forward, to educate the national palate in la dolce vita the way three women in Italy had done for her. It all cascaded from there: countless catering jobs, Pepato, Café Bola, Lusso, and her latest, Grace Park.

The Margarita Forés that the world knows now, brimming with enthusiasm and high on life (or, at most, a glass of red wine), advocating organic produce and farm-to-table cuisine, seems miles away from the self-destructive girl who drove alone on a highway in Italy, in and out of tunnels, and arrived knowing who she was and what she wanted to do. A lifetime away from those years, her son Amado now 24, Forés seems nostalgic about the time, even unapologetic.

Sitting down in her Makati office leafing through volumes and volumes of photographs from the years that formed her, she laughs. “We had a lot of fun,” she says. “Maybe too much.”

Scan 31

A teenage Forés in 1970s New York.

Originally published in Rogue’s 2012 Appetite Issue (August 2012), available digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access to Rogue content every month for only $1.99 per issue by subscribing to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.