Glenda Barretto wants to cook tinola for Obama

CITIZEN OF THE WORLD - Edu Jarque () - February 5, 2012 - 12:00am

Glenda Barretto, often referred to as the doyenne of Philippine cuisine, had been a pioneer long before it became trendy for anyone to consider being a chef as a viable career.

One can almost say that she has cooked her way through some of the world’s most important Philippine culinary events both here in the islands and in cities abroad. Author of five Philippine cookbooks and with numerous prestigious awards and citations under her toque, she is one of the country’s most accomplished chefs that love to reinvent Filipino food over and over.

While many are familiar with crispy adobo flakes — most restaurants with a Filipino menu are bound to have a version of it — not many know that it was first made and introduced to the Filipino palate in 1975 by Mrs. Barretto.

Via Mare, her chain of restaurants, remains, after all these years, the top-of-mind place to visit, when there is a craving for bibingka or dinuguan, or any food item that one is at home with, offering the comfort taste of the familiar, yet looking forward to that certain twist that the mouth always seeks. She admits that she is unable to operate all the branches of Via Mare and its catering arm by herself; thus, she constantly applauds her ever-loyal staff, giving credit where credit is due for the excellent work that has supported her continued success.

Her culinary expertise has led to events on various continents (Antarctica being the sole exception, naturally) and countless countries many times over such as the various Philippine Food Festivals in Beijing, Brussels, Cologne, Hannover, Haohsiung, Kuching, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Moscow, New Delhi, Osaka, Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, Stockholm, Tokyo, several presidential dinners during presidential foreign visits to capital cities like Buenos Aires and the Philippine Pavilions at the World Expo in London, Brisbane, Aichi and Seville — all for a taste of our local specialties and delicacies.

First lady’s choice: Glenda Barretto serves pan de sal with quesong puti to First Lady Imelda Marcos while American Ambassador Stephen Bosworth looks on.

Glenda Barretto has a potload of stories to share about cooking and traveling and the point where these two passions intersect.

PHILIPPINE STAR: What do you remember most about your first trip abroad?

GLENDA BARRETTO: It was a trip to Japan for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 1964,where we attended the impressive opening ceremonies. The track and field heats in particular were very exciting. I was with Tita Trining Enriquez, then of the D&E Restaurant in Quezon City, which is where I started as a chef. The trip was purely for R&R (rest and relaxation). But when I leave the country now, it’s for work. I’m slowly going back to doing just that — traveling with family and friends and having a wonderful time.

What won’t you leave home without?

I have two rosaries that are very dear to me. One is made of wood given to me by Julio Cardinal Rosales, Cebu’s first-ever Cardinal. He was actually my uncle and, as I was rather close to him, I would visit him from my hometown in Calbayog. It was also because of him that I had the privilege and honor to prepare breakfast and dinner for Pope John Paul II at the Archbishop’s Palace on his stopover in Cebu. I still can remember the nuns who had been chosen to serve the Pope during his meals. Some were so awestruck by his charisma that they froze! So I was requested to assist and served the mango cake I had earlier baked with a scoop of ice cream. After this, the Pope handed me a rosary — the second one I always bring with me on my trips.

How do you pass time at airports?

That’s fast food: After catering to 13,000 guests for President Ferdinand Marcos’ 60th birthday celebration in Paoay, Curimao and Batac — all within 48 hours. The staff, from drivers and cooks to supervisors and managers, were requested by the president to join an official photo. Seated are Bongbong Marcos, President Marcos, Imelda Marcos and Glenda.

I go around the bookstores to buy books or magazines related to my field, find out if there are any new trends, any new names on the block whose recipes I haven’t tasted. I also tend to scout for ingredients, especially hard-to-find cheese and nuts, that are worth hand-carrying. In souvenir shops, I’m one of those people who like buying those quaint, little nice things representative of the place. But you can be sure that when I get home, I wonder why in the world I bothered to purchase them.

Who is your ideal traveling companion?

It should be someone who understands your ways. So I enjoy traveling with friends like Jill Sandique and Myrna Segismundo, who both share with me the same interest in food. We’re supposed to take care of each other, yet I find them taking care of me more than the other way around, and at times, I feel guilty about it. It’s fun when you can make food-related trips — when plans include a visit to a vineyard — and have companions with whom you can share what you have in mind.

What is the first thing you do upon checking in at a hotel or at a resort?

I check where the emergency exits are. I even do ocular inspections just to be sure about the exact location, walk my way through till I am certain I know where to find them — especially in the dark. You see, I’ve experienced a fire at a hotel in Hong Kong, so that’s one concern I always have. Next I visit the bathroom and make sure it’s clean. Then I inspect the linen, the towels and the rest of the amenities.

What would you consider a must-do activity in every foreign city that you visit?

Family warm embrace: Daughter Bea and son Albertito in their younger days

More than just see the local market — immersion is more like it. Dili complete ang trip kung way carbon, way palengke. It would really be kuwang without a splurge there. I get taranta and get carried away when selecting and buying items, to the extent that the weight of my luggage can be a real problem. But overweight baggage is the last thing on my mind when I’m on a spree. (Laughs) That’s my motto: Buy first, worry about excess baggage later!

Describe your most memorable trip.

I’ve been blessed with opportunities to go on so many pilgrimages. But the trip to Jerusalem four years ago with Fr. Fernando Suarez really stands out. I was so deeply touched by the entire experience of simply being there. Just imagine knowing, where Christ had been, was where I was — it honestly made me well up with tears.

What is the best travel advice you have been given?

Learn to travel light. But I’m a hopeless case! Lately, though, I’ve been trying very hard to be practical when it comes to the things I pack. Now — and this you’ll be surprised by — I can travel with only two pairs of footwear, shoes and clogs! (Laughs)

What was your most unforgettable eating experience?

It was a simple one — a breakfast of oysters in vinegar and Chablis at a market in Lyon, France in 1989. I had it with Jean Villard, a two-star Michelin chef.

What would you call your signature dish?

Pretty baby: Glenda encourages Brooke Shields, her mother Terry and movie mogul Run Run Shaw to try some local delicacies.

To paraphrase a well-known statement, you can take the girl out of Samar, but you can’t take Samar out of the girl. That’s me. (Laughs) I will have to say that for now it’s humba, which many consider to be the Visayan response to adobo. It’s something people in Samar eat almost every day and I must admit I don’t get tired of it. It’s so sarap! The other dish I like making even though it’s hard to do is tamales, another specialty from the place I come from. It takes a while to prepare, so I only make it for family and special friends and in big servings.

Which event would you have loved to cater?

It would have been a pleasure to cook for the inauguration of US President Barack Obama. He is said to favor simple food choices and I’m all for doing the simplest Filipino dishes — but with oomph! For starters, I would probably make tinola — serve it in a simple but elegantly carved green papaya boat — and perhaps a salad with lobster, mini crabs and mango. The rest of the meal will be done the same simple way but filled with surprises. I’ve also done the ASEAN Summit before in Cebu, where so many heads of states and other important personalities were present. Given the opportunity, I would love to prepare meals for such an event one more time.

Who was the most impressive person you’ve had to cook for?

In addition to Pope John Paul II, I’ve prepared a Philippine state dinner at the Coconut Palace honoring King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, hosted by then President Fidel V. Ramos. As planned I sat at a side table near the VIPs as I was worried about the food, how they would react to it. I was especially nervous when they didn’t start with the soup. What could have been wrong with it? Why weren’t they eating it? I was agonizing. Relief only came about when somebody whispered that they would not touch it for it was too beautiful to eat. The soup was presented in a baby squash and was generously classified by them as a work of art. After that everything went smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that the state dinner received extensive coverage in Hola magazine, Spain’s most popular weekly. The editors were so kind, so very flattering.

She walked with heroes: General Carlos P. Romulo (seated) and his wife Beth Day-Romulo (standing, center) were special guests of Chefs on Parade, a project of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines.

Let’s talk favorites now. Name your favorite city abroad.

Siempre Paris — for all the delectable food and available ingredients. But then, I also love New York for the food and the shows. Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are among my favorites as well. And this is because of food — yes, again food — and shopping. I go for the French linen that I often use for my catering services. In the end, it’s always my poor maleta, fully stuffed and bursting with things bought from foreign lands.

Name your favorite spot in the Philippines.

For years, we have always been fond of Baguio, Tagaytay and Boracay — for the relaxing atmosphere. But my bias is in favor of my hometown, Calbayog in Samar. Whenever I visit, I bring along olive oil and wasabi to enjoy the ihaw-ihaw, where all the seafood is fresh. My favorite, by the way, is the ordinary tamban fish.

Favorite airline?

My reply might surprise some people, but I’m still partial to Philippine Air Lines. I believe their service is great and the food is superb.

Favorite airport?

I appreciate architecture with traditional Asian touches, that’s what I like about Singapore’s Changi Airport. The design is highlighted by all those plants and flowers, stones and water, and let’s not forget it is also run super-efficiently.

Favorite park?

There’s a park in Bergen, Norway — please don’t ask me the name now — that was really peaceful when I visited with the late Eli Pinto and Ann Pamintuan. It was a day in spring and the gardens were bursting with flowers — so much color in one single place.

Name an event anywhere in the world you’d like to participate in?

There’s nothing specific, I suppose. But I love doing World Expos and being a part of the Philippine Pavilion and its contingent handling the restaurant, showcasing Filipino food, beverages and service. I’ve enjoyed the ones we previously joined, like in Lisbon, Portugal, Brisbane, Australia, Aichi, Japan and Seville, Spain, where we were chosen by the Spanish media as the top restaurant at the Expo. Oh yes, at the Expo in Aichi, we were also awarded as one of the top three restaurants.

What are your favorite pasalubongs — inbound and outbound?

Outbound, I usually bring local items made of capiz or mother of pearl. But for inbound, that’s another story. Aside from my grandchildren, I buy things for myself. (Laughs) But when I get things for others, I end up with shoes or bags — and of course, how can I not mention food!

What is the worst souvenir you have ever brought back from a trip?

I am an honest-to-goodness victim of those small, cute porcelain items that look attractive inside the shop, but look terrible on the shelves at home. Ay! I have lots of those. (Laughs) And I’m also the type to buy a dress that’s one size smaller, hoping I can lose weight in order to fit into it, sometime soon. But — you guessed it — I just end giving it away. Sayang.

Aside from unpacking your suitcase, what is the first thing you would do upon returning home?

I bring out all the pasalubongs for my apos and play with them. I’m crazy about my grandchildren.

Name a city you have never visited but would like to someday.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit most of the cities I want to see. But if there’s one box I still not have ticked yet, it’s Kabul in Afghanistan.

Name a country you wish to explore.

I wish to go to South Africa and visit chef friends and attend some culinary events.

What would you say is the best part of travel?

I always look forward to tasting the food I’ve never had before. I consider myself adventurous when it comes to food, ordering the unfamiliar on the menu. If my choice ends up a failure, then I’ll ask for the menu again and look for something else!

What would you say is the worst part of travel?

Plane rides! I can’t sleep at all and it seems the flight takes forever.

If you could reside anywhere in the world, aside from the Philippines, where would it be?

I would love to live somewhere in the Tuscany area — surrounded by an old city with magnificent food. I was hosted once by the owners of the Piccine Vineyards — a wonderful, wonderful family. What a beautiful, memorable experience!

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