Meet 7 Amazing Women Who Are Icons in the Local Food Industry
These women have paved the way for excellence in the kitchen and beyond.
As the saying goes, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." These pioneers-all inspiring women-built the foundation for the rise and evolution of the Filipino food industry.
Jessie Sincioco's dream was to be a banker, not a baker. When she was fresh out of college and waiting to hear back from a financial firm she'd applied to, her aunt convinced her to join The Great Maya Cookfest, a competition the Maya Kitchen held annually. She didn't have previous kitchen experience, but Jessie decided to give it a go-and through practice and perseverance, her mango cake won first prize. Life clearly had other plans. After winning the contest, she was offered an internship in the pastry kitchen of the Hotel InterContinental, setting her career on a different path. Jessie remembers her first day at work like it was yesterday: "It was the first time I ever set foot in a professional kitchen and I was amazed by everything around me. It was like finding my niche, my place on earth. I told myself, 'This is what I want to do.' I wanted to learn everything they were doing!"
Being the young female trainee in an all-male kitchen had its challenges. "I had to prove to them that I could do what they could do, even if it meant lifting a sack of sugar or one of those huge mixers myself." Determined to succeed in her newfound passion, Jessie pushed herself to work faster until she finished her tasks in half the time. This freed her up in the afternoons to assist the pastry chef in experimenting on new desserts, which was incredibly valuable training experience. She spent seven years at the InterContinental, representing the hotel in international competitions and becoming its first Filipina pastry chef. She earned further acclaim when she opened Le Soufflé with Billy King in 1991, which enjoyed success until it closed in 2009. These days, Jessie is busy running her namesake restaurants at Rockwell Club, The Grove, and Top of the Citi, and doing catering for private events.
But the highlight of her career thus far was being chosen to be the chef for Pope Francis's Manila visit in 2015. "Nothing can ever compare to that experience," says Jessie, who happily recounts how she baked seven different kinds of bread for the Pope's breakfast every day. "I will never cook for anyone greater than him. What more can you ask for?"
After 34 years in the industry, it's certainly been a rewarding journey for the banker turned baker. What initially seemed like a temporary detour turned out to be Jessie's calling. "Never in my dreams did I think that I would be in the kitchen, but I was led to be there."
"Food was always my anchor," says Reggie Aspiras, who started cooking when she was six years old. By the time she was 10, she had taken all of Sylvia Reynoso-Gala's courses. Summers were spent baking in Nani Labrador's Nonesuch Restaurant. In college, she ended up studying behavioral science, but her love for food was always present. "My mother would get upset because I would leave the house in my uniform, but I'd take cake decorating lessons instead of going to school."
She briefly considered going into politics or becoming a broadcast journalist, but she decided to pursue her passion for food by studying in culinary schools in Spain, France, and Italy. She moved back to Manila and soon opened her first restaurant, Reggie's Bistro. Though she initially believed she wanted to become a restaurateur, eventually she realized that she was happier teaching cooking classes than she was running a restaurant of her own. Teaching, she found, was her calling.
These days, along with cooking classes, her plate is full with consultation work for food businesses and start-ups, product testing, food orders, and the occasional private dining event. She has also written a weekly column called Kitchen Rescue for the Philippine Daily Inquirer for the past 14 years. "The stories are the people. My joy is writing about people who make the simplest things like halayang ube that's really good, or pancit Malabon based on a recipe that has been in their family since the 1890s. That's the best part."
Her column has also given her the opportunity to explore Philippine cuisine even further. "It's like coming home-as you get to know your own food, you get to know your own self better. You realize that every sinigang from every region is made sour differently, depending on the availability of the ingredient. There are different ways of cooking vegetables depending on the availability of produce in that locale." As a cook, writer, and teacher, Reggie is more excited and enthusiastic about the local food industry than ever: "We are in our glory days."
The youngest of 12 children, Myrna is blessed to have a mother who was a great cook and a father who loved to eat. She grew up in a food-loving household in their hometown of Lipa, Batangas, where her parents enjoyed hosting weekend family feasts and town fiestas.
She draws from these experiences in her long and distinguished career as a chef, cookbook author, and culinary consultant. She is perhaps best known for being a strong proponent of Philippine cuisine, traveling far and wide to promote it. In 2015, she took the stage with Margarita Forés in Spain, at Madrid Fusión, an international gastronomy summit, to demonstrate how kinilaw is made. This year will see her traveling to London, Berlin, and Brussels to organize Philippine food festivals in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Currently, she also works hand in hand with the Department of Tourism on a program called Kulinarya, where she travels to provinces to help them refine food preparation techniques and develop food-related tourist activities. "This is a nationwide effort on a grassroots level," she explains. "We want to train the people who run the homestays and the karinderyas to serve food properly, to raise the quality of regional dishes." She was recently in Donsol, Sorsogon, where she helped create an additional source of livelihood for the locals. She helped them set up cooking classes for tourists, where they visit a wet market and learn how to make local dishes like kinunot na pagi (stringray cooked in coconut milk).
Her work reflects her belief that the way forward for Philippine cuisine is to continue to develop and nurture what is uniquely ours, what is native and indigenous to our country. The dream of putting the Philippines on the culinary map, she says, is no longer a dream. "We're already there."
The next time you eat crispy adobo flakes, think of Glenda Barretto, who is widely credited for inventing the dish. It's a simple example of her penchant for creativity and innovation, her talent for turning humble dishes into something new.
Inspired by the island bounty of her hometown of Samar, she started Via Mare in 1975 as a seafood restaurant. "When we opened, most of our dishes hadn't been offered in other restaurants before," she recalls. One of her creations was a seafood soup called Bisque Mediterranean, which she served with a pastry crust on top to offer something different to clients. It became so popular that Japanese tourists would come into the restaurant with the name of the dish written on a piece of paper and give it to the waiter to order.
Via Mare has now evolved into a café that serves Filipino favorites, plus a sister restaurant, Via Mare Oyster Bar. Her catering arm is immensely popular, with Glenda cooking for politicians and foreign dignitaries. She has always been a strong advocate for Filipino cuisine, showing how local dishes can be elevated to global standards. For her, presentation is paramount. "For example, I serve kinilaw on a round of kamote, or in a liquor glass with some greens. For lumpia, I would make it into a pouch so that it would stand nicely." She hopes the new generation of Filipino chefs will be similarly inspired to bring our cuisine to greater heights.
With a multitude of regular clients, Glenda says the constant challenge is to keep innovating and coming up with new menus to offer. Everything she does is with the customer in mind, and after 42 years in the business, she is still singularly focused on always bringing something original to the table.
The kitchen was Heny Sison's playground when she was growing up in Bataan. Her mother ran a restaurant beside their family's gasoline station and Heny would spend hours in the kitchen, watching the staff cook and bake. She cultivated an interest in these culinary pursuits while growing up, taking classes and enjoying it as a hobby. She'd always had an inclination for the arts, despite being an economics major in college, and after getting married, she enrolled at the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art in Illinois. Coming back to Manila after her classes abroad, Heny decided to pursue cake decorating full-time.
She worked hard at improving her craft, becoming one of the country's most renowned cake designers and putting up her own school in 1985. "At that time, everyone was teaching cooking, but no one was teaching cake decorating," she says. She founded the Heny Sison School of Cake Decorating and Baking with a desire to teach students more specialized skills. They started small, with Heny teaching classes out of their family home in Pasig, until they had to move to a bigger space in her aunt's garage in Greenhills. Now known simply as the Heny Sison Culinary School, they moved to their current space on Boni Serrano Avenue in 1994. Cake decorating and baking classes are still taught, along with lifestyle workshops on everything from Italian pizza to Japanese cooking. Heny is busy running the school and teaching classes, but she's also discovered an extension for her art in food styling for print and television commercials. She is a part-owner at Victorino's, an Ilocano restaurant in Quezon City, where you'll also find her namesake Desserterie inside.
Heny's day is never complete without spending time in the kitchen. It's this same love and passion that she wants to pass on to her students, along with the importance of patience, discipline, and teamwork. Her advice for aspiring chefs? "Leave your ego outside, because nothing comes easy. Don't do it half-baked and give everything you're doing 100 percent of your attention. If you have the passion, you'll go far."
They say you can judge the success of a teacher by the success of her students. By that metric, Sylvia Reynoso-Gala is a living legend.
Her love for food is rooted in her childhood, in the hours she would spend in the kitchen with their beloved family cook, Apong Metyang. Their family would spend three months in Baguio every summer and Apong Metyang would bring little Sylvia along with her to the market. As she helped Apong Metyang choose produce and prepare their family's favorite dishes, a spark inside Sylvia was lit. "All I wanted to do was stay in the kitchen and help her cook," she recalls.
But she wanted to become a teacher as well, a dream born out of her frustration with her own teachers when she was in grade school. "I always wondered, why do they make it so difficult? I would think of ways to make what was being taught easier."
When her sisters opened the Reynoso Cooking School in Malate in 1963, Sylvia was assigned to teach the younger students and she loved every minute of it. The path before her, marrying her love for food and her desire to teach, was set. After high school, she studied in culinary schools in Spain and Switzerland. By the time she came back to Manila, her sisters had moved on to other endeavors abroad, so Sylvia decided to start teaching cooking classes in their family kitchen, with their neighbors as her first students. Her favorite recipes to teach, of course, were those of the traditional family dishes that Apong Metyang made, like kare-kare, pochero, mechado, morcon, and relyenong manok.
Her cooking school eventually moved to a bigger location in Pasig in 1983, where it still stands today. Sylvia has taught generations of cooks, home bakers, and entrepreneurs, counting among her students the founders of Goldilocks, Red Ribbon, and Purple Oven. All these years later, she is still actively teaching-it energizes her and makes her happy, as it always has-and she is proud to have passed on her passion for culinary education to her daughter Morella and her son Ernest. As the school she founded celebrates its 48th anniversary this year, her goal remains the same: to teach her students recipes and techniques that will help them start home-based businesses. The Philippine food industry is so lucky to have her.
Margarita Forés was 11 years old when she first visited Italy, but the memories of that trip have stayed with her for life. "It was a real awakening for me. Everywhere you turned there was all this beauty," she recalls. "That was very much reflected in the food I enjoyed there the first time-my first fried squash blossom, my first spaghetti Bolognese. Travel allows you to be a sponge and absorb everything that's different from what you grew up with."
Those experiences left a mark on Margarita, sparking a lifelong passion for all things food. She returned to Italy in 1986 and spent four months learning how to cook with an Italian signora. After 10 years of doing catering and private dining, she opened Cibo in 1997 to fulfill a long-held dream of bringing authentic Italian cuisine to Manila.
Today, Margarita's empire spans five restaurants, a cooking school, a catering company, and even a flower shop. She was named Asia's Best Female Chef at the 2016 at the Asia's Best Restaurant Awards, an incredible honor that recognizes everything she has accomplished in her 30-year career. She has become a passionate advocate for Philippine cuisine, and her most recent dining concept, Grace Park, reflects the ingredient-focused, farm-to-table philosophy that inspires her cooking. "Even if my love affair with food started via Italy, the greatest lesson I learned was respect for ingredients and making sure to use the best ones wherever I am. It allowed me to try and discover the best of the Philippines, the wonderful ingredients we've taken for granted all these years, and to help bring them forward."
Her latest project is a television show on CNN Philippines called Harvest, which will follow her as she travels around the country, talking to farmers, learning about their produce, trying local specialties, and coming up with her own take on them. "The wave of the future is feeling strongly about regionality-allowing our own countrymen to discover the best of Mindanao, the best of Batanes, the food of provinces like Nueva Ecija," she says.
With renewed interest in Filipino cuisine and Pinoy chefs all over the world trying to make their mark wherever they are, she is full of hope for what's to come. "This new sense of pride and identity has created this whole push for Filipino food, and it holds a lot more promise for where we can bring our national cuisine in the next few years." And the future certainly looks bright with Margarita leading the way.
Article on the female chefs was part of the "Icons of the Industry" feature published in the March 2017 issue of Yummy magazine. Minor edits have been made by the Yummy.ph editors. Feature was produced by Paulynn Chang-Afable and assisted by Anna Felipe.