Margarita Forés lives at a breathtaking pace, her days filled with endless hours of multi-tasking and her mind running at what seems to be a million miles per hour. On any given day she trundles back and forth with much ease from restaurateur to floral stylist, cookbook author, product designer, and, with the launch of Casa Artusi Philippines, a center of Italian gastronomic culture devoted entirely to the domestic kitchen, she has the new title of culinary educator.
“I feel with bringing Casa Artusi to the Philippines, its first branch outside of Italy, my life has truly come full circle. This school is set up for non-professionals who, like myself, love food,” says Forés. “I am discovering that the parallels between Pellegrino Artusi, the father of Italian home cooking and author of the famous Italian cookbook, The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well, to whom the school pays homage, and myself are uncanny. It almost feels that I am channeling him, we are so similar. More than just his recipes, Artusi’s book is a social commentary of how things were back then in 19th-century Italy and is a very interesting read.”
Indeed, Forés is considered by many to be the mother of Bel Paese’s cuisine in the Philippines and she is perhaps most known and revered for her love affair with all things Italian. Communicating her passion through food, her restaurant Cibo is probably the best thing to have happened for Italian cuisine locally and much like the woman herself, her approach to the restaurant’s food is convivial and generous. Through its extensive offerings, Cibo has popularized authentic Italian dishes and made them part of our daily vernacular with its quick, no-fuss service, and stylish environs.
Taking notice of her commitment to Italian food culture and knowing that the understanding of cucina Italiana is probably the best form of diplomacy, Forés says she was approached with the idea of bringing Casa Artusi to Asia by Luca Fornari, former ambassador of Italy to the Philippines. “Ambassador Fornari mentioned it to me about three months after we first met. He thought that I would be the best person to bring this idea to the region because he realized that the Philippines is a food-centered nation and that there is no language problem. He saw that even if we are non-Italians, we could understand the culture, soul, and psyche of Italian food and would execute the idea in a way that would be true to way they themselves would do it.”
Casa Artusi in Italy
It took about a year and a half of dialogue with the administrators of Casa Artusi and the local government of Forlimpopoli in the Emilia Romagna region. The agreement was formalized in Manila in June 2012. Later that month, Forés along with her crew of eight, visited Casa Artusi in Italy. While there, she participated in Forlimpopoli’s weeklong festival, Festa Artusiana, and even taught a Filipino cooking class that was attended by locals and academics from the school. “I had to teach the class in Italian, my broken Italian!” recalls Forés. “I chose recipes that were typical of our cuisine but also those that had Italian counterparts, like the pancit molo which is similar to their tortellini en brodo, pancit which is like their pasta, leche flan which is similar to a crème caramel, and adobo, of course, which is similar to their stews. It was very challenging to teach all of that in Italian.”
The opening of Casa Artusi Philippines in 2012 couldn’t have come at a more significant time in Forés’s professional career. That year, she celebrated Cibo’s 15th anniversary and her own 25th year of working in the food service industry.
Forés is determined to teach people to pay attention to the food on their plates with the opening of Grace Park at One Rockwell in Makati. In the city’s first farm-to-table, seed-to-plate dining experience, she presents a tight but evolving menu that is a direct result of her farm visits to organic growers and local artisanal purveyors around the country.
The rustic elegance of the space designed by Jorge Yulo is the perfect backdrop on which to showcase all the freshness on offer. Serving hearty fare that highlights the ingredients used along with Artusi recipes, fresh pastas, and pre-made antipasti that is available for take-away, mismatched plates from segunda manos and tightly woven placemats from the Baseco community in Tondo adorn the table.
The much asked question is "why Grace Park?” The curiosity building from the expectation of another type of restaurant upon hearing its name. “The symbolism of the name is that my grandparents used to live in Grace Park in Quezon City. I have always wanted to use the name but it never seemed to pan out, it wasn’t the right time.”
Keeping everything fresh and organic can be costly but Forés believes that the returns on her investment will come in a different forms. “I feel that if the tradeoff is real and you make a real effort in protecting the environment, the universe won’t let you down. Graces will come back, just in a different way.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Town and Country Philippines. Dates have been updated by the Townandcountry.ph editors.