Asia's Best Female Chefs Translate Fun Childhood Memories Into Fine Dining Dishes
Around 5.1 million Filipino children are living with disabilities, according to UNICEF. Given this alarming growing number, the organization seeks to raise awareness and raise funds for the establishment of four National Centers for Children with Disabilities spread across the Philippines. The project begins with the expansion of the center at the Philippine General Hospital, and will eventually branch out to other parts of the country to make services, medicine, and support accessible to all Filipino children, for which the organization will need an estimated P40 million to accomplish.
In order to raise funds, UNICEF hosted its very first charity dinner. The UNICEF ball was conceptualized, organized, and funded by LAJ Marketing Philippines, the exclusive distributor of LEGO in the Philippines. The event broke records, as it was also the first time all UNICEF Philippines ambassadors gathered together in one event, and where four of Asia’s Best Female Chefs collaborated for the first time. On the evening of March 4, guests and donors gathered at the Rigodon Ballroom of the Peninsula Manila for a special four-course meal created by these four talented women. The UNICEF Children’s Ball celebrated childhood memories in honor of the children whose futures the organization aims to improve.
The pre-cocktail setup
The four chefs and the night's surprise guest, chef May Chow, share a tender moment on stage
Prior to the dinner, Grey Goose vodka-infused cocktails were served at the bar, while hors d’oeuvres prepared by the chefs made the rounds at the upper lobby of the hotel. Margarita Forés’ unconventional piaya, topped with creamy inasal of foie gras, guava and santol atchara mostarda was a hit. According to Forés, the flavors honor her Ilonggo heritage since her maternal side of the family hails from the city of Bago in Southern Negros Occidental.
Cape Fizz, made from Grey Goose Original, cranberry juice, lime juice, simple syrup, and soda water
The cocktail bar
Inspired by her memories of studying in Paris, chef Lanshu Chen from Taiwan prepared a pork terrine with truffle mayonnaise and fine herbs, which she shares was her go-to meal for dinner during the days she had little time to cook in between school and restaurant work.
Bo Songvisava of Thailand produced a crunchy rice cracker with minced pork and prawn wrapped in pickled mustard green leaves.
Finally, Hong Kong’s Vicky Lau served a vibrant tomato panna cotta with strawberries and Iberico ham, balancing sweet and savory flavors.
Tomato panna cotta with strawberries and Iberico ham; and piaya and goose liver inasal, sinamak-infused guava and santol mostarda
Rice cracker with minced pork and prawn wrapped in pickled mustard green leaves; and pork terrine, truffle mayonnaise, and fine herbs
Making a welcome surprise appearance that evening was chef May Chow, recently named Asia’s Best Female Chef for 2017, of Little Bao in Hong Kong. Chow expressed her gratitude for the win, noting that the title adds heft to her brand and has allowed her to pursue a new restaurant, which she plans to open in Hong Kong very soon. Chow also revealed that she flew in exclusively to support the event.
Chef May Chow
A wonderland of lights dancing in stark white trees and glowing spheres that formed cloud figures transformed the ballroom, while origami paper toys that contained the menu for the evening reignited playful childhood memories for the evening's guests.
Scenes from the Rigodon Ballroom
The UNICEF Children's Ball dinner menu
We ask the chefs about the creative process behind their dishes.
What did you prepare for the ball?
I have the sticky rice dumplings—there’s a dumpling with grated coconut and a lot of sugar and a savory version with prawns. Then I made a crispy pancake and grilled chicken paneang, which is really easy for kids to eat. It’s usually a kid’s appetizer at restaurants.
Sticky rice dumpling, crispy pancake, and grilled chicken paneang
Is there anything about your childhood that has stayed with you to this day?
Both my mom and dad cooked at home and I always spent my time in the kitchen with them. It always interested me how they transformed one thing into another. When I was in the kitchen with dad, I just did whatever I wanted. I would ask how to cut this, and he told me to cut it how ever I wanted to so that really influenced me today. I don’t listen too much to what other people say. I use my gut and follow my heart.
Is the UNICEF cause important to you?
Definitely, because before I decided to work as a chef, I wanted to work for an organization like the United Nations. I wanted to contribute to society in some way. I am so grateful for having an opportunity to give back like this with UNICEF. Now I can tell mom that even if I’m not working for the UN, I can give back.
Can you tell us more about your dish?
The sweet blue crab or alimasag dish is a home-style viand that was ever-present at meals in our Negrense home growing up. It is made by stewing some sweet blue crabs in onion, garlic, ginger, first-press coconut milk, corn kernels, and bamboo shoots.
I paired a modern rendition of it with some pan-seared, plump White Marlin from the province of Bohol. I spiced it up by smoking the coconut milk to create something similar to the essence of palapa, a smoked coconut, chive and chili condiment from Mindanao, and add my favorite Filipino ingredient, the taba ng talangka, or sautéed baby crab coral, balanced with our iconic calamansi.
Pan-roasted Bohol white marlin, guinataan of blue crab, corn and bamboo shoot
As a child, were you interested in food? What was your childhood like?
My love for food was always there, and this has served as the best inspiration that has brought me to love working in this vibrant industry. An overly nurturing environment, where the best memories were those made celebrating around a dining table, with a bounty of the best food made from the best ingredients, has been my source of strength and inspiration in all the work that I have done in the last 30 years. This maternal instinct to feed, nurture, and make life and living more beautiful for others was brought about by my growing up in a very supportive family.
What about UNICEF’s cause resonates with you?
Precisely because UNICEF’s main thrust is to help improve the lives of disadvantaged children all over the world, being part of this project touches my heart so fervently. This is why this project is so inspiring. I am honored to be a part of it with my co-awardees. I have always felt that female chefs bring a different, distinct gift to our industry. It is this womanly maternal instinct to feed and nurture that we are celebrating in this heartwarming event. I am forever grateful to have been given the invaluable opportunity to be a part of it.
Can you please describe the U.S. black Angus tenderloin, mushrooms, mustard green and rice dish that you prepared for the ball?
The mustard green cooked with cured duck is an important dish from my childhood. Mustard green in Taiwanese dialect has another nickname, the "Long Life Green,” since its original name, "Separated Vegetable," was not so nice to hear when mentioned during New Year. My grandfather always prepared it as a thick stew during Chinese New Year with the cured duck. The vivid bitterness mixed with a smoky duck fragrance is a symbol of a delicious family gathering party. I’ve transformed this memory into a modern dish as a wish to share my love with the guests.
U.S. black Angus tenderloin, mushrooms, mustard green and rice
What childhood memory served as an inspiration for the dish?
Rice and congee were always indispensable food for our family. For the main course, I created a sauce made with congee cooked for three hours. We take only the surface layer of the congee to get the silkiest and flavorful part and then we mix the rice sauce with fermented mustard green leaves, which is also a childhood flavor.
What about UNICEF’s cause resonates with you?
Every child comes to the world for a reason. I’ve always felt attached to children and want to do something for them.
What childhood memory inspired your honey and lemon candy creation?
The dish is "Honey and Lemon Candy" which is inspired by my favorite childhood candy, which can be found in any local store. Every week, I would really look forward to the few dollars given by my mom for snacks, most of which I spent on this candy. The flavor profile of this dessert is inspired by that with an added surprise that would make any adult reminisce their childhood.
Honey and Lemon Candy by chef Vicky Lau
What about your childhood still influences your decisions today?
As a child living with my grandparents, I was exposed to mainly Chinese food made from fresh ingredients. That definitely affected how I now view food, always sourcing the freshest ingredients available. Once in a while, I was allowed in the kitchen to play with what was available and I think that has developed my sensory skills and creative side.
What about UNICEF’s cause resonates with you?
I recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl named Kory, and since becoming a mother, it has truly opened my eyes as to what else needs to be done in order to secure a safer and a happier future. I have always been interested in the work UNICEF does for underprivileged children and now as a mother, to be able to be a part of this in any way means the world to me; to be able to contribute what I can to an amazing cause.