Filipino Excellence Takes Center Stage at ARK’s ‘Make Your Mark’ Gala

The gala was a pure collaborative effort as ARK honored inspiring Filipinos who are leading and defining their industry. These include world renowned and Asia’s Best Female Chef winners Margarita Forés (Manila’s Grace Park, Lusso, Cibo) and Johanne Siy (Singapore’s Lolla). They curated a cocktail and 3-course dinner showcasing modern Filipino cuisine. They were joined by Jhonel Faelnar (Atomix), who curated the wine pairing; he was recently named Wine Enthusiast’s 2023 Beverage Director of the Year. Leading Filipino American chefs in NYC and DC – Louis Bayla (Grain and Cane), Mark Nobello (Atoboy), Aris Tuazon (Gugu Room, 87 Ludlow), Anton Dayrit (Tradisyon), Paolo Dungca (Hiraya DC) and Kiko Balbarin, also joined to support the honoree chefs.

IN a vibrant intersection of culinary brilliance and social impact, ARK, the eminent social impact organization that tackles hunger in the Philippines, hosted a dazzling gala on November 2, 2023, at NYC’s Bohemian National Hall. This gala served as a testament to ARK’s remarkable achievement—ensuring the food security and income of 19,000 families and providing nourishing, affordable food for over 138,000 Filipinos across eight provinces in a mere 2.5 years

Ayesha Vera Yu with Inabanga, Bohol’s Mayor Jono Jumamoy. ARK recognized Mayor Jumamoy for his remarkable efforts in helping his constituents to end hunger and his continuous support in empowering their town’s local farmers and fisherfolk.

This star-studded event honored pivotal figures instrumental in fueling ARK’s impactful mission, including Mayor Jono Jumamoy of Inabanga, Bohol, and NCR Foundation Chair and NCR Atleos CEO Tim Oliver, represented in the event by Executive Vice President LaShawne Meriwether.

The gala celebrated the culinary prowess of renowned chefs Margarita Forés and Johanne Siy, both recipients of the Best Female Chef of Asia award. In a rare collaboration, they curated a cocktail and a three-course dinner, showcasing modern Filipino cuisine—an event marking their first joint project in the Americas.

Chef Margarita Forés (Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016) and Chef Johanne Siy (Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023) share a light moment before the ‘Make Your Mark’ gala of ARK, their first collaboration in the United States. AJPress Photos by Momar G. Visaya

In an interview at the sidelines of the event, Chef Margarita Forés and Chef Johanne Siy provided insights into their culinary journeys and the profound impact of Filipino cuisine.

Chef Siy highlighted the award’s role in her career, stating, “I wouldn’t be doing all the things that I’m doing now if not for that. It is for me a blessing.” Chef Forés echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the attention the award brought to Filipino cuisine and ingredients, sparking a renaissance in the culinary scene. She noted, “Chef Joanne got her award, and I said now we’re two from the Philippines, seven years after.”

When asked about the recognition of Filipino cuisine as “the next big thing,” Chef Forés expressed optimism, saying, “Yeah, we’re getting there, we’re almost there.” Chef Siy added, “I think we’re there,” acknowledging the slow but steady journey toward global recognition. They both agreed that the attention brought about by awards has played a crucial role in elevating Filipino cuisine on the world stage.

Showcasing Filipino flavors and ingredients

Discussing the ARK Gala dinner, the chefs provided a glimpse into the culinary delights they had in store. Chef Siy described the menu as a reflection of their heritage, blending Filipino flavors with their culinary influences. Chef Forés highlighted the importance of showcasing iconic Filipino dishes and ingredients, such as kinilaw (a traditional Filipino ceviche) and unique Filipino rice and corn grits.

Explaining their choices, Chef Forés said, “We started with Chef Jo’s hamachi kinilaw. It’s one of the oldest dishes from our country. I mean, it was around even before we became the Philippines. So I think that it’s very important to push that because our kinilaw is so unique compared to Latin American ceviche and Hawaiian poke or even the Italian crudo. And what makes it different is the vinegar.”

Beyond showcasing iconic Filipino dishes, the chefs also celebrated unique and lesser-known Filipino ingredients. A collaborative dish featured Filipino rice and corn grits, an alternative product from Negros, connecting Filipino flavors with something quintessentially American – grits.

Chefs Margarita and Johanne prepared a three-course dinner for the almost 300 gala guests. The first course was ‘Hamachi Kinilaw,’ (bottom photo) followed by ‘Prawn, Tinigib, Etag XO’ (which used Visayan rice and corn grits) and ’Squab, Root Crop Pavé, Guava’ (top right). The chefs shared that they wanted to highlight Filipino ingredients as well, particularly those that are not widely popular such as the tinigib and etag. Jhonel Faelnar of Atomix curated the wine pairing. AJPress Photos by Momar G. Visaya

The chefs crafted an XO sauce using etag, a traditional smoked meat from the north, particularly in Mountain Province and Sagada. The coral of the prawn, a favorite ingredient for both chefs, adorned the plate, along with a touch of taba ng talangka, a beloved Filipino ingredient.

Jhonel Faelnar and Inabanga Mayor Jono Jumamoy

Chef Fores highlighted tinigib, which she has been using in recent years, She proudly said that it has been filed with the Ark of Taste in Slow Food in Torino. The growing Philippine Slow Food Movement, predominantly born in the provinces, reflects a renewed appreciation for traditional ingredients. Despite the advancements in global agriculture, the Philippines maintains a unique position, drawing inspiration from age-old practices, and fostering innovation and sustainability in the culinary landscape.

“This is very inspiring to see because we never became industrialized agriculture wise so now we’re so ahead because we’re so behind,” she added.

Praising the next generation

Both chefs commended the younger generation of Filipino and Filipino-American chefs for their role in elevating Filipino cuisine.

Chef Margarita Forés and Chef Johanne Siy, assisted by some of the top Filipino-American chefs.

Chef Forés mentioned that the new breed of chefs for embracing regional diversity and traditional ingredients, noting their influence in bringing Filipino cuisine to new heights. She emphasized, “Even in Manila, you will not imagine how the young chefs have really embraced doing Filipino cuisine; their tasting restaurants are all about really showcasing our ingredients, our ways of cooking.”

She added that young chefs in Manila are passionately embracing Filipino cuisine, creating tasting menus that highlight local ingredients and traditional cooking methods. This culinary movement has gone beyond iconic dishes to explore regional diversity, particularly in Mindanao.

For chefs from Luzon and Visayas, Mindanao’s cuisine offers a new playground, showcasing layered flavors reminiscent of Malaysian or Indonesian cuisine. This shift from the common one-pot dishes in the north reflects a broader exploration of culinary possibilities. The enthusiasm of young chefs, characterized by extensive research, travel, and foraging, promises exciting developments in Filipino cuisine. Their exploration of undiscovered traditional elements, outside the metropolitan areas, demonstrates a commitment to preserving and innovating Filipino culinary heritage.

“What’s incredible is that they’re researching on traditional things that are undiscovered because they’re going outside Manila, going to little towns and climbing mountains to find new things and new ingredients,” Chef Fores said. “So for those of us who have been working with food for a long time, there is a certain newness really with things that are actually old that have been there for a long time.”

Addressing hunger and malnutrition

Over the past two and a half years, ARK through their Feed Back project has transformed 77 communities into food-secure regions, where residents are now producers of organic, nourishing produce. The communities have experienced a significant boost in income, and issues of hunger and malnutrition have been successfully addressed.

“What we want to do now is share the solution all over the Philippines and also, through the playbook, begin sharing the solution to other parts of the developing world,” Vera Yu told the Asian Journal.

The organization aims to share its solution by utilizing a playbook that outlines the steps taken to achieve food security. This playbook will not only benefit communities in the Philippines but also serve as a guide for other developing regions. ARK has plans to test this solution in two countries, focusing on 2 billion people, particularly smallholder farmers and fisherfolk living on minimal incomes.

Ayesha Vera Yu and Jerry Topitzer of ARK discussing their insights into the organization’s impactful journey and their plans for expansion.

Jerry Topitzer emphasized the importance of breaking the cycle of smallholder mono-cropping and industrial farming, providing a sustainable, one-time investment alongside the resourcefulness and ingenuity of local communities. The goal is to empower these communities to become self-reliant, breaking free from the continuous cycle of handouts.

“So that kind of one-time investment, rather than having to go back and continue to do handouts, is a model that we think has to be replicated across the developing world because that’s the way you get to a sustainable, locally empowered solution,” he added.

ARK Gala beyond the evening

Chef Margarita Forés and Chef Johanne Siy

Expressing their excitement about collaborating again, the chefs emphasized their commitment to supporting ARK beyond the gala. Chef Siy envisioned a continued partnership with ARK, stating, “I think that you know, it is just so much more to look forward to, to be able to really be part of the thrust and in the mission of the organization.”

Chef Forés echoed this sentiment, saying, “I hope that we can do a lot more and help them in the future to raise more funds.” They both see the potential for a lasting partnership, envisioning a collective effort to contribute to ARK’s mission of addressing hunger and empowering communities.

As the ARK Gala 2023 unfolded on November 2, it was a night of culinary excellence, cultural celebration, and impactful initiatives. Chefs Margarita Forés and Johanne Siy, along with other honorees, created an unforgettable experience that not only celebrated Filipino cuisine but also contributed to the meaningful work of ARK in addressing hunger and empowering communities.


Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at [email protected].

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