WHEN a writer loses a file, she’s losing not just information or data but, chances are, she’s also losing face. I know. I encountered a few embarrassments of that sort before the lockdown and, recently, another near mishap.
I wrote this story originally for an online magazine but stalled plans brought me here instead, to The Diarist.ph. It is about my few but fascinating encounters with former hotelier Lesley Anne Tan. For more than a decade, she wrote corporate communication for the Shangri-La properties; now she writes a blog about cooking, where she shares unique recipes.
A few months ago, she hosted a photographer and myself in her minimalist condo, clutching Atlas, her ‘’arm candy,” a poodle and dachshund mix, almost the whole time.
Lesley’s table was nonchalantly set: hand-dyed fabric and coasters from Indonesia, blue-and-white plates from Jerusalem, and glasses from Singapore.
For starters we had crusty bread with a soft center. She prepared a vegan meal for me—mixed salad with Portobello mushrooms and a bowl of quinoa with peppers. The photographer had roast chicken, marinated overnight in curdled milk, and seasoned with fresh herbs.
NO TO ANXIETY
Noting that many people had taken to the kitchen during the lockdown, Lesley decided to write about her culinary passion, to share it. “At the onset of ECQ, I started creating my own recipes,” she recalled. “Instead of succumbing to quarantine anxieties and the stresses of my mother’s hospitalization, I channeled my energies into something beneficial.”
The past few years, she had grown a following with @LesEatMore on Instagram, where she posts mouth-watering images of her dishes. Her blog, LesCookMore.com, highlights personal anecdotes and cooking experiments. Since April, the blog has produced 58 easy recipes. Many friends expressed gratitude, and complete strangers are now comfortable asking her such questions as, “What’s the right oven temperature to avoid runny cookies?”
“If food nourishes the body, the blog nurtures the spirit,” Lesley said.
She developed her cooking skills in the US, where she went for postgraduate studies in International Affairs at New York University. When she came back to the Philippines, she worked for a newspaper in Cebu.
I first met her in 2008 in a restaurant opening at Mactan Shangri-La. Her hotel career had just begun. A plucky lady, she was soon promoted to director for communications at EDSA Shangri-La, then Makati Shangri-La, and worked on the pre-opening of Shangri-La at the Fort. She would cook in her condo to relieve stress. During her last hotel stint—at Shangri-La in Singapore—she frequently entertained friends on weekends.
The hotel experience taught her to be efficient in the kitchen. Some of her favorites learnings: “The first ingredients you should use up are those that will expire soon. Clean the space while you work. For accurate results, use the right utensils and vessels. I didn’t even know that there were different kinds of serving plates! The hotel is one complete ecosystem.”
Hokkaido milk bread was a big hit last summer but she still deviated from the recipe
Lesley modifies recipes according to her tastes. Hokkaido milk bread was a big hit last summer but she still deviated from the recipe. She used condensed milk instead of whole milk, added water and substituted sugar with coco sugar. Instead of beaten egg yolk glaze, she used a mixture of milk, hot water and olive oil. It took 20 trials to get the result she wanted—sweet, fluffy, with mochi-like texture.
Her rule is, “The final recipe should be fool-proof.”
This serious cook invests in quality utensils. She favors cast iron pots and skillets over the stainless steel variety. Cast iron vessels retain heat remarkably well, she said, and can be used both on stovetops and in ovens. When a dish requires acidic ingredients like tomatoes, she uses a light saucepan coated with enamel.
For slow-cooking— roast chicken and roasted cauliflower, for example— she recommends the Dutch oven, which “distributes heat evenly and retains food moisture.”
Lesley has started entertaining again lately, and is happy to follow condominium protocols, like having only two guests (who have tested negative for Covid) at a time. Physical distancing is observed at the table, and the facial masks come off only while eating.
Although she was constantly exposed to fine dining table service in her hotel job, Lesley has always been partial to more relaxed set-ups at home. “My table reflects my personality—casual, fun and warm,” she said. “I mix and match tableware, maybe a plate from Bali with a serving plate from Nazareth.”
Good food, good vibes
The menu always includes appetizers, such as scallop salad with cherry tomatoes and pasta, topped with gooey grated cheese. Her roast chicken is a consistent crowd pleaser, but for people who don’t eat fowl, she may serve gumbo, a thick stew with sausages, shrimps, mussels and chorizos, or baked prawns with fennel. Her desserts are classics— chocolate cake and apple pie, her late mom’s favorite.
The chocolate dessert is not your usual fudge cake but a crispy chocolate-covered shortbread with layers of peanut butter.
The pie is made of a delicate puff pastry dough and crisp apples, with butter, nutmeg, cinnamon and coco sugar.
Lesley recalled, “My mother said she craved apples when she was pregnant with me. She even called me her ‘apple’ because I supposedly looked like one. Apple pie reminds me of her.”
Good food should be served with good vibes, Lesley said. “Entertaining should come from the heart. I want my guests to feel at home.”
Her partner, John Rice, area vice president for operations (Philippines) and general manager of Shangri-la at The Fort, tastes every new thing she cooks, assists her in the kitchen, prepares the drinks and then does the dishes. (For this story, John also made a video of Lesley cooking.)
- 3 cups flour (mix of all-purpose, bread flour, whole wheat and rye)
- 2 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp instant yeast
- 1 tbsp apple cider
- Combine flour, salt and yeast in a medium mixing bowl. Make a well at the center and pour in water slowly. Bubbles should be forming where yeast is in contact with water. Mix everything until it becomes a shaggy dough. Cover bowl with aplastic lid or cling film and allow to proof for 18 to 20 hours at room temperature, that is, if your room temperature is at least 21 degrees Celsius consistently. Otherwise, cold proof inside the refrigerator. Do not overproof (past 24 hours, or at room temperature without air conditioning), otherwise the dough won’t hold its shape once baking.
- The next day, take out bowl and remove lid or film. Check glutens in the dough; these are protein strands that look like cobwebs, when flour is mixed with water and a leavener. It traps gas bubbles during fermentation to allow dough to rise and give it texture. Sprinkle some more flour on dough and shape into a ball by lifting the end and pulling towards the center. Do this clockwise to full turns, for 2 minutes. Allow dough to rest for about 15 minutes. Repeat the process twice until dough becomes smooth. Allow to rest for an hour.
- Tear a sheet of parchment paper and sprinkle some flour at the center. Cut 4 long strands of twine, about 22 inches each, and lay them on top of the paper, crisscrossed, shaped like an equal pie chart. Carefully invert bowl to the center of paper where the twines intersect, and tap the bottom of the bowl to loosen the dough. Scoop out any remaining dough that stuck in the bowl, and smoothen it in the exposed dough. Shape the dough to a tight round ball and sprinkle more flour on top to smoothen the edges.
- Heat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius with a covered Dutch oven inside, or a heavy cast iron deep skillet with lid. While oven is heating, tie the twine from end to end towards the center of dough. Repeat until all the twine has been knotted. Using a small blade, score dough by cutting diagonal strips and lines in each panel at varying lengths, to form a leaf pattern. Allow dough to rest for another hour so it can expand further.
- Carefully remove Dutch oven or heavy skillet using heavy mitts, and transfer to countertop. Lay a folded towel on top to protect the surface. Remove the lid. Lift the parchment paper with both hands and carefully place the dough at the center of the Dutch oven or skillet. Cover with lid.
- Bake for 45minutes. At the 30 to 35 minute mark, remove Dutch oven or skillet, transfer to the countertop, and remove the lid. Return the vessel to the oven and bake uncovered, for the remainder of the timer, until surface has a deep golden browned. Allow to cool before cutting the twine and slicing.
Lessons from a mishap
As I prepared to tweak this story for The Diarist.ph, I discovered that all my files on Lesley, including food shots and portraits, had mysteriously vanished from my email. I spent hours trying to locate them while forbidding my thoughts from spinning around. The photographer had migrated to Bulacan and did not respond to my calls or messages.
Why was I on the verge of panic?
Last February, I entertained a Cambodian prince who assisted the Italian director of the opera, Lucia di Lamermoor, which was presented at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. After the run, we met at the Hilton Hotel where the prince, dressed up in his native finery, answered all my questions about his personal life, including the source of his subsidies.
I kept putting off transcribing the interview and I couldn’t rely on Otter. Meanwhile, assignments piled up and I encountered a glitch in my iPhone that had me calling Apple in Singapore. Apple merely deleted my iCloud.
All my important files— contacts, voice memos, photos— were gone. I sent the prince a message requesting another interview. He suggested via email. But when he read the questions-—the same ones that he had answered—he said, apparently appalled, that they were too personal and surely there were better subjects to write about in this pandemic. I could have slapped my face.
So when I couldn’t find Lesley’s photos, I thought I was in for a replay of that nerve-wracking scenario. Fortunately, the photographer’s son was able to retrieve the files, which he then emailed to me.
The scare taught me two things: 1) to never again underestimate the worth of back-ups and, 2) if data is lost, to try not to lose my mind as well.