Style/Travel Diaries

When Margarita Forés’ fusion leaves no confusion

The renowned chef’s culinary adventure at Amanpulo helped overhaul the bad reputation of such ‘gimmicky’ cuisine

The famous coastline of Amanpulo

Chef Margarita Fores and Amanpulo executive chef Michele Bellotto

Roast Baby Lamb, Torched lardo di Colonnata, Salsa Verde, Kale

Much can be said about culinary controversy: the ethics of shark fin soup, the origin of culturally contested dishes, whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza. But if there’s one issue that persists as talking point, it’s fusion cuisine. Some disagree with the concept on a philosophical level. For others, it’s all in the execution. The late great Anthony Bourdain once remarked, “I just dislike—really dislike—the idea that somebody would put Texas-style barbecue inside a f-cking nori roll.” I don’t think anyone would really disagree with him on that one.

Varied is the vitriol directed at fusion cuisine. If we must focus on one recurrent objection, it would have to be that fusion is gimmicky. More is not always merrier. Bad fusion cuisine is a union sustained entirely by novelty. With people caught up in the thrill of the new, the honeymoon phase momentarily obscures the reality of a poor match. Without rhyme and reason, one ends up like Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross at the end of The Graduate: gazing into the distance, wondering what just happened. They eloped; you ate Texas-style barbecue in a nori roll.

Amanpulo green coastline

When done right, however, fusion cuisine makes good on its promise, a vow to which the diner bears witness: that like any great relationship, the whole shall indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. On March 12th, 2022, 40 fortunate gourmands had the chance to partake of an experience that can only be described as cinematic.

Menu for Ms. Maja Olivares-Co

It was a five-course Filipino-Italian fusion meal with wine and champagne pairings set in Amanpulo, Pamalican Island. The cast was a number of discerning palates, in an event directed by Chef Margarita Forés.

Guests came because travel restrictions had been eased—and because Margarita would be preparing something special that weekend

Lit paper lamps in the Amanpulo beachfront set the mood for dinner.

Chandeliers serve as accents in the al fresco setting.

Guests arrived on the island in the days leading up to the evening of the 12th, a Saturday. They had come for many reasons: because travel restrictions had been eased, because Amanpulo was a world-class resort, and because Margarita Forés, who needs no introduction, would be preparing something special that weekend: Filipino-Italian fusion at Amanpulo. This would be its second iteration. The first, a four-hands dinner, occurred the previous year. Maja Olivares-Co, often described as a rabid “Aman junkie,” had come to befriend Amanpulo executive chef Michele Bellotto over the course of several pilgrimages to the island. She would quip that he, an Italian who thinks he has Filipino blood, should collaborate with Margarita Forés, a Filipino who thinks she has Italian blood.

Famous Amanpulo’s fine-as-powder sand

Amanpulo villa  at sunset

And so it came to pass that two culinary chimeras would come together and cook up a storm. They would do so where pristine Philippine sand and sea are fused with the worldliness of a multinational hospitality brand. That there’s the rhyme and reason. That’s why it worked. And that’s why guests, both returning and new, had little doubt it would work again.

Sax at sundown

Table set for dinner

As the sun set that Saturday, guests eagerly made their way to a hidden oasis by the shore, illuminated by candlelight and chandelier, the Picnic Grove. The sea breeze carried tunes from a live saxophone. The antipasti wed locally sourced ingredients and flavors to beloved Italian hors d’oeuvres. As guests mingled, so too did Lardo di Collonata mingle with a biasong-based vinaigrette. An asador rhythmically rotated lamb on a spit, foreshadowing what was to come. There was a lot of diwal and a lot of Chef Forés’ famed Negros Burrata. As one attendee commented, “That’s how you know it’s a Filipino party—when there’s endless food.” All were kept hydrated with rivers of Billecart-Salmon Rosé champagne and Amanpulo’s own Farm Gin, which could go toe-to-toe with Monkey 47 any day of the week.

Grilled Diwal, French butter and Ilocos garlic combined

Bulacan River Prawn, Baby Crab Fat, Bicol Biti Fish Maw

Peanut Millefoglie, Kesong Puti Mascarpone, Pulot Glaze

Come dusk, guests shuttled off to a long table by the sea, enclosed by towering timber frames on the vast expanse of a secluded powdery white sand shore. It was myth made real. After some choice words from the woman of the hour, whose own excitement rivaled that of her guests, dinner was served. The zuppa course was a crab and coconut milk passato garnished with Dumaguete gamet seaweed, served alongside a crab and onion atchara salad on a squid ink gnocco. The primo featured kangkong (water spinach) pappardelle with grilled river prawn, calamansi cream, baby crab fat, pansit-pansitan, and bits of Bicol biti. The secondi consisted of a four-dish feast unto itself. A highlight was the aforementioned lamb, which had been slow roasting for the duration of the evening and glazed with Mindanao coffee and guava jelly. Also noteworthy was the Chicken inasal paired with batitis, for which guests clamored for seconds. A peanut millefoglie cake topped with kesong puti mascarpone and a pulot glaze punctuated the meal. (I must confess, I am not a dessert person. Sometime between the ages of six and eight I developed a neurotic fear of cavities and tooth decay. So, I tend to avoid sweets like the plague. But that cake, that kesong puti mascarpone, divine.)

A highlight was lamb which had been slow roasting for the duration of the evening, glazed with Mindanao coffee and guava jelly

Pili nut Millefoglie, Mascarpone and Kesong Puti Spuma, Panocha Glaze, Cadena de Amor

Grilled pork, Negros kadyos

Post-supper, guests partook of another staple of Filipino culture: impromptu karaoke. It all began when one gentleman, another “Aman junkie” who had been at the first dinner, revealed that he had rehearsed some songs for the occasion. Egged on by his wife, son, and everyone else at the table, he proceeded to serenade the sands for a solid three-and-a-half hours. (And when I say serenade, I mean it. This is the one guy at the office Christmas party you actually want to hear sing.) Eventually, more joined in on the fun. Dancing queens sang Dancing Queen, and not-so-young-men assembled as the Village People. The young at heart proved far more youthful than the young themselves, save for two brave souls. It was a good time. Their bellies full, they filled the night sky with laughter and song.

Guests mingle under a blue moonlit sky.

Weekenders spent the days before and following the 12th’s eve at their own leisure, enjoying adventures at sea or restoration at the Aman Spa. Families frolicked, friends old and new enjoyed each other’s company, a wedding proposal was made and accepted on a sunset cruise. But sometimes, one needs a vacation from the vacation. Should such an occasion arise, Amanpulo has a further oasis to which one might be spirited away from all the excitement the island has to offer. Eighteen villas line Pamalican Island’s eastern and western shores. Each consists of one-, two-, three- or four-bedroom Casitas set around a pavilion and swimming pool, serviced by private chef and butler. Modeled after the bahay kubo, the villas pay homage to Philippine heritage and artistry. From the solace of this hybrid enclave, one can’t help but recall the aforementioned observation that Margarita Forés and Amanpulo make as fine a pairing as gata, gnocco, and good company.

Margarita Fores (far right) with Amanpulo general manager Audeline Witjaksono (far left) and guest Maja Olivares-Co

I could belabor the point and once more drone on about rhyme and reason, about the narrative coherence that made this particular fusion experience work, but I won’t. You get the gist. Instead, I’ll use another relationship analogy. You can analyze and rationalize things all you want (and indeed, for some of us, that’s half the fun), but ultimately, the proof is in the pappardelle—and that pappardelle was good. At the end of it all, there was absolutely no confusion about fusion. In fact, only one question remained: When’s the next one?

About author

Articles

He is an M.A. student in history at Ateneo de Manila University and Programs intern at Asia Society Philippines. He received his BA in Literature and Philosophy, with honors, from Wesleyan University. In childhood he dreamt of being a paleontologist and still has his extensive collection of dinosaur figurines tucked away somewhere.

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