The food writing industry in Manila is very small. It’s a group of people who maintain columns in the larger newspapers, are editors of publications, and then there are the free-lancers, which is where I belong. Because it’s a small group, we all know each other at least on an acquaintance-level, if not just by face.
Tonight, we’re at a press dinner at Mi Piace to meet The Peninsula Manila’s new Italian Executive Chef, Massimo Veronesi.
Milling around during cocktails, I nibble on the goat cheese and prosciutto on crostini. I sip my champagne and as I lay the glass down on the table, the light from the candle casts a haunting glow on it. Suddenly I hear a whisper: “You know how you can tell if it’s champagne or just Asti?”
That’s J, daughter of a renowned gourmand and member of a wine and food society for women. She taps my glass. “Champagne bubbles continuously and the finer the bubbles, the finer the champagne is.” I nod, now enlightened.
“So is this new chef cute?” Someone asks.
“Well, he’s not as cute as Michele (Mi Piace’s former Italian Executive chef), but this one’s cute in a bookish sort of way,” someone else replies.
“Oh my GOD, did you catch Rocco (no last name required) at the demo last week?” somebody whoops.
“My friend says he’s a wet dream come to life,” I remark wryly. This elicits shrieks of laughter all around.
For food writers, chefs are our rock stars. Whether they’re cute or not, as long as they can cook a good meal, then we revere them, (though some more than others). I myself have my own favorites.
We transfer to the dining table, it’s replete with candles and baskets of assorted bread. The menus are snatched up and studied with interested, though jaded eyes. Food writers are overfed, which makes us discerning but jaded. Seven course meals like this one, filled with expensive items like foie gras, Angus beef, and pecorino cheese are customary. Fancy names don’t faze us either; consider: foie gras and onion marmalade or tomato compote and homemade gnocchi in a saffron-tarragon sauce.
The waiters bring out the first of three antipasti variations. The buffalo mozzarella with bell pepper is topped with a thin round of zucchini. The chives lend a salty zip to the otherwise bland combination.
“It’s a caramelized balsamic vinegar sauce!” Someone crows.
“With what seems to be a basil-oil reduction,” somebody else chimes in. There isn’t a strong sense of one-upmanship among the local food writers, thank god for that, but there’s always that little victory to be the first to dissect a dish. Frankly, I’d be terrified to cook for a table-full of perceived terrors.
The second antipasti is a duo of sliced pears poached in a red wine sauce paired with pecorino cheese and arugula. It’s a dish that hints of cinnamon and basil, with a very delicate, almost “lady-like” taste. Murmurs of pleasure are heard all around. Food writers like “light” dishes, though I find myself the exception here.
J, who sits beside me, is indulging her unabashed love for bread. As she butters a pinch of ciabatta, she leans over and in an almost conspiratorial tone, whispers that she knows someone who makes homemade butter. My eyes light up in glee at the prospect of a new food discovery. A phone number is given that I hastily scribble on the back of the dinner menu and then we continue eating. Foodie dinners are filled with exchanges like this.
The third and last antipasti is a bit of an aberration. The timeless Italian classic of parma ham and melon is paired with a mini calzone. Try as I might, that little fried fritter seems out of place on this dish. J agrees with me. The melon however, is a revelation. Sweet and intensely juicy, the table echoes with approval. “I want to know who your melon supplier is,” booms one of the writers.
What’s this? is the unanimous query regarding the olive-green grape with a stem. “Hey everyone, it’s a caper berry,” our host replies, to which we all utter “ohhs,” and “ahhs.” Food writers pretty much know their ingredients but we’re not afraid to ask if we come across something unusual. Not as strongly-flavored as the caper, the caper berry tastes like an olive, with tiny edible seeds inside.
Food writers are a loud bunch. Shyness is not part of our personality profile and we’re all quite forward when it comes to expressing ourselves. When the green pea risotto came around, it’s slightly wetter than some of us would like.
“Ano ”˜to, lugaw?” (What is this, porridge?) somebody cheekily comments, which prompts someone to say that he knows someone else who doesn’t like risotto because it’s like eating hilaw na kanin (undercooked rice).
I keep quiet because I can’t relate. I’m loving the moistness of the risotto, its al dente texture marrying fabulously with the juiciness of the foie gras. At once smoky and earthy, it’s one of those food combinations that make me feel like I’m dreaming.
On we go to the mascarpone ricotta ravioli with a lemon-sage sauce. It’s awash in foam, something that chefs in Manila are fond of doing these days.
“Mmm, homemade ravioli. Not as hard as the processed kind,” someone murmurs.
The ravioli has bite, a satisfying toothy resistance indicative of just the use of egg yolks for color and elasticity.
The seafood course makes its appearance: slow-cooked salmon and prawn with tomato compote and homemade gnocchi in a saffron-tarragon sauce.
“Ack, these aren’t degustation (tasting) portions!” someone groans.
“I’m starting to feel quite full myself,” another agrees.
But we still keep on eating, and in between bites we scribble our impressions down on our notepads. I notice that two of the diners aren’t served the seafood course. Seeing my expression, the host leans in towards me and says, “They don’t eat fillets of fish.”
“You’ve GOT to be kidding me!” I exclaim, my eyes round with disbelief. Yes, we food writers have our quirks and food aversions.
The meat course is an Angus beef mignon with mashed potatoes, braised endive, and chanterelle mushrooms in a red wine sauce. One writer pushes her plate away in disgust. “Ugh, I can’t eat anymore,” she complains.
“I keep telling myself that I won’t eat anymore because I’m so full, but everything’s just so good,” says another, spearing yet one more bite of beef into his mouth.
I’m quite happy really, and not yet feeling like a bloated oaf. I’m tempted to tell my friend that I’ll gladly take her steak, but as always, I’m terrified of coming across as crass and overfed.
When it comes to the last course, most food writers are one in ordering a cup of hot water with a wedge of lemon to “melt away” all the fat ingested. It’s fallacious, we’re well aware, but that hot water does feel good going down. I notice that when it comes to dessert, this is where most plates aren’t cleaned out ”“ except mine, of course. The dessert course is also when most of us spout platitudes like:
“It’s so hard to be a food writer, hard to be thin.”
“Okay that’s it, no breakfast tomorrow.”
Sometimes I join in, but most of the time I just laugh. Being a food writer is the best job in the world.
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