World’s best chefs head to the Philippines

CNN  — 

Four and a half centuries ago the galleon trade helped link Asia to the rest of the world, with notable routes including Manila in the Philippines to Acapulco in Mexico.

Sharing space with passengers, raw materials, porcelain and silk were an array of never-before-seen ingredients to surprise – and doubtless bewilder – foreign palates on both sides of the Pacific.

To mark the 450th anniversary of this early culinary globalization, the Philippines capital recently played host to the second installment of Madrid Fusion Manila.

This year’s edition of the annual culinary congress, held in mid-April, united some of the world’s most celebrated chefs, unexpected ingredients and passionate food fans for three days of meeting and eating, presentations and demonstrations.

Here are eight of the biggest highlights and takeaways from this year’s event.

1. Chef Joan Roca? Still the king

By pretty much every barometer, there’s currently no better or more important chef on the face of the planet than Catalan genius Joan Roca.

One third of the brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca, located in a working-class suburb of Girona, north of Barcelona, the affable eldest son in the family brought serious culinary star power to Manila.

With three Michelin stars to his name and holder of the top spot in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, accolades don’t come higher.

One highlight of his Manila demonstration was an extraordinary creation of cotton candy, made to look like wool by using techniques including centrifuges and a rotary evaporator.

He completes the dish with extract of sheep’s wool essence, before carefully placing it atop ice cream made from Catalan sheep’s milk.

Bizarre and brilliant.

2. Lechon is highly underrated

Filipinos love to discuss food almost as much as eating it – and that includes debate over the country’s national dish.

While many would say it’s adobo – slow-cooked braised pork and chicken in a mix of vinegar, spices and soy sauce – others, especially outside the capital, would suggest roast suckling pig, otherwise known as lechon.

Back in 2008 Anthony Bourdain famously declared it the “best pig ever” and, after one taste, it’s clear why.

At Madrid Fusion Manila, the humble pig on a spit was taken to new heights by “Lechon Diva’” Dedet de la Fuente.

The chef behind Manila restaurant Pepita’s Kitchen stuffs the pig with multiple ingredients including truffle rice and the brilliantly decadent paella of chorizo and crab fat, known locally as aligue.

Pepita’s Kitchen, Magallanes Ave, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines; +63 2 425 4605

3. Narisawa deserves every bit of hype

"Sakura and Rice," by Yoshihiro Narisawa.

Japanese superstar Yoshihiro Narisawa was another legendary chef on hand at Madrid Fusion Manila.

Owner of eponymous restaurant Narisawa, the sublimely talented Aichi native has helped to pioneer sustainable gastronomy, emphasizing the critical connection between cuisine and preservation of the natural environment.

Dishes such as “essence of the forest” and “soil soup” support his kitchen philosophy, while he wowed Manila audiences by preparing multiple dishes featuring spring cherry blossoms – sakura.

His dessert “sakura and rice” featured sakura honey, flowers and jelly under fresh sakura leaves.

4. Chef collaborations are here to stay

Lucky diners had an array of world-class dining options to choose from during the congress thanks to Gallery Vask.

Helmed by Spanish chef Jose “Chele” Gonzalez, the chic restaurant hosted a number of collaboration dinners throughout the week, highlighting a continuing global trend.

Most notable amongst them was a “six-hands dinner” of three chefs, featuring Narisawa, Gonzalez and Peruvian super chef Virgilio Martinez.

Standout dishes included Narisawa’s breathtaking “Tokyo ceviche” of local Filipino fish with yuzu and kombu, while Martinez imported ingredients from Peru including edible clay and lucuma fruit, making for a remarkable, unusual and beautiful dessert.

5. The chef we all want to work for? Leah Cohen

Chef Leah Cohen's adobo is made with fried quail instead of the traditional chicken or pork.

With a Filipina mother and Russian-Romanian father, Leah Cohen’s background bridges the world in tandem with her unique plates.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, the New York-based chef has won critical and public acclaim for the bold Southeast Asian street food flavors served at her restaurant Pig and Khao.

Voted best Asian restaurant in New York by Zagat, it features a number of Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino dishes on the menu, including her unique take on adobo.

She demonstrated it to the Congress crowd, using fried quail in place of the traditional chicken or pork, with the unusual addition of Szechuan peppercorns.

By the end of the session she had a line of people wanting to work for her.

6. Souring agents

While last year’s Madrid Manila Fusion was all about the dubious appeal of tuna sperm, this year it was souring agents at the fore.

A constant and critical component of Filipino cuisine, they have continued to grow in appeal and now appear on menus at some of the world’s top restaurants.

A favorite Filipino dish, sinigang is a sour and tangy soup known for incorporating souring agents such as green unripe mango, batwan fruit, tamarind or calamansi, all of which were praised and mentioned by international chefs throughout the congress.

The prize for the ultimate sour Filipino ingredient goes to kamias, a soft yellow-green fruit that will have you puckering up in no time.

7. Reinterpreted Mexican

Following star names from Spain and Japan came a Mexico City-based chef who’s swiftly become the global face of contemporary Mexican cuisine.

Chef Jorge Vallejo dropped out of high school and took a job as a dishwasher, little knowing the culinary future that would lie ahead.

He won plenty of fans in the room by expressing his affection for the Philippines after working alongside Filipinos in kitchens on global cruise lines.

Thereafter he worked for Enrique Olvera in Mexico City before opening Quintonil alongside his wife in 2012, now famed for its reinterpreted Mexican home cooking.

This was his first visit to the Philippines.

“I arrived very early and the city was already full of life at 5 a.m. – I realized that this is Mexico! This is Acapulco! You see the faces of the people are for sure Asian, but there’s still a similarity with the Mexican people,” he said.

“I realized that even now, the idea of the Manila Galleon still has an impact, there is still a lot in common here with Mexico. We’re also both crazy about chicharron pork crackling!”

8. Global dishes, Filipino ingredients

British chef Nurdin Topham, from Hong Kong restaurant Nur, was among several chefs to hype Filipino produce.

His take on the English classic of strawberries and cream used only locally sourced ingredients.

Four-week-old fermented buffalo yoghurt with cultured cream was mixed with essential oil from roses and geraniums, before joining rare, end-of-season Filipino strawberries.

Across numerous presentations during the congress, multiple ingredients that seem staples of one culture’s cooking were revealed as originally coming from another.

So next time you’re chowing down on Mexican mole, remember that it wouldn’t be the same without cinnamon, a plant that didn’t exist in Mexico until it was imported via galleons all those centuries ago.

Chris Dwyer is a Hong Kong-based communications consultant and food writer. His restaurant reviews, chef interviews and more can be found at