Margarita Fores
CNN  — 

This story complements the Culinary Journeys TV series, airing monthly on CNN International. See more of the show here: Share photos of your own Culinary Journeys on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN.

If there’s a standard career path to becoming an international culinary genius, it’s fair to say Margarita Fores didn’t follow it.

Crowned Asia’s best female chef for 2016 in recognition of her pioneering restaurants and ventures in her Philippines homeland, Fores has never had any formal kitchen training.

She is, however, a fully certified accountant who developed a passion for cooking while living in Italy.

Which could explain why, several months on from winning the highest accolade of her career, she still can’t believe it.

“I’m still like a little bit in shock about it,” she tells CNN during filming for the latest episode of “Culinary Journeys.”

“It’s made my hair stand for the last four months since I was told that I won the award. I’ve always been such a groupie of all these chefs.”

‘Beautiful produce’

Despite – or perhaps because of – the unlikely path taken to achieve it, Fores’s success has been hard won.

Taking the food skills she learned in Italy first to New York then to the Philippines, she’s spent decades building up several Italian-inspired restaurants and promoting locally sourced Filipino cuisine.

Her burgeoning culinary empire now includes the dining chain Cibo, now in its second decade, the Lusso Italian restaurant in Manila and farm-to-table organic venture Grace Park, also in Manila.

Fores credits her grounding in Italian cuisine with opening her eyes to the possibilities of Filipino food.

“I think that the blessing with having taken that path was learning the importance of working with beautiful produce and, at the same time, Italian cuisine has a lot to do with home cooking,” she says.

“I think that that’s really the heart and soul of what Italian cuisine is.

“I was blessed with opportunities to cook for a foreign audience here at home and that allowed me to reevaluate what it was about the food I grew up with that I wanted to share with people.”

Overlooked ingredients

Fores says there's a wealth of overlooked produce "growing in our backyard."

At the same time, Fores says, it encouraged her to explore ingredients that were overlooked “because they were growing in our backyard.”

“I realized that, oh my gosh, there’s this wonderful wealth of local produce that we Filipinos have taken for granted for ages.”

So, what culinary tips does she have for people hoping to emulate at least some of her success in the kitchen?

We asked Twitter users to send us their questions for Fores and put them to her during the Culinary Journeys shoot.

Here’s what she said:

@MissEspela: “What is your favorite dish that you prefer someone else cook for you?”

Fores: “Actually, I love kinilaw [a raw seafood or meat dish similar to cerviche].

“Although I do it a lot, I love it when somebody else does it because a kinilaw always comes out different and everybody always has their own style of doing it or it’s also a result of the ingredients around them.”

@SerrellBoateng: “What is an easy all-around sauce recipe for chicken?”

Fores: “There’s something that I grew up with that we call basketball sauce and it’s basically mayonnaise, ketchup and a little Worcestershire sauce.

“It was one of those fall-back sauces growing up as a child. It’s brownish red, like the color of basketballs.”

@JustineCabulong: “Are there gluten-free Filipino dishes? Or any other hopes for Asian food for the gluten intolerant?”

Fores: “Well, you know there’s this wonderful new grain that we call adlai.

“In English they call it Chinese barley or Job’s tears and recently they’ve been promoting it.

“The [Philippines] Department of Agriculture has shared it with our chefs because they want us to use it so that more of the farmers grow it.

“They’ve made farmers in areas where rice doesn’t grow so well work with this grain and it’s really wonderful.

It’s nutty and it’s gluten-free.”

@TheCulturePearl: What is your fondest food memory from your childhood?”

Fores: “I guess it’s the first time I was shown how to cook rice by the lady who was taking care of me.

“She taught me how to cook rice in a little palayok [earthenware bowl] with firewood and charcoal.”

@Jaesoon: “What dish do you think best embodies our national identity?”

Fores: “I think it’s still the kinilaw because it’s a dish that existed maybe 1,000 years ago before the Philippines was ever influenced by any other culture.

“So it was something that was already there before the Spaniards came and it’s the best example of how our cuisine was at that time, just using whatever was existing in the area.”

@nodoubtpinky: “Can you teach me how 2 make lumpias?” [spring rolls]

Fores: “Oh definitely, it’s the easiest thing.

“You just get egg roll wrappers and I think the healthiest version would be to just saute some sliced vegetables: carrots, cabbage, maybe even zucchini.

“Saute them in garlic, oil, season with salt and pepper and then wrap it in an egg wrapper and deep fry.”

Filipino food: The world’s second-best cuisine?

Fores says Italian cuisine taught her the importance of home-cooking.

@JoshLW: “What’s the most successful recipe that you’ve ever made?”

Fores: “I think one of the most iconic ones that I’ve done is my crab meat raviolis, made with water spinach instead of regular spinach, bathed in a kalamansi cream and topped off with baby crab fat.

“I think it was one of the things I created when I just got back from Italy after experiencing the cuisine in Venice where they do a lot of really nice seafood raviolis.

“I did it because I was imagining my most favorite ingredient, baby crab fat, and lemon cream made with our lemon – the kalamansi – and then of course stuffing it with some really sweet crab meat from the Philippines.”

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