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The unofficial inside stories of Madrid Fusion

In this corner last week, I promised an insider’s story of how the Filipino delegation fared at the recently concluded Madrid Fusion exposition in Spain. Without going ahead of myself, let me say that the Philippines was very well represented and that every Filipino would have been proud at how the country was put forward.

Team Philippines was lead by Verna Buensuceso of the Department of Tourism, supported by Joselito Gregorio and Arnold Gonzales of the Tourism Promotions Board. Under their baton, the Philippines achieved maximum exposure despite the fact that Thailand was the official partner country for this event. Credit too must be given to the Spanish organizers, Foro de Debate, for clearly favoring the Philippines. It was one of those times I was happy to see nepotism working in our favor.

The event was held at the cavernous Palacio Municipal de Congresos which houses a 1,900 seat theater where the food congress was held. It also has a half-hectare exhibit hall where country pavilions and private company booths were located. In an adjacent wing were multiple function rooms where workshops, private tastings and product launchings took place.

A massive banner announcing Madrid Fusion Manila was positioned in the middle of the main lobby leading to both the theater and exhibit hall. It’s imposing presence couldn’t be missed and gave the impression that the Philippines was a co-presentor of this Spanish event. It was a branding coup for the Philippines.

In addition, while other country pavilions were positioned on the second floor, the organizers put the Philippine pavilion on the ground floor, right at the junction leading to the exhibit hall and function rooms. It was a strategic spot. Those manning the booths – Pam Samaniego, Chef Michael Aspiras, Chef Christine Luz and adopted Filipino Alvaro Garrido – entertained the visitors by having them sample typical Filipino dishes and talking about Philippine food culture and the forthcoming Madrid Fusion event in Manila. Aspiras and Luz impressed the who’s who in the culinary world with their rendition of Champorado at Dilis, Sinigang, Adobo and Suman. The guests lapped them up with approving moans.

On the second day, Chef Chele Gonzalez, Executive Chef of Gallery Vask, was given a 30-minute slot in the Congress to speak on Philippine cuisine. Having lived in the country for five years, the adopted Filipino chef from Cantabria spoke about the influences that shaped Filipino cuisine, our indigenous ingredients and various cooking styles used in our shores. He delivered his presentation in Spanish.

Chele’s premise is that Filipino cuisine is unlike any other cookery in Asia in that it is heavily influenced by Spanish and Chinese cooking styles. This makes it unique – a true fusion of east and west. He further gave the audience an idea of some of our everyday ingredients like Pili Nuts, Carabao Milk, Isaw, Dayap and Dalandan. Many of our ingredients, Chele asserted, are indigenous to our terroir and have yet to be discovered by the western world.

Chele’s talk was peppered with video presentations. One of them featured an indigenous tribe preparing Bringhe, a dish that aptly describes what Filipino cuisine is all about. For those unaware, Bringhe is a dish that adapts the concept of Spanish Paella but using local ingredients like Bigas Malagkit, Anke and a technique of steaming rice using bamboo and charcoal. Chele’s talk was both entertaining and informative. It was also well received – not an easy feat considering he came after the presentation of food rockstars, Joan, Jospep and Jordi Roca.

Chele’s talk segued to the formal launch of Madrid Fusion Manila. Philippine Ambassador Carlos Salinas made a special appearance and delivered an invitational speech in perfect Castillano. In his discourse, the Ambassador reminded the audience of the strong ties between Spain and the Philippines before inviting them to attend our version of Madrid Fusion. He then introduced Gaita Forès to the audience, Asia’s newly proclaimed best female chef. He then called onstage a power packed cast of chefs, all of whom will be speaking in Madrid Fusion Manila. Among them were Joan Roca, Dani Garcia, Jordi Burtòn, Virgilio Martinez, Jorge Vallejo, David Thompson, Angel Leòn and Ricardo Camarena. Madrid Fusion Manila staged a casting coupe, remarked one of the commentators. Without missing a beat, two video-commercials on Madrid Fusion Manila were played, back to back. The crowd broke out in applause.

At that moment, the Philippines appeared to be a force to reckon with in the culinary world.

The grand launch

That evening, the Philippine Embassy and the Department of Tourism hosted a private party to formally launch Madrid Fusion Manila to the Spanish media. The event was held in a private ballroom of the elegant ABC Pedro Larumbe restaurant. It was an upscale venue, one that sent the signal that the Philippines was going all out in its role as host country.

The ballroom was packed with members of the Spanish press, personalities from the food industry and government dignitaries. Ambassador Salinas and his lovely wife, Isabelita, entertained guests in the most dignified manner. I watched the couple from the sidelines as they mingled with the guests, giving each one special attention like they were the only ones in the room. I can’t think of a better couple to represent the Philippines in Spain…elegant, charming with that distinct Filipino warmth.

Hors d’oeuvres were prepared by Chef Gaita and Chele using local ingredients like barquillos, chicharon and mango to match cocktails using Don Papa Rum mixed with guava, mango or pineapple juice. It was something different for the guests.

After the Ambassador delivered his opening remarks, again in perfect Castillano, the fun began in typical Pinoy style. Zel, a musical trio from Bacolod, took to the mic and performed a set of Filipino and Spanish songs including those from the repertoire of Miami Sound Machine and JLo. The crowd began to loosen up as a party atmosphere filled the room. The DOT then delivered a one-two punch by bringing in Davaoeño beat boxer, Niel Llanes who brought the house down with his renditions of “Funky Town” and “Disco Drop”. Niel was followed by Dennis Barela who did a bar-tending dance number to Bruno Mars’ music. It was a party like any other in Manila and the crowd loved it. Dinner was served after the performances and the party continued until the wee hours. The launch was a success.

The last night

On our last night in Madrid, Ambassador and Mrs. Salinas treated the entire Philippine delegation to dinner at the famous Asada Real Restaurant. This eatery, located near the opera house, is famous for two things – the best Cuchinillo in Madrid and impeccable service from its all-Filipino staff. There were about 30 of us in the private function room. Although everyone was exhausted from the three-day event, spirits were high in the knowledge that we did the country proud. There was no agenda for the evening except to enjoy the delicious cuchinillo, jamon, chorizo and calamares and laugh at each others funny anecdotes.

Given that everyone in the room was Filipino, there was only one way the evening could end….. in song! Niel Llanes broke the ice by performing a beat box number followed by Zel who sang “Bakit Ngayon Ka Lang”. Both numbers were followed by the evening’s showstopper – Sun and Moon from Miss Saigon sung by two officials of the Department of Tourism (who will remain unnamed). The evening could not have ended on a higher note. After the obligatory picture-taking, we all headed for our respective hotels to prepare for our flight back home.

Our experience in Madrid proved to me that once Filipinos work in sync towards a common goal, success is inevitable, even without tremendous resources. It also proved that wherever Filipinos go, fun and music follow. Such is the Filipino spirit.

Madrid Fusion Manila will be held on April 7 to 9 at the SMX Convention Center. Just like in Madrid, it promises to have the best of the Filipino spirit behind it. It will be bigger than last year’s event with more personalities from the culinary world as guest speakers, more learning activities and more business opportunities on offer. It should not be missed. For more details, log on to www.madridfusionmanila.com. If you see me there, I promise to share more inside stories.

Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail andrew_rs6@yahoo.com. More of his business updates are available via his Facebook page (Andrew J. Masigan). Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.