I’m often asked in interviews about when I started cooking. Yes, my love of cooking and food started at age 6, but I started doing actual cooking at a much later time. Like most young boys, I needed to fight through the distractions of computer game consoles, TV or sports and like most young boys, I needed to fight through insecurity and fear of failure. At around age 14, I finally picked up a saute pan and cooked up some bacon-wrapped cheese. After 8 years of hemming and hawing, I finally overcame the distractions and fears, with the helpful prodding of my mom.
Let me clarify something right now. My real mom, as talented and brilliant as she is, cannot cook, something she readily admits. I’m talking about my other mom. My culinary mom.
Nora Villanueva Daza was trained by some of the best in France and she used that to the hilt. Yes, she opened restaurants and only the best kind. There’s the legendary Au Bon Vivant, of which some of the country’s greatest chefs swear to me had some of the best French cuisine at the time. There’s the Maharlika restaurant in New York and of course, there’s her crown jewel, Aux Iles the Philippines. Before the globalization of cuisine through Food Network and other food related networks, she trail blazed for Philippine cuisine in the toughest foodie place of all, France. Imagine the supreme courage to serve Sinigang na Sugpo and Fresh Lumpia in Paris. How about the Gateau Manille (Sansrival to us), which completely blew away the French? She was so good, Paul Bocuse became her friend. Yeah kids, THAT Paul Bocuse.
Despite all that, her greatness lay not in these world class restaurants. Her greatness lay in how I skeptically placed sour cream to beef, onion and tomato mixture only to realize how tremendous my first attempt at Beef Stroganoff was. It was in how I gained the courage to combine her meatloaf recipe with her embutido recipe to form a new dish. It’s how to this day, in the 3rd season of my own cooking show, I unabashedly read through her cookbook for inspiration.
What she was so good at doing, apart from cooking, was instilling in you knowledge, confidence and courage, all three of which you need to cook well. In her cookbook, TV show, newspaper columns and even in her conversations, you are never made to feel inadequate; you are never incapable. What you are left with is an overwhelming encouragement to try and an unwavering gumption to be unafraid to fail. It’s why I wrapped bacon with cheese and fried it up when I was thirteen. It’s why I was able to finish culinary school at 25. It’s also why I joined a cooking competition at age 31 and hosted a cooking show at 32. It’s why I had enough confidence to cook for foreign diplomats in Moscow at age 34.
As Ms. Nora Daza makes her trip to heaven, I am filled with feelings of loss and sadness. I wanted her to have the first copy of the upcoming Curiosity Got the Chef cookbook and I wanted her to enjoy free dining on her every visit in my (hopefully) soon to open restaurant, The Quirky Bacon. I wanted her to see how much she has meant to me and to whatever success I have achieved.
But maybe I had it all wrong. Perhaps the best way to honor her and make her proud is not in these tangibles achievements. Perhaps it will be in my continuing commitment to encourage people to explore cooking themselves. Yes, it will be in my endeavor to fill people with the knowledge, the confidence and the courage to cook.
Goodbye mom. Heaven will be delirious when they taste your Cocido. I promise to make you proud. Everyday.