AS the country?s economy plummets, in spite of the rising number of culinary establishments, more people are learning to entertain at home. Entertaining or playing hostess is not an easy task, as I have learned in the few times that I threw dinner parties at my house.
You will need a good cook (if you don?t cook yourself), a couple of household helpers, a very organized mind, and lots of patience. When you feel like being fancy, you might want to add place cards to the table setting, add a wine list to pair with the menu, and hand out little souvenirs for your guests to bring home.
My formula is to throw my sister (I beg her) into the kitchen and then gush the whole night about how hard she worked so my guests just focus on how amazing she is and forgive all other details (like unchilled wine). I cap the evening with a box of my sister?s chocolate chip cookies to bring home so that everyone?s happy. That?s the entire equation for me: sibling exploitation.
Those who are masters at entertaining, of course, have a better formula: a trained cook, a sure menu, speed dial to Elar?s (for lechon) and a favorite dessert shop, a few special bottles of wine, and a beautiful collection of fine china.
One such master is Cebu?s Mariquita Salimbangon-Yeung. Mrs. Yeung is a well-respected and much-loved businesswoman/ philanthropist in Cebu (her brother is Representative Benhur Salimbangon; her husband is Hong Kong-based businessman Carlos Yeung).
She built Cebu?s first ever first class memorial garden and is now working on a low-cost housing project called Basewater, which she describes in food terms as ?champagne taste on a beer budget? for those in search of new but affordable homes. I was privileged to experience a couple of post-birthday dinner parties at her beautiful (read: huge and opulent yet warm and tasteful) home in Cebu City. These were thrown in honor of her best friend Lady Love?s husband, who was in town with Lady Love herself and posse in tow.
Check it out: A uniformed maid greets you at the main door to lead you to the dinner area (seemed like about a mile from the entrance), which would either be the main dining hall for close friends or the gazebo and garden for bigger parties. Upon arriving at the designated wing, you are offered a glass of champagne. The hostess, Mrs. Yeung, then greets you and urges you to please eat, graciously and gracefully leads you to the food or orders a server to bring you some.
According to Ada Ledesma Mabilangan, author of the book ?Entertaining with Ease? (this is a most useful and beautifully written book about etiquette and protocol in the Philippines), this is what distinguishes a good host: ?If the invitation is sincere, it is accompanied by some coaxing (Kung tunay ang anyaya, sinasamahan ng hila).?
The evening then progresses (delicious after delicious after delicious) in such a relaxed and most amiable manner that you realize you?d met so many people only the day after, as you also recall how you had such a marvelous time. Indeed for most parties, the gauge of success is whether or not you had a good time, even if you don?t necessarily remember the details.
And all the more when you do. At the Yeungs, the details included Cebu lechon, shell, rock lobster, abalone, among others. Fascinated by the abalone that was served, I made my way to the kitchen to chat with the chef. I was instantly inspired to write this story, amazed by his journey to the Yeung?s kitchen. You see, he was nowhere near the kitchen when he was first employed by the Yeungs over 10 years ago: He was their gardener! His name is Allan, a friendly guy.
In the course of the multitude of parties thrown by the Yeungs, he became friends with the suking bartender, learning to mix drinks himself. Before long, he became the Yeungs? resident bartender and also started assisting in the kitchen. Seeing his potential, Mrs. Yeung, called Kit by her friends, sent the young Allan to Hong Kong to train and learn authentic Chinese cooking (Chinese food is the Yeungs? favorite cuisine). Today he cooks for all occasions, from breakfast for two to dinner for 200.
Apparently that?s what the masters do: They not only hire but they continuously keep their cooks in training. Another case in point is the cook of the Yoda of all hosts, Dr. Teyet Pascual. (When the Ayala Museum borrows your art collection and the Mandarin Oriental borrows your personal china collection, you must be the absolute supremo in Philippine culture and lifestyle, hence the Yoda reference.) Edwin, Dr. Pascual?s personal chef, through the years and with the guidance of Dr. Pascual, has not only learned to master Dr. Pascual?s favorite meals; he has mastered several more and has also learned to identify Dr. Pascual?s china (from a massive collection that needs archiving) and even most of Dr. Pascual?s art collection. Truly, the best education is through exposure.
Through much exposure, master hosts/hostesses also develop the next part of the formula: a sure menu. For Mrs. Yeung, it?s Chinese food and some Cebu specialties. For most others, it?s Filipino or Italian. For me, it?s whatever Goldee cooks!
When all else fails, there?s also the phone. Fortunately, at this day and age, almost anything can be delivered.
So, can the art of entertaining be learned? Mrs. Mabilangan in ?Entertaining With Ease? answers this in the affirmative. In her book, she gives the same formula that the master hosts show: diligent preparation, the proper setting, the proper menu, the proper drinks. And Mrs. Yeung?s own advice: Give the best you have to your guests. In Ilocano, ipaay mo amin a cabaelam cadaguiti bisitam.
But can the heart of entertaining be learned?
Fortunately, for us Filipinos, it has been said to be in our nature. As early as 1525, as documented by Antonio Pigafeta (Primo Viaggio intorno al mondo), a Filipino king (incidentally in Cebu) served Magellan the best: ?... the supper hour was announced. Two large porcelain dishes were brought in, one full of rice and the other of pork with its gravy ... After half an hour a platter of roast fish cut in pieces was brought in ... Then two platters were brought in ... so that we might eat with the prince. My companion became intoxicated as a consequence of such drinking and eating... All the dishes of that king are of gold and also some portion of his house.?
We Filipinos have an innate ability to make guests feel not only full but welcome. I guess at the end of the day, we don?t really need a formula to entertain: We?ve always had Filipino hospitality. And of course, I have Goldee.