Pepita’s Kitchen: Rich Man, Full Man

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Dedet dela Fuente, self-styled Lechon Diva, brandishes a glimmering razor-edged Bugatti knife (apparently they don’t just make fancy sports cars) as she prepares to make a cut into a freshly roasted lechon. “Aim the camera at it and set it to record,” she requests Lea, our photographer. “Trust me, it’s the best ring tone in the world.” Lea obliges her, pointing Dedet’s phone face-forward at the steaming hulk of pork like an FBI agent brandishing a badge at a guilty perp. Expertly and gleefully, she plunges the Bugatti almost through the hilt into the crispy pig and then begins to methodically saw at its back, belly and haunches in small, neat, precise motions. The sound of the tempered steel slicing through the crunchy pigskin, sinking into tender pork and stuffing, is like music to my ears – a kind of crackling, rippling rhythmic ripping that I’ve never heard come out of a lechon before (and I’d been to my fair share of lechon and cochinillo cookouts). She wasn’t kidding about that sound being a rockin’ ringtone.

This lovely, talented, multi-awarded homegrown chef has made a name for herself in the industry for her stuffed lechons, of which she has a myriad and clever selections, made available through her catering business, Pepita’s Kitchen. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, she would attract international attention for her culinary creations.

“As early as September last year, I had been getting emails from the States,” she recounts. “I never replied because I didn’t know these people. So I never got back to them until this one time someone from the Philippines called me. They introduced themselves and said they were working with a production and told me everything about the show (Adam Richman’s Man Finds Food). I said, ‘Ok, I’ll reply to the email.’

“They wanted to shoot me cooking my lechon. I said I don’t really do that – that’s not my thing. Eventually, I told them, I’ll just do the Mango Trifle and the Super Suman. The contact from the States said I didn’t have to show everything. It was really the lechon they were interested in but they would gladly show the other two items. I was thinking of showcasing my Hayop Degustacion, which was named “Best Dining Experience in the Country” by Lifestyle Asia magazine.

“Five days before the shoot, I told my good friend (blogger and food writer) Spanky Enriquez – I asked him if he knew Adam Richman of Man vs. Food. ‘Oh my God,’ he says. ‘Why are you asking?’”

“I said, ‘Because he’s coming here.’”

“‘He’s one of the top three (travel and food show celebrities) in the world! He’s up there with Anthony Bourdain and (Andrew) Zimmerman! He’s very popular.’”

“‘Ah really?’”

That’s when dela Fuente decided to switch gears on her initial plan. “Maybe I should make a degustacion named after him – Richman’s Degustacion.” With less than a week to prepare, she channeled all her efforts into putting together a meal worthy of an international foodie celebrity.

Finally, the big day came. “When they (Richman and his team) got here, they arrived an hour early. I just had to go up and change and then we went to the kitchen. We talked about where I would stand, what I would do. After a few minutes, a man entered the kitchen and said, ‘I’m so happy to meet the Lechon Diva!’ I just smiled and maybe I was the first person that made him realize that I didn’t know him, so he said, ‘Oh, I’m Adam Richman.’ (dela Fuente laughs throatily) ‘Oh, you’re Adam!!!’ It’s good that I didn’t know who he was – what to expect from the show, or from him. He was a wonderful human being! He’s funny, very passionate about food.”

Richman’s reaction to her work had dela Fuente walking on air. “He fell in love with the Super Suman – actually, he posted it (on his personal Facebook page). He also loved the Mango Trifle and the lechon. We cooked the lechon and we had fun.”

“A lot of my friends were here during the shoot – writers, bloggers and editors. They were waiting while the shoot was going on; shoots take a really long time. Meanwhile, the staff was telling us, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be quick so you can have a nice dinner with your friends.’ But I thought he was joining us for dinner. I invited all those writers so they could meet him. I told him that I came up with a new menu and that I named it after him. ‘I hope you can stay for even half of the degustacion because I really created each and every dish for especially for you.’ Oh my God, he hugged me! It really touched him. He then told me, ‘You know what? I’m not leaving until the last dessert is served. I give you my word.’ And he did! They stayed until 10:30 pm and he chatted with all of us – oh yeah, he’s a very nice person.”

Richman’s enthusiasm with dela Fuente’s dishes was not without rhyme or reason. I have a chance to sample dela Fuente’s pièce de résistance, the Ultimate Lechon, a roast pig stuffed with truffle oil-suffused rice and foie gras. After dela Fuente carves up the pig for her ringtone, she serves it up for us in steaming mounds of fragrant rice, bean-like slices of foie gras and sheets of crispy skin, the fat still gingerly clinging to it in glistening clumps. The fresh pork is succulent and the truffle-foie gras-pork oil combination intoxicating, like pure unadulterated tetrahydrocannabinol tap-dancing through my brain like Fred Astaire with Lady Gaga as a partner. I remain in a happy, fugue state to the delight of my host for what seems like hours before we move on to some professional palate cleansing.

Dela Fuente serves up rods of ice candy wrapped in plastic and buried in a bowl of shaved ice, which she asks us to guess. The tangy ginger and honey sweetness gives it all away – it is traditional salabat or ginger tea, in ice candy form. Afterwards, she produces demitasses of frozen melons infused with chili oil. That wakes me up from the food coma from earlier and has me ready for dessert.

She then bids us try the Buko Pandan Trifle. I scoop up a hefty serving of creamed coconut with toasted coconut meat and pandan-flavored coconut strands on a bed of soft broas (ladyfinger cookies). The Mango Trifle follows, a similar concoction that uses ambrosial diced mango with crumbly meringue on an otap (Cebuano puff pastry) bed.

If this were just a taste of the Richman’s Degustacion, I would’ve stayed for the next hundred years just to try the rest of it, if she’d let me.

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