Savoring the pleasures of giving and gourmet delights

Well over a decade ago, sisters Liyora and Lileya Santos raised funds to buy second-hand wheelchairs to memorialize their sister Lauren who was afflicted by cerebral palsy and had died when she was 13.

Grieving, the two sisters thought one of the best ways by which they could salve the pain of losing their sibling, who was wheelchair-bound all through her short life, and sustain her memory was to donate wheelchairs to those in need but could not afford to buy one.

Since they started, Liyora and Lileya’s wheelchair project, with the help of their mom, Dedet de la Fuente (aka the Lechon Diva), who is famed here and abroad for her Pepita’s Kitchen stuffed lechon, have raised funds for hundreds of wheelchairs (as well as canes, crutches and other walking aids) which are donated to handicapped children and others in need around the country every year in the past decade or so.

Over the years, Liyora and Lileya Santos and their mother’s project for the handicapped have drawn support from big-hearted individuals and such major corporate sponsors as the Philippine Airlines and the Manila Hotel, which has provided the venue for the annual Project Wheelchair charity dinner, and some of the country’s noted chefs giving generously of their time and brilliance with food for donors to feast on.

This year, eight Philippine culinary luminaries, including Margarita Fores, named by the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants as Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016; celebrated chef and restaurateur Glenda Barretto; along with other renowned Filipino chefs Sau del Rosario, Myke Tatung, Datu Shariff Pendatun, Tanya Dizon, Roselyn Tiangco and De la Fuente herself, served one brilliant dish after another to guests who sat to an eight-course dinner at arguably the finest and most luxe of fine-dining venues in the country, the Champagne Room at the Manila Hotel.

There was, for starters, Barretto’s Samar Kinilaw, that is, ceviche of twakang (ray-finned long-jawed anchovy) in citrus and coconut foam with a scrumptious crisp potato puff stuffed with ubod and pork blood stew (dinuguan) along with a steamed rice cake terrine topped with chicharon.

Fores did what she described as something she grew up eating on the summers that she would go to Bacolod as a young girl — an inspired version of a “homey dish of baby blue crab with corn, coconut milk and bamboo shoot,” which was paired with a panna cotta of young corn and coconut milk, crab fat, a sprinkling of pansit-pansitan and 25-year-old aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena. Beyond superb!

Myke Tatung served homemade chicken galantina with raisin jam, morcilla, smoked chorizo and chicken liver pate with pan de sal; while Mindanao chef Datu Shariff Pendatun offered a hometown dish of his Maguindanao-style chicken dish, Lingil a Manuk, with roasted coconut and fresh spices.

Sau del Rosario’s melt-in-your-mouth Lengua Sulipeña with Mushroom Confit smothered with Manchego wowed dining donors’ palates, and last but certainly not least – among the most anticipated dish of the evening – Dedet de la Fuente’s scrumptious Lechon de Leche with truffle rice and a dollop of her Divalicious sauce.

Full stomachs all, but not too stuffed to refuse Kitchen’s Best chef Roselyn Tiangco’s extraordinarily delicious Salted Latik Sans Rival and Calamansi Tart followed by chef Tanya Dizon’s Champorado Eh, Ube Halaya with Leche Flan and Sapin Sapin Bahaghari.

The gustatory extravaganza ended with Karabella Gelato’s Guava Cheese Gelato, and all through the evening specially concocted cocktails by Destileria Limtuaco were served with sinfully crisp Memz baby chicharon and fine red and white wines from Premium Wine Exchange. Guests also took home Pearl de Guzman’s much desired Baby Pat’s Ensaymada – one of the most sought-after ensaymadas in the metropolis.

Emcees for the night were food market entrepreneur and multi-awarded host RJ Ledesma and RestoPH Communications director Spanky Enriquez, even as Filipino-British stage performer and singer James Ketcher and Filipino-Norwegian theater actor and singer Markii Stroem entertained with powerful performances.

Also there to give a hand and make sure the evening went smoothly were De la Fuente’s Food Avengers who have been with her since Project Wheelchair started — food writers Sanju Gopaldas and Cyrene de la Rosa; chefs Ed Bugia and Sharwin Tee; food and travel lifestyle Awesome Planet food blogger Anton Diaz and home chef Steve Villacin.

De la Fuente says she’s waiting for a list from the Makati Medical Foundation and Government Service Insurance System president and general manager Jose Arnulfo “Wick” Veloso, among others, for this year’s beneficiaries but in the past, hundreds of wheelchairs have been distributed to those who are in need all over the country, including Davao, Tarlac, Oslob, Baguio, Bantayan Island and even to soldiers who were wounded in the battle between Philippine government forces and the Islamic-linked Maute elements in Marawi in 2017.

Donors who came to the charity dinner at Manila Hotel’s Champagne Room last 19 November say what they spent was money well spent and they – including this writer – would be more than glad to give to the project again next year.