MANILA — The caviar tastes of Malacanang Palace have no place in President Corazon Aquino's busy life. In the palace guest house where the new president of the Philippines has set up her office, the atmosphere is bright and fresh. And the food prepared there for Aquino, her family and staff might be served in any middle-class Filipino home.
"She just likes simple food, mostly fish and vegetables," said caterer Luz Bardos. Bardos and her partner, Digna Charni, plan the menus, shop for and personally cook the lunches that are served in a room adjacent to Aquino's office.
"It's no joke, giving food to the president," Bardos said. The guest house has been in use for only one month, and security policy has not yet been established for the kitchen. Two or three security guards stand outside, but the safety of the food is left to the two women. "They trust me," said Bardos, who tastes each dish before it is served.
Tribute to Presidential Color
The caterers shop for ingredients in a variety of markets and change their paths to make their visits unpredictable. Assisting them with food service are two waiters and three maids. The maids have four sets of yellow and white uniforms designed by Charni. In further tribute to the presidential color, the women are changing the name of their catering firm to Yellow Bell.
At first, Aquino ate informally with her staff. But the staff decided that that was inappropriate. Now they gather for lunch and the afternoon snack called merienda at a long table at one end of the reception area that stretches across the front of the guest house. The food is served on Noritake china in a pattern that features the sampaguita, which is the national flower of the Philippines. The white sampaguita and its leaves form a border on a gray band around the rim of the white plates.
The floral pattern reflects the airy, garden-like atmosphere of the guest house. White furniture, light green carpeting and sheer curtains that reveal the sunshine and shrubbery outside make it a cheerful place in contrast to the dark, windowless rooms of the ornate palace across the way. Colorful Yugoslavian naif paintings add to the bright effect.
The spotless, stainless steel and white tile kitchen is simply designed and not overly large. On the day we were invited to see it, bulky sacks of rice, the staple of the Philippines, were stacked against a wall. Air freshener in the sampaguita fragrance stood on the counter.
Cooking starts at 10 a.m., and lunch is served at noon. That day, the menu was to feature pork and beef meat loaves that Bardos had prepared at home. The loaves were to be sliced and served with buttered vegetables and gravy. Other dishes were chicken asparagus soup, made with canned white asparagus, and Chinese-style shrimp with pea pods. For dessert there were individual cups of chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream and bits of chocolate. Bardos had also baked a sour cream chocolate cake.
The bottle of red Bordeaux, a 1980 Chateau Lezin, that Bardos was readying for service was not intended for Aquino but for her executive secretary, Joker Arroyo. The president prefers iced tea mixed with sugar and the juice of the small Philippine lime called calamansi. She also drinks juice, water and cola.
Prepare Lunch Only
The day before, lunch started with tinolang manok, a chicken soup that includes leaves of the chile plant and green papaya. Then came grilled tanguingue with garlic (tanguingue is a Philippine fish) and a salad of salted duck eggs, sliced tomatoes, onions and eggplant with vinaigrette dressing. The dessert was a mixture of papaya, mango, watermelon and pineapple with calamansi juice and syrup.
The menu on a day the president entertained Japanese guests consisted of Caesar salad, which Charni said is one of Aquino's favorite dishes; prawns thermidor, tenderloin steak and baked potatoes. The dessert was French vanilla ice cream topped with fresh mango.
Last week, the president had Caesar salad again. Other dishes were sauteed chayote with shrimp and pork; deep-fried squid rings and kilawin, a pork and liver stew made in the style of Pampanga province, which is renowned for its cooking. Gulaman and sago, a sweet drink that includes tapioca pearls and gelatin, accompanied the lunch. There were also chocolate cupcakes topped with a circle of frosting that was sprinkled with chopped cashews.
The caterers plan menus a week at a time and present them for approval. Aquino is a light eater, seldom taking more than an orange, which Filipinos call a "Sunkist," or an apple for merienda. "It's not very hard to feed her," Charni said. "She's very simple. She likes home cooking, something Filipino." The caterers prepare lunch only and serve the same meal to the staff that they plan for the president. They market daily and purchase fish live to ensure freshness.