International restaurateur, cookbook author and culinary TV star of the ‘70s, Nora Daza summons her maids to bring in what they’ve been asked to prepare hours before: baked shrimp and lumpiang ubod na hubad (unwrapped lumpia of sautéed bamboo shoots). Her enviable fair complexion is luminescent like pearl. The shape of her face, the bouffant hairdo is very Imelda Marcos (a distant cousin), with traces of Susan Roces or Boots-Anson Roa, depending on the angle of the viewer. Although her features resemble all three alternately, the expression in her eyes when viewing the world is completely her own: perceptive, challenging and occasionally wistful.
Of course, there are telltale signs of age-defiance on her celebrity face, and then some. (Long before she hosted her own cooking show, Nora was starring in the first live TV sitcom called “Bahala Si Mommy” (It’s Up to Mommy) with Armando Goyena in the late ‘50s.) The rigid, upright bearing seems to be held up not so much by pride or age-defiance but by another style of feistiness altogether: fate-defiance, if we may call it that.
Listen to her first act of fate-defiance: “My mother, Encarnacion Guanzon Villanueva, was not a very good cook because she lost her own mother when she was 13 years old. She was sent to a convent school by my grandfather, Olympio Guanzon, a former governor of Pampanga, so she never learned how to cook. My mother was always busy with real estate or the stock market, and whenever we didn’t have a cook we would have to eat out So I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this. I’m going to cook for myself!’”
"No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary,” the late food writer/novelist Laurie Colwin wrote, “a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present and the wisdom of cookbook writers.” Did the child Nora do it all by herself? Or did she turn to others for help? Though Daza’s mother hardly ever cooked, Encarnacion collected plenty of recipes for her daughter’s perusal. This is how Nora learned to make pancakes at the age of eight—by reading her mother’s recipes.
Cooking for herself, or cooking all by herself was, for little Nora, simple child’s play. When she began making pancakes for a neighbor’s mah-jong session, however, Daza would soon discover that cooking for others was considerably more fulfilling. To top it all, the gifted child was beginning to enjoy positive feedback from her early fans—her parents’s friends. Little Nora Villanueva got hooked on adulation from then on.
To her amazement, what she treated ordinarily as child’s whimsy would someday flourish into the adult joy of culinary expertise that would pave her “entrée” into a heady world of flavor, fame, fortune. And occasional failure.
In 1993, because Nora Daza had already become a household name, politician-friends tried to cash in on her celebrity status by asking her to run for the senate. “Doy Laurel asked me to run. I was his confidante when we were U.P. students. That’s the only reason why I ran,” she reminisces. “I was kind of hurt because people were asking: What would Nora Daza do in the Senate, cook adobo?” She pauses dramatically, shaking her head in disbelief, “Sabi ko, wow!" (I said, wow!) Those people do not know that I had the first Philippine restaurant in Paris that has received awards. And the first Philippine restaurant in New York that was among the Top 37 restaurants in New York City, ha?”
At 77, the renowned Daza is still aglow with passion and self-conviction. When asked what advice to give reluctant cooks, Daza vigorously chops every word with stern, but sage warning: “First of all, when you cook, you are not dealing with poison. Whatever you cook is going to be edible. If you find that something is too oily, too sweet or too salty … you just adjust it.”
“Learn the basic guisado (sauté),” she coos. “Start with garlic by browning the sides. Then onions till translucent. Tomatoes, cooked or raw, shrimps…then some stock or water with bouillon...and that’s it. That is a basic, which you can do. You can add some vegetables, any kind of vegetables. That is the basic guisado.”
Why do words of wisdom from accomplished cooks always make cooking seem so effortless? What about people who cannot even cook? “Unless one is tamad (lazy) or walang feeling (unfeeling), I don’t think there’s such a person who cannot cook. Eventually, they will learn to boil eggs, boil rice, and make tea, coffee,” she notes.
“Cooking is both a learned and a natural talent. You have to love what you’re doing and you have to have a very good palate,” Daza emphasizes. “To be able to cook well, you must have a good sense of taste.” And with full aplomb, she declares. “I honestly believe that this is one of the reasons for my success.”
Success, in this case, would mean translating her knowledge of restaurant management into a string of successful fine-dining establishments in three different countries: Au Bon Vivant, the first authentic French restaurant in the Philippines; Aux Iles Philippines, the first upscale Filipino restaurant in Paris; Galing-Galing, a high-concept Filipino restaurant in Ermita; and Maharlika Restaurant, the first fine-dining Pinoy restaurant in New York City, where Pinoy carinderia-style restaurants are a dime-a-dozen.
Somehow, her awe-inspiring feat seems to be fueled by three factors – fire, food and Francophilia (or love of anything French). Fire is vital to Daza’s cooking profession. Her first cooking-skill challenge was literally a “baptism of fire,” thrust upon her unknowingly by a perceptive authority figure who wanted to test the little girl’s gifts.
“During World War II, my father, Alejandro Jose Villanueva, a civil engineer, asked to be transferred in Batangas, where we are from, because the Japanese were trying to find out from him all the bridges and the harbors where they could land. I was the only one among the children whom he brought there, along with some furniture. I was 11 years old. One day, my grandfather came home carrying pusit (squid) and told me to cook it. I couldn’t protest because he was very strict. I had never cooked squid in my life. I didn’t even know how to light up a wood stove! So I asked my next door neighbor, step by step. When we were sitting down for dinner, I held my breath. He didn’t say anything after tasting it, but feeling ko, nakapasa ako. (I passed the test.)”
Surpassing the strict standards of a revered authority figure will be a recurring pattern for this young Filipina achiever—at University of the Philippines, as home economics major; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for an M.S. major in restaurant and institution management; membership in Cornell’s prestigious Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society; as food columnist for Women’s Magazine; directress of Manila Gas Cooking School; host of the TV show, “Cooking It Up With Nora,” (which lasted eight years) and author of three cookbooks, one of which is still a best seller in National Book Store.
Let’s Cook with Nora, first published in 1969, is already being read by second- generation cookbook lovers. The book, like rice and prayers before meals, is considered a kitchen staple by enthusiasts and revered as culinary bible by expatriates. From a website by Arnel J. Banas about studying in the U.K., he advises departing students to “bring a Filipino Recipe Book (Nora Daza will be your best friend). This will be helpful in preparing favorite recipes for yourself and your new friends who might request you to cook a Filipino dish or two. Also if you miss Pinoy food then you can make it yourself. If you do not know how to cook, don’t worry … you’ll learn!”
In the mid-'60s, Nora V. Daza, already a culinary icon, walked our of her 15-year marriage to her campus sweetheart Gabriel Daza, Jr., leaving five young children behind: Bong (Gabriel III), Sandy, Mariles, Stella and Nina.
“It was the most painful decision in my life,” she reveals. “After my divorce was granted, I asked my sister Betty Orendain to stay with the kids in Area 1 while I was away.” Away from her loved ones, there was only her career to love and look forward to—as host of the cooking show and directress of Manila Gas cooking school.
“Every time I get drained from the TV show,” Daza recalls, “I would take off for Hong Kong. When they started Mandarin Oriental, I went to the restaurant to try their Steak au Poivre (steak with pepper and mushrooms). I told myself that this is the kind of restaurant that I want.”
In 1965 Daza opened the doors of Au Bon Vivant, the first French restaurant in Manila and later in Makati and Quezon City. She was the first to introduce Béarnaise Sauce, Duck al’Orange, Spinach Soufflé, Pepper Steak, Bouillabaisse, the classic Onion Soup and Crepes Suzette to sophisticated Manileño diners comfortable with Spanish and American food like Salpicado, Pastel de Lengua, hamburger and tenderloin Steak. Without any formal training in classic French cuisine, Nora did the next best thing. She brought in five of the best chefs from France, the most famous being the father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Paul Bocuse. (Nouvelle Cuisine, espousing lighter creams, simpler recipes and emphasizing natural flavors and textures, was too avant-garde a fine-dining concept that it bombed in Manila at that time.)
Another chef she imported was a then-unknown Gaston LeNotre, now hailed as a legendary pastry chef. Like Daza, both of these iconic French chefs have become authors of their own cookbooks. With these three, Au Bon Vivant’s rave reviews were well justified.
But what’s behind the name Au Bon Vivant? (Babelfish crudely translates this phrase as With the Jovial Fellow. French speakers, however, would rather interpret it as At the Place Where People Who Live Well Meet). Who was the bon vivant in Daza’s life? Was he Pierre, a French aristocrat/banker whose family name she refuses to divulge? Whose sisters disapproved of Pierre’s ardent wish to marry her because she was a divorcee with five children? Whose untimely death from liver cancer less than a year after they met in 1965 caused her incessant grief?
Daza married for the second time in 1967. Through her frequent traveling, she met Air France general manager George Papin who brought the Filipina diva to live in Argentina where he was based. But life in Buenos Aires as an intercontinental party hostess bored the workaholic wife, and her marriage unraveled after nine years. After two failed marriages and the death of a lover, what else was there to do? Sulk? Go home? Write her memoirs? Or conquer New York and Paris?
“First there was Maharlika restaurant at the Philippine Center in New York City, which Mrs. Marcos asked me to set up. Then off to Paris to buy ingredients for Au Bon Vivant,” she proudly recalls. “And I said: if I make a go of a restaurant in Paris, which is the Mecca of cuisine, I’m made! So while I was running a Philippine restaurant in New York City, I also put up a Philippine restaurant in Paris at the same time that I had a French restaurant in the Philippines!”
As soon as Bong, her eldest son, graduated from St. Mary’s College in Minnesota, Daza sent him off to Sorbonne University in Paris to study French. A little Aux Iles Philippines restaurant was already running on trial in Paris then, and it was burgeoning. By 1973 it was time to set up the real McCoy. Because she was busy running Maharlika in New York, she decided to give her 22-year-old son the full responsibility of setting up a big-time Filipino restaurant in the old world city of Paris.
“That is how I learned to speak French,” confides Bong, “by dealing with Parisian architects, contractors, plumbers and accountants, all by myself.” From 1973 up to 1979, Aux Isles Philippines (In the Philippine Islands) would continually reap good press not only from Le Monde and other leading French publications, but also from the International Herald Tribune’s Naomi Barry.
Daza’s culinary innovations to elevate and make Philippine cuisine more palatable to a broader audience were getting good results. Aux Iles Philippines garnered the Prix Marco Polo for being one of the top Asian restaurants in Paris. In 1977, the Guide Michelin gave it a much coveted “two spoons and forks” rating. And for the crème de la creme of top distinctions, the prestigious Gault-Millau Le Guide de Paris gave its sacrosanct nod to the Philippine establishment as one of several outstanding restaurants in Paris. All this “remembrance of things past” comes alive once again in Daza’s photo albums, the greater bulk of which perished in a late ‘70s fire that gutted every piece of priceless memorabilia in her Galing-Galing restaurant in Ermita.
Never an embittered woman to dwell in her vivid past, Daza shuttles leisurely between Canada and the Philippines, working on yet another cookbook.
How would Nora Villanueva Daza Papin like to be remembered? “As a pioneer of Philippine cuisine in Europe and the United States.”
Is there anything else she seeks? “Companionship,” she stoically offers, without missing a beat.
Wondering what it’s like to have Nora Daza for a mother, Bong, her charming “bon vivant” son stoically answers, also without missing a beat: “Masyadong mabait.” (She’s too good to be true.)
Excerpted from Filipinas Magazine, July 2006
Noel A. Añonuevo, a Manila resident, currently directs talk shows and cooking shows for GMA News TV.