Hi, everyone. I’m Dedet.
Christmas evenings were spent with my daddy’s relatives. I had this uncle who, before giving me his gift, would always tell me “Dedet, napabayaan ka na naman sa kusina.”
My uncle would always make fun of my weight. And that part of Christmas, I dreaded. I enjoyed Christmas Day, but I hated Christmas evening because of this. Despite this, Christmas was and still is, my favorite time of year.
I remember watching and helping my mommy prepare a feast for Christmas lunch because all of our relatives celebrated in our home—rellenong alimasag, rellenong manok, lengua, morcon, kare kare and many more. My daddy loved fruit cake, so I would help my mom bake it a few weeks before Christmas. The smell of fruitcake in the oven is one of my happy memories of my CHRISTmas childhood.
Little did I know that decades after that dreaded relentless teasing, the “batang pinabayaan sa kusina” would become the Lechon Diva.
I would like to share with you how a simple lechon could change the world. It certainly changed mine.
This is my story.
I came up with a lechon that had a stuffing that most Filipinos loved to eat but was never put inside a lechon. I cooked it in a pugon. Needless to say, my first “lechon experiment” was a success! The meat was tender, the skin was crisp and the binagoongan rice stuffing tasted divine.
Soon after, I came up with more types of stuffing: Taba ng Talangka Rice with Chorizo, Sisig Rice and the internationally recognized Truffle Rice stuffed Lechon de Leche.
After coming up with my take on lechon, I joined the Our Awesome Planet’s Ultimate Taste Test, an annual event hosted by pioneer blogger Anton Diaz. Before this, I had no plans of turning my cooking into a business. It was just something I enjoyed doing and as I was taught to never let an opportunity go to waste, I grabbed this opportunity, participated in the event and, to my surprise, got some of the highest marks! After this, people started blogging about my “trial lechon” and everything took off from there.
If not for this event, I would probably still be cooking lechon, but only for my family and friends.
But thanks to that pivotal moment, the Lechon Diva was born.
In 2014, the Lechon Diva took a trip to New York where I exhibited the All-Filipino Degustacion dinner. It was the first time I took my dish outside the country.
My legs and feet died that night. The kitchen was downstairs and the dining room was upstairs. I did not anticipate how difficult and tiring it was going to be. But the fact that the dinner sold out after posting in social media for only a week and a half only made me work harder. What happened that night gave me confidence—the realization that someone without formal culinary training could make an impact and present Filipino food on the global stage.
After this stint in New York, my passion to introduce “Filipino Food to the World” only grew. Now it has become my goal and I hope to inspire you to do the same. My dream is to make lechon and Filipino food a global sensation.
A year after New York, my Truffle Rice Stuffed de Leche was awarded in London as Tastiest Dish in Asia. After winning, Singaporean entrepreneur and photojournalist KF Seetoh invited me to represent the Philippines at the World Street Food Congress in his hometown. I was blown away to see locals and foreigners lining up for up to three hours just to taste the Philippines Truffle Lechon. Even founding chef of two-Michelin-star restaurant Noma, Claus Meyer, fell in love with Philippine lechon when he tasted our truffle lechon.
People loved taking photos of our spread at the last four Madrid Fusion in Manila. Even foreign chefs like Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa of the two-Michelin-star Narisawa Tokyo restaurant had two rounds of our sisig rice lechon and he told me it was delicious!
Chef Nordin Topham of the Michelin-star Nur of Hong Kong and Spanish food historian couldn’t help but stop, look and take photos of our food, like our lechon and our Filipino paella.
Fast forward to a year later, I brought some of my specialty dishes to Hong Kong for a sold-out event called Filipino Feast by Cross Cultures by Cheryl Tiu.
A year later, we went to Singapore for a two-night sold-out dinner for 160 people—this time I served them our Hayop sa Sarap na Degustacion where I served the best dishes from my four degustacions. Everyone loved taking photos of the lechon. Our Philippine lechon is like the Miss Universe of all roasted pigs—everyone loves to take photos of it!
“Man v. Food” star and host Adam Richman had been in my kitchen to shoot my lechon and degustacion. He loved our lechon and called our lechon “the lechon with the most decadent crispy skin with truffle rice.”
Adam also fell in love with our Filipino desserts Super Suman and Mango Trifle. He loved the yema, pastillas and peanut kisses. But what blew his mind out was our Chocnut. I told him its the Philippines No. 1 chocolate. He couldn’t believe how good it tasted. Only after a few minutes did I tell him, our number 1 chocolate is really made from peanuts! But he still loved it and in fact, he included it in his list of his most memorable eats in Manila.
The late Anthony Bourdain tasted our lechon on his last visit to Manila. He had two big servings of lechon and had the leftover meat and skin packed before he left. That’s how much he enjoyed our Binagoongan Rice-stuffed Lechon! I couldn’t believe he ordered Lechon de Leche of Pepitas Kitchen to go! And on his Instagram story, when he was on his way to the airport, it was about our lechon and labuyo sauce that he wrote “Goodbye Manila!” True enough, Manila would not see Bourdain since.
Just recently, I had the privilege of serving my truffle lechon to Martha Stewart when she visited Manila. After eating her first serving of the Pepitas Lechon, she looks at me straight in the eye and says “ Your food is soooo good.” She had a good second serving after her first plate.
For someone who has no formal training in cooking, I have been extremely blessed to have been given so many opportunities to showcase Filipino food to international food celebrities and bring our lechon and Filipino food specialties to different parts of the world.
Pepita’s Lechon took the Lechon Diva to places no other Philippine food had gone before. I didn’t want to stop there. All of this came because I wanted to see how else we could elevate Filipino Food.
In the food industry, it’s always best to start with one dish that you will be known for—that one dish that people will remember you by. It will be hard to remember you if you create so many things at the same time. Once you have a hit, it will be easier to add more recipes and dishes
After my first food item, the lechon, became a hit, I moved on to create Super Suman. It’s sticky rice topped with every Filipino’s favorite sweets: Chocnut, yema, and pastillas, among others.
How did I come up with the Super Suman? I was with a group of friends, and we were talking about their favourite desserts. I was surprised to hear many of them mentioned the Thai classic mango sticky rice. I told myself, “That’s just suman with mango!”
How come they didn’t mention any Filipino dessert? I challenged myself. I wanted to come up with a dessert that would stand out, so I came up with my Super Suman. It’s a favorite “balikbayans” (Filipino repatriates) and foreigners taste at parties.
I went on doing what I did best. I tried to recall classics from my past I wanted to reinvent. After the Super Suman, I made my signature Mango Trifle where I used biscuits of my childhood, namely rosquillos, otap, pasensya and broas (naalala n’yo pa ba?). Then I thought of the guinataang Mais Mousse and Biko Langka with Biko Tutong. I came up with those desserts because I remembered my happy memories of childhood feasting. These creations were also included in the Best Desserts List of the Philippines.
Then I took the next step forward, but no, that does not involve opening a restaurant. I still don’t have one. But I felt we were ready to cater for small parties.
When I started my Filipino Degustacions, I made sure my daughters were involved. My youngest daughter, Liyora (Little Pepita), would slice the lechon while the guests watched and my second daughter, Lileya (curly Pepita), would come up with welcome drinks. My Hayop na Degustacion was named the Best Dining Experience in the Philippines by Lifestyle Asia.
My newest is my Boodle Feast—my take on Boodle Fight—because, with the Lechon Diva, it is always a feast and never a fight. Our Boodle Feast celebrates everything Filipinos love about food. For us Filipinos, food is meant to be shared and sharing always doubles the fun in eating.
The biggest inspirations in my life are my parents—Turing and Lorna de la Fuente. They were very patriotic and they loved the Philippines and our culture. They instilled in me the love for the country and anything and everything about being a Filipino.
I’ve always wanted to honor them with what I have accomplished. That is why, wherever I go, I make sure the Philippine flag will be in each lechon plate that I serve, especially when I am serving it in another country. Here I am, remembering and embracing that part of my childhood where I was laughed at as “ang batang pinabayaan sa kusina.”
I wish everyone the Merriest of CHRISTmas, and remember: “ What is CHRISTmas? “It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present and hope for the future,” as Agnes Pahro said.