MANILA -- Project Wheelchair started with two little girls at a food bazaar selling Butter Beer and Chocolate Happiness. Their mission: to buy secondhand wheelchairs for handicap children to commemorate their sister Lauren’s first death anniversary due to cerebral palsy.
Dedet Dela Fuente, the brains behind Pepita’s Kitchen's lechon degustacions, is the proud momma of the two girls, Liyora and Lileya. She recounts that the project just became bigger and bigger as the years went by. The number of wheelchairs, crutches, and canes increased, as did the reach of the project.
Since Project Wheelchair started, the Dela Fuentes have attracted support from generous benefactors. Philippine Airlines have contributed cargo space for the wheelchairs on its planes. Five years ago, the Manila Hotel provided the Champagne Room as the venue for the charity dinners. Not to mention the chefs who have contributed their food to the Project Wheelchair banquet.
All of these have enabled the Dela Fuentes to distribute wheelchairs all over the country, including Baguio, Oslob, Davao del Sur, Bantayan Island, and Tarlac.
The most recent Project Wheelchair desitination was the war-torn region of Marawi. Dela Fuente, her daughters, and select close friends personally went on a mission of mercy to the devastated city to bring wheelchairs for soldiers who were severely injured during the battle and subsequent military operations.
Last Sunday, Project Wheelchair held its latest charity dinner again at Manila Hotel's Champagne Room with food by the country's culinary rock stars.
The dinner started out in Champagne Room’s foyer where guests enjoyed a sip of wine and cocktails showcasing the local spirits of Distileria Limtuaco.
Chef Glenda Barretto of Via Mare started off with a plate of pako salad, ukoy with jellied vinegar, and a very special tuna kinilaw. Barreto used a kamias foam to provide the sourness instead of the usual vinegar dressing. This was an inventive dish that showed the caliber of the chefs of Project Wheelchair.
The second entrée was a crab on crab dish from Thirdy Dolatre, Kevin Navoa, and Kevin Villarica of Hapag Private Dining. Steamed crab meat and coconut squash puree with a sauce made out prawn heads was like eating a very rich meaty version of Alavar sauce.
The Adobong Turon by Nancy Reyes Lumen and her Team Adobo was a playful plate placing the turon as an arrow piercing through a heart cut out of a banana leaf. It was a nice surprise with the herby sprig of rosemary, crunch of the fried skin, the sweetness of the banana, and the salty-sour of Lumen’s adobo dipped in the side of adobo aioli coming together in one flavorful bite.
The Maguindanaoan Linigil a Manuk was Datu Shariff Pandatun’s contribution to the dinner. This was perfectly cooked chicken flavored with palapa, a spice mix of toasted coconut and secret spices. It’s just a shame that Pandatun doesn’t have a restaurant because I personally wouldn’t mind having seconds or thirds of this dish.
Locavore’s Kel Zaguirre was handing out small bowls of his dish around the kitchen even before the dinner started. Zaguirre’s Orzo Caldo used buttery orzo pasta (instead of rice) with bopis -- a balanced bowl of the nice and the nasty. The nice was the familiar gingery broth used in arroz caldo, while the nasty were the innards, bits of lung, bits of heart, bits of cheek, and bits of skin. Zaguirre brought everything together into one dish that packed a savory punch.
Pampanga’s favorite culinary son, Sau Del Rosario, cooked the special sisig he served at San Sebastian Gastronomika to Champagne Room. Have a bite of sisig, sous vide egg, and the soy vinegar caviar and one can understand how this dish wowed the Spaniards.
How does an Asia’s Best Female Chef cook KBL? Margarita Fores infused the Italian tradition of respecting ingredients with her home Ilonggo cooking. She used premium Kurobota pork and cotechino, an Italian sausage, with kadyos and a piece of jackfruit. The resulting broth is not as strong as what could be found in the Visayas. However, the subtle saltiness from the cortechino and slight sourness from the candied dayap balanced out the entire dish.
A Project Wheelchair dinner won’t be complete without one of the Lechon Diva’s pigs. Dela Fuente served a portion of her famous truffle lechon, truffle rice, with just a pinch of her super spicy Divalicious Labuyo Sauce.
A purple medley of Filipino desserts was served by Tanya Dizon and Arroz Ecija Bistro XO. The trio of Ube Biko, Malaubeng Panaginip (ube halaya dreamcake with leche flan), and Ube Fudge Crinkle was a fitting end to a dinner showing off the past, the present, and the future of Filipino Food.
The chefs raved about their amazing experience in the kitchens that night, citing camaraderie and friendships that happened behind the scenes. Many of them, helping out by plating each other’s dishes and assisting whoever was currently serving their dish.
At the end of the night, Project Wheelchair had enough funds for 200 wheelchairs that will be earmarked for Marawi and the victims of the recent intensity-6.3 earthquake that rocked Northern Cotabato.