WHAT DOES it mean to be the best? You can take the example of Glenda Barretto, founder of Via Mare, and caterer extraordinaire. Mrs. Barretto’s bejewelled hand has presided over numerous state dinners at Malacañang Palace after a dinner she catered for a friend caught the attention of the dictator’s wife, Imelda Marcos. Since then, Mrs. Barretto’s imprimatur has been on almost every plate served to almost every world leader who has stepped foot in this country.

The Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) was founded on Sept. 5, 1976, after Mrs. Marcos ordered it built to house the IMF-World Bank annual meeting. Meanwhile, Mrs. Barretto’s storied fine-dining seafood restaurant, Via Mare, was founded on the same day a year earlier. Aside from the coincidence of their founding dates, Via Mare is the PICC’s exclusive caterer. So naturally Mrs. Barretto was in charge of the dinner on Sept. 27 celebrating the PICC’s anniversary.

Mrs. Barretto recalled that back in the ’70s she had been content to serve her meals at the restaurant, but one of her more famous customers, a president of a fruit company, asked her to cater his 25th wedding anniversary. The Marcoses made a surprise appearance at the dinner. “She looked around,” Mrs. Barretto said, “And liked what she saw.”

“Right away, she said, ‘Call her.’”

What Imelda wants, Imelda gets, as documents recording her shopping sprees would note. “Glenda. You are to cater for the state visit of President Ford. Three weeks from now,” Mrs. Barretto recalled Mrs. Marcos saying over the phone. “I said, ‘Ma’am. This is all I have. My restaurant is small. I don’t have the equipment.’”

“She said, ‘Go buy.’”

The dinner Mrs. Barretto catered for Ms. Marcos, she told BusinessWorld, is still one of her most memorable. “In the beginning, I was nervous. As you go along, you gain that confidence.”

Mrs. Barretto is now known not for reinventing Filipino cuisine, but refining it to the point of making it fit to be served at the highest tables in the land. For the PICC anniversary dinner she served prawn and lapu-lapu quenelles in a tinola soup, a dinuguan (blood stew) terrine, river fern salad, and an adobo glazed-tenderloin — all of these dishes had been served at various grand events at the PICC (which, by the way, is going to have a new exhibit hall, with construction beginning in 2021), including the World Economic Forum in 2014, and the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting Lunch, among many, many others.

The magic of Via Mare is not in the taste, but encountering something familiar in a new light — speaking from the point of view of a Filipino familiar with these flavors, of course. It was Mrs. Marcos who encouraged her to perform magic tricks with Filipino food. Mrs. Barretto deboned, plucked, rolled, and played with the ingredients to create something that looked new, but tasted truly ours.

Mrs. Barretto mentions one of her personal favorites — the tinola (chicken in a clear ginger broth). It’s a delightful dish, but a nightmare at formals when you have to pick at bones (just ask Padre Damaso in Noli me Tangere). “But if you pattern it after the procedure that the French do, you don’t need a fork to cut and take the meat,” she said.

In defining refinement, she said, “That’s the convenience in dining. Practicality.”

In her early days, her VIP clients would turn their nose up at her suggestions to serve Filipino food. “Filipinos are the first to put down their food,” she said. “‘Pangbahay lang ’yan. (It’s only for the home.)’ Hindi naman (not really). Nasa nagluluto ’yan! (It’s in the hands of the cook)”

One can imagine how these flavors tickled the palates of some of the world’s most famous people. For example, in a dish fit for, and served to a queen, Mrs. Barretto made sea bass in a miso sauce with beetroot pasta which she served to Her Royal Majesty Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, who was apparently pescatarian.

In terms of quantity meanwhile, Mrs. Barretto recalled a catering for the World Meeting of Families, serving three meals a day to 9,000 delegates for three days (Mrs. Barretto places the count at 81,000 plates).

“Can you imagine the number of plates we had to wash?” she said.

It’s impossible to associate the slight woman wearing an enormous pearl ring accented by a diamond halo with work, and working hard. But no matter who you are, in the heat of the kitchen, you’ll drip sweat.

“I really look into whatever I serve,” she said.

We guess it’s the work ethic that saved her: long after the lavish parties of the Marcoses were swept away to Hawaii during their exile, Mrs. Barretto’s name held fast, and most subsequent administrations used her services.

“I work. I love my work, and I work hard. It’s not hard work for me, because I enjoy it.” — Joseph L. Garcia