For these two chefs, food becomes more than mere sustenance but a symbol of hope for better times.

EVEN as the restaurant’s main branch along Quezon City’s Roces Ave. was forced to close after pandemic restrictions decimated the bottom line, requiring a major pivot to their second branch cum school which adapted to the needs of the times, Waya Araos-Wijangco’s restaurant, Gourmet Gypsy Art Cafe, has been feeding frontliners since the beginning of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since then, various disasters have hammered the country, including particularly the devastating typhoons Rolly and Ulysses. Ms. Araos-Wijangco helped out with relief operations for families in need in Cagayan Valley due to the ravages of Typhoon Rolly by helping set up a mobile kitchen there in partnership with Art Relief Mobile Kitchen; more recently, she gave a merry Christmas to families in Marikina and Rizal who were affected by Typhoon Ulysses.

“Even the kitchen we were in — we were hosted by the University of Cagayan Valley — the whole building; the kitchen we were in: lubog (flooded),” she said about the mobile kitchen they set up in the wake of Ulysses, in a phone call to BusinessWorld last week. “Nilinis lang so we can [use it] (It was cleaned so we can use it). All the equipment was destroyed; we had to bring a new freezer that we can use.”

They made hototay soup (a soup made with various meats, but especially chicken liver) for 4,000 people, then tinola (chicken ginger soup), and then adobo (a stew of chicken and/or pork in vinegar and soy sauce). “We did all sorts of things.”

During relief operations, people in evacuation centers are usually given instant noodle packs and canned food, not freshly cooked food. “It’s a human thing,” said Ms. Araos-Wijangco when asked why she and Art Relief went above and beyond to make better meals. “When you’re down, what’s the best way to pick you up? It’s hot comfort food. It’s really the best way to make you feel human again,” she said. “Hindi iyong nawala nang lahat, tapos kakainin mo instant noodles. Sobrang kawawa naman (Not like losing everything, and then having to eat instant noodles after. That’s too sad).”

“At the end of the day, they have a hot meal. It’s a comfort that they wouldn’t have to think about where to get what they’ll eat,” she said in a mix of Tagalog and English.

She pointed out that every difficulty was layered with the fact that we are still in a pandemic. For example, to prevent the spread of the disease, local volunteers for the mobile kitchen stayed in a separate area for preparation and distribution while she and her staff were similarly quarantined and working in isolation in the kitchen. She says of her staff, “They’re very proud of the things that we’ve done, and they’re also very grateful to have the opportunity to do it.”

After all of that, last Christmas, Ms. Araos-Wijangco raised funds to feed about 350 families in Marikina and Rizal who were also flooded out by the successive typhoons. In an initiative she posted on her and her restaurant’s Facebook account, a donation of P1,000 would go towards a three-course meal (with lasagna, a roast chicken, and fruit salad) good for six to eight persons. “We wanted something familiar but special,” she said.

“They didn’t just lose their home,” she told BusinessWorld. “It’s been a year of hardship. If you have just that one night where you can be with your family, at hindi mo problema kung saan kukunin iyong kakainin niyo (and you don’t have to think about where to get your food) — that was the gift.”

While we expected Ms. Araos-Wijangco’s projects to have deep roots (she started her relief operations even before 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda), we didn’t expect them to run quite so deep.

Christmas, for her family, is about others. “When my kids were small, I taught them that on [their] birthdays, you get a special day. You get things you want, the gifts you want; because it’s your birthday. But for Christmas, my children will get gifts from other members of my family; my friends. I know that someone will take care of them.

“We always tell them that for Christmas, we take care of the ones no one will take care of — those who don’t get gifts,” she told BusinessWorld.

“Even when we were kids, we were raised like that by our parents,” she said — her father was the late sculptor, landscape artist, and activist Jerusalino “Jerry” V. Araos. “My holiday rush is never about me.”

Asked why she does it, she replied: “Because you can. When you can, you must: especially in times like these.”

What’s a Swiss-trained chef doing in the slums of Tondo?

Ida Arreza, a former flight purser for Business and First classes of Cathay Pacific, left that dream job in pursuit of another. In 2011, she trained at the then-DCT European Culinary Arts Center in Vitznau (now the Culinary Arts Academy of Switzerland). The training enabled her to work at the Cafè Gray Deluxe in Hong Kong.

Now, all that brings her to the slums of Tondo, for her own nonprofit organization, Bolanday, Inc., with the flagship program Cooking for Kids. The programs she institutes aim to provide literacy and skills training for indigent children, and Cooking for Kids is a program for passing on her own culinary skills to these children.

Aside from Cooking for Kids, there’s also Sunday Food and Books sa Luneta, where the children, also in a feeding program, are taught reading. While running through every Sunday of 2019, it unfortunately had to be cut short due to the pandemic. Still, Ms. Arreza has continued her feeding programs throughout this pandemic. There are more long-term goals such as community development through the children’s mothers; as well as a school sponsorship program.

“We know that there are millions of people living in the slums of Manila, and on our streets. With the advance of the COVID pandemic the numbers are visibly rising. When families fall into a slum existence, it is very difficult to get back out again, and it doesn’t take long before starvation,  drugs, prostitution, and various forms of child abuse come into the picture,” she told BusinessWorld in an e-mail last week.

“The goal of Bolanday is to, in some small way, turn this vicious cycle around. If we can offer children support in their education and over time, help them to foster a vocation, they may have a chance of a better future,” she said. “Our hope is that one day those who are successful, in turn, will also go on to support their communities in their own different ways, and show that a way out of the slum is possible.”

The idea germinated over a meal of spaghetti in 2012, celebrating her first year as a chef. She first thought of the Cooking for Kids program as a restaurant where most of the profits would go to financing education for indigent children. That is still the dream, but circumstances have added another: “My dream is that some of the Bolanday kids, especially from the first batch, would come and work with Bolanday, perhaps run the restaurants, or at least as they start out as a means to learn the trade, and maybe also to keep the  concept going when I no longer can do it myself,” she said.

She discusses passionately why she holds her cause to heart. “In the few years that I am back in Manila and visiting its slums, I find that that passion right now has been transferred to focusing on helping children in need, simply because conditions are worsening, and really: no human being, most of all  children, should be living and growing up in such squalid conditions. It is inhuman,” she said.

“Helping these kids and their families is urgent. If we can uplift one family at a time, we will. We do the small ways that we can for now. Cooking for them after typhoons and fires and through this pandemic is crucial.”

Has anybody ever questioned her decision to invest her time and training in these efforts? “Rarely,” she said.

“One or two of my friends are just probably itching to tell me that, but they have not dared — yet. The closest one to telling me straight out is one of my sisters, but she has since given up. Despite her concerns, she is incredibly supportive of what I do. I am aware there are naysayers around me, but [there are] mostly believers. One of them recently told me, ‘Just trust your crazy ideas, Ida.’ So, I do. I am just very  thankful for being so blessed with a strong and solid support system from the very start, from my beautiful family to my wonderful friends, and hoping to get more and more people into it because together we really have the power to make things better.”

Asked why she does it, she answers simply “It’s a joy!”