A look back at culinary icon Nora Daza through the eyes of her editor (and goddaughter)
The author gives an inside peek into her special relationship with this pioneering restaurateur and the Philippines’ first multimedia food personality
My first food article was entitled “Is there life after Au Bon Vivant?” (Daily Globe, 1988). The French words mean “the good life” and it was the name of the classy French restaurant of Nora V. Daza located in Ermita, Manila. Later on, she branched out to Makati and Quezon City. I had to go, not because she was good copy as a food personality who also owned a classy Filipino restaurant, Aux Iles Philippines, in Paris, and who ran the Maharlika restaurant in New York, but mainly because she was my baptismal godmother. Family ties are strong in this country.
Au Bon Vivant seemed past its prime when I arrived to interview her. It was always full house years before and Nora Daza was a beautiful presence, flitting from table to table in her long flowing dresses and big hair made up as if for a television show.
At the height of her culinary career, she was the first tri-media star of the sixties and seventies. Let’s Cook with Nora was a best-selling cookbook and “Cooking with Nora” was a popular TV cooking show. She also had a radio show and wrote for a magazine. She managed canteens and was director of the Manila Gas Cooking School situated at the company’s premises on Isaac Peral Street, now UN Avenue.
When we met, she lamented about the sad state of Ermita, Manila. The district, once Manila’s prime business location, was now going to seed. And it affected her business, she said. Until now, Ermita hasn’t recovered its glory days.
After the article came out, I got a note from E. Aguilar “Abe” Cruz who said he liked the piece. I was thrilled because Cruz was one of Daily Globe’s columnists, who used to be editor of a major Manila newspaper, was the country’s ambassador to the UNESCO in Paris, and was restaurateur Larry Cruz’s father. On one of my visits to Au Bon Vivant, Abe Cruz was there enjoying the cheese course with Nora Daza, both speaking loudly in French. When Daza spoke French, it was a beautiful language to hear, almost unrecognizable to the French you hear in movies. She sounded so suave.
It was years after when she called again to invite me to have lunch with her. She wanted to do a book with me because another culinary icon, Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, said she had no time and suggested my name. Daza was surprised but happy, she told me. That book was A Culinary Life (Anvil Publishing, 1992) and she insisted on my writing some short pieces and then having my name on the cover. Because I was teaching desktop publishing, the book was one of the first laid out using the new program in the then new technology. By then, she had closed her Paris and Metro Manila restaurants. We thought she was finished with opening restaurants, but midway through the book she opened Mai Thai in Pasig.
Years later, she would call again to make another book that a foreign publisher asked her to do but I was busy with a contracted food book. She left looking disappointed and so was I.
Years passed and it was Anvil Publishing who called if I could do another book with Nora Daza. That became Festive Dishes: Nora Daza with Family and Friends (©2016). Those two later books would make her reminisce especially when there were pictures that helped her recall those times. She was especially proud of the time when famous French chefs Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre came to not only grace but cook at her Au Bon Vivant branch in Makati.
For the two books, my main job was to compile, edit and organize the recipes which came from a tall file of papers in her room, and prod my ninang to keep on writing her introduction to the recipes to meet the publisher’s deadline.
Some recipes were menu items in her restaurants. Kuhol Bicol in A Culinary Life was a crowd drawer in Aux Iles Philippines. It told the French that this was the Filipino way with escargot (snails), the recipe given to her by another restaurateur, Cely Kalaw of The Grove. Daza told me that she would have the snails cooked in Manila, and use as bagoong the Bicol variety called dinailan which has a powerful stench but which she loved. The kuhol cooked in coconut milk would then be canned, the amount in each can equivalent to one order, then sent to Paris.
Beef Wellington in Festive Dishes was served at Au Bon Vivant for special occasions. She paid for the recipe of her cooking teacher in Paris, Chef Claude Llanad. At Au Bon Vivant, she had French chefs and the most memorable dishes for me were the Chateaubriand with Bernaise sauce, the Duck à l’Orange and the dessert of Almond Mousse. She would not give the recipe for the latter not even when I told her that I had never ever tasted that dessert anywhere. Her answer, just a smile for her godchild.