Get To Know The Newly-Appointed Tourism Chief, Agriculture Undersecretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat
About seven years ago, former bar top-notcher and upcoming legal luminary David Puyat suddenly died while playing football with fellow Ateneo alumni. A young widow and mother to two children, Berna Romulo-Puyat was blindsided by grief. But she faced life head on, and emerged stronger, more certain, and in her words, “in love with my life.”
The language of growth is full of farming metaphors: seeds of hope, harvests of bounty, fruits of our labor. As undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Berna Romulo-Puyat witnesses these turns of phrase not as abstract words but as very real and everyday realities. By using her own personal network of friends and her own belief in the huge potential of our local farming and constantly meeting farmers, fishermen, and local purveyors, Berna has almost singlehandedly put our country’s native ingredients to the forefront of the food scene. It may be trivializing her work to say that she has “glamorized” farming and cooking with native produce. But there is a kernel of truth to it.
On social media and the traditional press, she tirelessly promotes Filipino agricultural products. She shares, “Just from seeing my posts on IG, Anton and Nina Huang asked me if we could put together a kind of food fair, and it happened. Imagine that!” That and so much more. The global trend for foraging and finding a way of cooking without that great evil, a giant carbon footprint, is more than just a trendy passing fancy. It is the lifestyle of the future. And Berna’s tireless work makes guilt-free, sustainable cooking and eating so much easier and accessible to all Filipinos.
At the time of this cover shoot for Metro Society, she was busy promoting Philippine Harvest, a quarterly collaboration with the Stores Specialists, Inc. group and the DA, that lets city folk and food lovers purchase produce and products from our local farmers with a weekend sale at Central Mall in Bonifacio Global City. She had also brought some artisanal chocolates (Auro Chocolates), which, with their exquisite and nuanced flavors, could be juxtaposed with much pricier and fancier finds from such purveyors as Le Grande Epicerie de Bon Marche in Paris or the Food Hall at Harrod’s in London.
Berna travels from Batanes to Bukidnon, Batangas to Bicol, and all other regions and provinces in between to meet with our farmers and promote their goods. Madrid Fusion is another centerpiece project with the Department of Tourism, and Berna admits, “At first, Madrid Fusion was about letting foreign chefs know about our local ingredients but now, it’s the local chefs who are excited to know more about what our local farmers can grow. When chefs meet farmers, and they know and realize just how much work goes into farming, they appreciate the ingredients more, and it helps the farmers because then the buyers don’t ask for discounts anymore.”
She then lets out a hearty laugh at this last story. She is a natural storyteller, peppering her anecdotes with lots of personal details and picturesque descriptions. Her enthusiasm and energy are rooted in the deep connections she has made with the farmers on the field and her team at the DA. She recalls, “The first chef who came with us to meet farmers was Margarita (Forés) and she really planted rice with them. And it shocked her just how hard it was. But it opened her to working with our different rice varieties and she really pushed for adlai. There were some chefs who didn’t really want to work with local ingredients. But there’s no need to work with just all local, or just all imported. I mean, how can we stop using olive oil? So, we are not telling chefs that they should only use purely local, but to be open to the fusion.”
“A time to sow, a time to reap.” In a rare moment of stillness, Undersecretary of Agriculture Berna Romulo-Puyat takes a minute to enjoy the wonderful presidential suite of the Conrad Hotel Manila. “You have to be happy with yourself. Right now, I choose to make the most of my life, to be grateful for what I have and to help other people. That makes me happy.” Dress, Nicole Miller; bangles, Denovo
Nature’s first green
Though Berna has certainly found her stride in her career, it was not exactly the path she thought she would take. She majored in economics and went on to take a master’s in the same field. She did a stint with the National Economic Development Authority and was also a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, her alma mater. Though her late husband Dave also went to UP, they actually met much earlier, because her older brother Roman and Dave were friends and classmates, first at Ateneo Grade School and then later on at Southridge School for Boys.
Full disclosure time: I am not meeting Berna as just another interview subject. She is my sister-in-law and I had a front-row seat view of their romance and marriage. It always surprised me how open she was about her girlhood crush on Dave. She once told me that in high school, she had told a former boyfriend, “If Dave Puyat asks me out, we have to break up.” While Dave was always great fun to be around, and an intelligent and interesting person, he wasn’t much of a romantic. Berna also told me that he asked her to be his girlfriend while they were playing video games and he said matter-of-factly, “Everyone thinks we’re together so we might as well be.” Most girls would have been dismayed by this most un-chivalrous “proposal,” but Berna was thrilled by it. I guess that’s what love can do.
They got married while Dave was in his last year of law school and Berna gave birth to their daughter Maia while he was reviewing for the bar exam. Two years after, Vito was born, named for three key people in his parents’ lives: Don Vito Corleone of The Godfather (Dave’s favorite movie, of course) and his grandfathers Vicente Puyat and Alberto Romulo.
Berna loved motherhood but she didn’t abandon her academic career. At one family dinner, Berna breathlessly told me that an academic paper she had written was quoted in a Cabinet meeting and she couldn’t believe that her research would have practical results. When Berna got her job as an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, Dave happily took on Mr. Mom duties. It was a full, chaotic life, but full of love. Then, one hot summer afternoon, it all ended.
Hometown pride. “Meeting the farmers, traveling all around the country, made me fall in love with our country and fall in love with my life.” Dress, Tadashi Shoji
So Eden sank to grief
“They won’t let me see him. Is that bad?”
Berna asked me this question when I arrived at the emergency room of the Medical City hospital on Meralco Avenue in Pasig. It was the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and, as Dave himself would always say when Holy Week came around, “It’s the hottest week of the year.” I will always remember how sweltering it was that day; my entire family does, and perhaps it’s because we were all still hoping it was just an extreme case of heat stroke. By the time the cremation was over and the chapel had been decorated with plants and flowers, and we made it to the wake at the Christ the King church in Greenmeadows, Berna had already made a video of photos from their last holiday trip to Tahoe, the Bay Area, and a Southern California trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios. “I made a video while waiting,” she told me when I greeted her, and her composure was Jackie Kennedy level.
She had chosen the Beatles song “In My Life” for the video and to this day, my younger nieces and nephews call it the “Tito Dave Song.”
Of that time, Berna recalls, “Dave died on a Saturday and by Monday, I was back at work. Work was my escape. And that went on for two years. His office sent a box of his things and I couldn’t unpack it. His clothes and shoes stayed in his closet. Because if I took them down and gave them away, that would mean he was really gone. Whenever people would tell me that they knew him, I would even ask, ‘Do you want me to call him now so you can talk to him?’
“And then, after two years, it hit me. The grief. Grief I would not wish on my worst enemy. It felt like being stabbed while you’re having a heart attack. I would wake up with a dark feeling over me that I just couldn’t shake off. But slowly, I would meet other young widows and they really helped me. Doreen Yu (editor in chief of the Philippine Star’s Sunday Magazine) had asked me to write about being a young widow. And then, I met another widow, and she told me, ‘It gets better.’"
Taking root. “I started with the financial side (of the Department of Agriculture ); with trying to get grants. I was worried that the farmers wouldn’t relate to me. But they have welcomed me with open arms!” Top, Diane von Furstenberg; Coat, Paul Smith; Culottes, Calvin Klein; Rings, Denovo
So dawn becomes day
This cover shoot was at the presidential suite of the Conrad Hotel Manila, and in addition to luxe interiors with a graciously proportioned living and dining space, a master bedroom suite, a guest bedroom and a library, it has a wrap-around deck with a swimming pool, and the view of all of Manila Bay enthralled us all. Our photographer Paolo Pineda enthused to Berna, “You are so easy to photograph!” And she just answers without missing a beat, “Because you’re so good.” The breathtaking view radiated a certain tranquility, an exhilarating peace, a strong sense of the sheer glory of being alive. The conversation flowed freely, so much so that Berna texted me a few days after that in the midst of it all, she felt that a lot was left unsaid. Her own words express her story best.
“It has been seven years since Dave has passed away but there has never been a day that Maia, Vito, and I don’t miss him. I believe that they turned out the way they are because of him. I was so busy traveling all over the world for my work that he became Mr. Mom. What I loved about him was that though he was also busy, he would take the time to attend the parent-teacher conferences that I couldn’t go to. He would even attend all the lunches of all the Beacon moms. (Yes, siya lang ang tatay du'n!) He even became the school’s lawyer. Anything for the kids!
“Writing an article for Starweek magazine was cathartic. It allowed me to accept and process Dave’s death. Young widows reached out to me and talked to me about their personal experience. What struck me most was what one widow told me. She said that the pain of losing a loved one will never disappear. You will just learn how to live with it. And that I will find reasons to smile and look forward to the future.
“One day, I didn’t feel as much pain. Anxiety attacks were not as often anymore. And right about that time, because of the change in administration from GMA to Aquino, I was given other responsibilities. One of them was the chance to organize the lunch and cocktails for the Museé de Quai Branly event in Paris (for an exhibit on Philippine precolonial art). I took this as an opportunity to try something new. I worked with Margarita (Fores) and together we showcased what was the best in our country. We showcased heirloom rice, dried mangoes, coconut sugar, fruit jams, calamansi, local rum and liqueur. The French media told us that they couldn’t believe that Filipino food was that delicious! Promoting our cuisine and ingredients became a crusade for me.
“Aside from that, I was also given other responsibilities. I was asked to focus on our Gender and Development Program because under the Magna Carta of Women, five percent of the budget of the government has to go to women’s programs, projects, and activities. I also became the alternate chair for the National Organic Agriculture Act so I promote organic agriculture.
“For me to effectively do my job, I have to go around the country to meet farmers. As I fell in love with our country, I also fell in love with my life. What’s funny, is that the worst thing that has happened to me made it easier for the farmers to relate to me. People think that a farmer is a middle-aged man, but so many farmers are women. Up north, only women can pick coffee berries. And when you meet farmers, even if they are walang-wala (barely surviving), they will give you everything. The best tinola that I ever had was made by a calamansi farmer. At first, I was worried that farmers would not be able to relate to me, but they have welcomed me with open arms. Some even take pity on me. One tribe in Bukidnon even advised me to eat the heart of the chicken so that I would have a love life! They said that it’s hard to grow old alone.
“Where am I right now? I am happy with my life. Dave always told me that he was lucky to have a job he loved. I finally understand what he meant. I love what I’m doing and work doesn’t feel like work. Our local chefs want to join me in my trips to the provinces so that they can meet our farmers. They all want to go local. There’s so much to do and so much to learn. Suddenly, agriculture now is exciting.
“When I met Charlie (congressman and art collector Charlie Cojuangco), I was already content with my life. I was at that point in my life when I was ready to grow old alone. I didn’t feel that I needed someone to complete me, à la Jerry Maguire because I was already happy. Meeting Charlie was just the icing on the cake. What’s great about him is that he doesn’t mind if I talk about Dave. He knows that my kids will always come first and that Dave will always have a special place in my heart. It ’s also not an issue with him that I work and travel a lot.
“What would be my message to those who are going through tough times? You just have to face and deal with your problems. You can’t forever run away from it. But it will pass. It always does. Nobody has a perfect life. You can choose to be miserable but you can also choose to be happy. You have to be happy with yourself.
“Right now, I choose to make the most of my life, to be grateful for what I have and to help other people. That makes me happy.”
“Young widows reached out to me and talked to me about their personal experience. What struck me most was what one widow told me. She said that the pain of losing a loved one will never disappear. You will just learn how to live with it. And that I will find reasons to smile and look forward to the future” Top and pants, Pedro Del Hierro; Earrings and ring, Denovo?
This story was originally published in Metro Society's July 2017 issue.
Photography by Paolo Pineda
Styled by Rex Atienza and Jay Sarmiento of StyleList, Inc, assisted by PRINCESS VILLONES and Jowi Guzman, and DAne Barroso of StyleList, Inc.
Hair and makeup by Jerome Chang