By Sara Grace C. Fojas
Video by Christian Carl Quides and John Alvin Veri
Images by Pinggot Zulueta
From a video jock to a TV host to an actress, and finally to a chef, Filipino-American celebrity Donita Rose Cavett, one would think, always gets what she wants, instantly handed to her like a gift. But her transition from being a celebrity to a chef wasn’t an easy one. To get the title “chef” attached to her name, she had go through an obstacle course.
“Most people who enter the culinary world start early, I started very late in my life so I had to prove myself and I still have to prove myself. A lot of people still don’t recognize me as a chef. I took up culinary because it’s something I’m very passionate about. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished because I’ve been through so much to get to where I am today,” says Donita.
She earned a Culinary Diploma in Restaurant, Culinary, and Catering Management at the Academy for International Culinary Arts in Pasig City. She then completed a 400-hour externship at Crowne Plaza Manila, where she focused focusing on butchery and catering. But her love for food started at home, when she would join her parents who were part of the US military every time they went to the officers club and ate dishes like chicken liver pate, escargot, and rib eye steak. Her palate adventure didn’t stop there but went all the way to Pangasinan, her mother’s hometown, where she was able to taste local Filipino food like tuyo for breakfast and her ultimate comfort food alamang with tomatoes and onions, with rice, of course.
“I’ve always been in love with food. At an early age, I’d been exposed to different kinds of food. My mom is from Pangasinan and not everyone is aware that I could speak the dialect,” she says. “In my younger years, I was more American in terms of likes when it came to food. So when I was growing up, I never really embraced Filipino food, except for the comfort of being handfed by mom such as tuyo for breakfast. You would think that my comfort food was burger or mac and cheese, but it’s really alamang, rice, and tuyo. Every time I eat pinakbet, it’s rice with pinakbet, alamang, and cottage cheese, so there’s a fusion between Filipino and American.”
So Donita decided to finally pursue her passion for food. To make strides into the real culinary world or just to be able to cook her own dishes at a restaurant, she had to start from the bottom. She scrubbed floors and peeled potatoes, and even went through embarrassing but defining moments while applying for a position in a restaurant.
“I remember I had a bad experience when I applied at a big hotel in Las Vegas as a chef in the hot kitchen. It was one of my first interviews. So I went there with my resume and the executive chef told me: ‘Why in hell would you put your picture on your resume? Do you think you’re someone special just because you’re some actress in from the Philippines?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I was really embarrassed. Then, I realized later that what he was trying explain to me was that people like him went through a lot first before getting to their position right now, that not because you went to culinary school, all of a sudden you are a chef, you have to have experience being a chef. I really cried after that interview. It was the first time I cried running home to my mom,” recounts Donita.
After that interview, her mother advised her to “take it as a lesson and never let anybody dictate what you can and cannot do. Learn from it, but move forward and be grateful for the lesson that the situation gave you.”
Donita’s outlook in life changed after that and she kept applying for a job until she got her first job at an Italian restaurant owned by a Filipino chef. She also worked at Kumi restaurant at the Mandalay Bay afterward, then at the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“My job at Zappos was where I learned the most from. I was in charge of the gourmet sandwich station and salad bar. I would make a special gourmet sandwich for the day. My executive chef was a godsend because he really knew his stuff and mentored me really well. He would just ask questions. He would say I don’t think you should do this or do that. If he doesn’t approve of my special for the day, he would ask me a question and make me realize why. I really learned about the critical thinking process there and how I should really plan ahead before I cook something,” says Donita.
Those experiences taught Donita what life was like inside the kitchen and how to incorporate healthier food alternatives to every meal. She mostly uses unprocessed and organic ingredients and she is also the proud ambassador of Jolly Heart Mate Canola Oil, which has Omega 3 & 6 and has the lowest saturated fat among vegetable oils.
“I am very proud to be its ambassador for the second year now, almost going on our third year. I feel very fortunate and blessed working with them because when I made that transition from TV host to the culinary world and to get to where I am today, they were there to trust and support me, and to give you that kind of trust and confidence, for me, is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” ends Donita.