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12 Superstar Chefs, One Dining Event, 203 Wheelchairs

Changing lives one dish, one wheelchair, one story at a time

Updated

By KRIZETTE CHU
Images by Noel Pabalate

Little Lauren Santos could not speak, could not communicate clearly, could not walk. From birth, until her death at age 13 in 2010, Lauren could barely do anything. She suffered from cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects a child’s movement, motor skills, and muscle tone. This condition kept Lauren in a wheelchair all her life.

Her short life was not without its joys. Whatever her younger sisters Lileya and Liyora did, their mother Dedet made sure Lauren would also experience. She would be a flower girl at a wedding. She would travel. She would experience, despite her limited movement, as much of the world that her family exposed her to.

One night, during their prayer, Lauren struggled to tell her mom she loved her: “I…aaaab…uuuu.” It came out as grunts, but to Dedet, it was perhaps the most beautiful sound she has ever heard. To hear the child who has never been able to hug her
back, kiss her fervently, and call her “Mom” muster all her strength to tell her she loved her, Dedet knew it was a blessing not many mothers of children with CP have been given.

That moment was never replicated, and yet that was all the de la Fuente-Santos family needed to know that love was what moved people to do extraordinary things.

It Started With Butterbeer

Lauren would never know that her life, despite its abrupt end, would go on to touch so many others. The little girl who never ventured away from her wheelchair has made it possible to allow thousands of people with disability to reclaim a little of their independence, and their lives, thanks to a project her mother and sisters started in her honor.

“I remember, when Lauren was little and going to the doctor for checkups, we saw this father and daughter who also had consultations. He would carry the little girl, and they lived in Bulacan, because they had no wheelchair,” shared Dedet.

Consumed with their own problems  that time, the family never really gave the situation, until Lauren passed away.

Named Project Wheelchair, the advocacy, aimed at providing wheelchairs to those who need it the most, started as an earnest desire by Lauren’s younger sisters to see other people’s suffering eased. The image of the man and his daughter came back, and although they did not find him, they sought to do for others what they wished they would have been able to do before.

“When Lauren died eight years ago, her younger sisters Lileya and Liyora joined the Best Food Forward event. Lileya made her signature butter beer, while Liyora sold a sweet concoction called Chocolate Happiness.

From the proceeds of that weekend, the sisters were able to purchase and donate two used wheelchairs,” Dedet de la Fuente, who is known in gastronomic circles as the “Lechon Diva,” shared. “By next year, they were able to donate four brand new wheelchairs and walkers and crutches.

In the third and fourth years, we moved the fundraising to our home and organized a 12-course dinner.”

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By the fifth year, Dedet’s benefit dinners became too well known, a hot ticket for true gourmands who heard how the small, intimate get-togethers threw 12 of the best chefs in the metro together in one night, that Dedet decided to move it out of the house.

Three years ago, the historic Champagne Room in Manila Hotel became the home for Dedet’s dinners, and where the Project Wheelchair benefit dinner has been held annually since.

Although by standards of many charity soirees, Project Wheelchair dinners are small, Dedet’s events are extremely well curated and well attended.

The food is prepared by any of the 12 donor chefs, most of whom are present every year to show their support, and most of whom have been around since Dedet was hosting the dinners in her home. They not only cook for free, they provide all the ingredients, too.

The venue is sponsored by Manila Hotel’s owners, the Yaps. The guest list has remained exclusive but welcoming— exclusive in that it is still made up mostly of Dedet’s friends and co-parents, but welcoming, so that plus ones, and those who are lucky enough to nab a seat (because they only are able to accommodate so many)—are instantly made to feel like they belong to a rarefied network of serious foodies.

The guests are mainstays. On the menu board displayed on the table, Dedet writes the attendees a letter of gratitude. She knows them—and they know her—by name.

Lauren didn’t know this many people, and yet she touched, and continues to touch every one of them, especially on the nights Dedet brings together the culinary world in full force.

A wheelchair for everyone who needs it

Every year, Dedet’s tribe of chef donors (sometimes 12, sometimes 13) try to outdo themselves creating degustacion offerings that encapsulate, in one dish, the theme of the evening as well as the chef’s skills and culinary philosophy.

Among the favorites this year were Karla Reyes’ ham chowder, eight-hour ham bone stock with the Plaza Ham bits, potatoes, leeks, carrots, celery, and ham chicharon. One of the first few dishes to come out of the kitchen, the crispy, paper thin chicharon made from Plaza Ham was a hit, with diners calling out for seconds and thirds. Margarita Fores created an open waterspinach raviolo, with salted red egg, etag, kabute mushroom, and bulaklak ng kalabasa, and smoked puting keso crema.

Rockstar chefs like Myke Tatung (who prepped an interesting seafood lumpia in squid ink wrapper), Bettina Osmena (who did a pomelo salad, a vegan favorite featuring Thai patis, fresh lime, toasted coconut meat, peanuts and shallots, with wansoy leaves and labuyo sauce), Ed Bugia (six-hour cooked short ribs), were also part of the degustacion dinner.

Wines were overflowing, thanks to Yats Wine Cellar, and coffee were sponsored by Nespresso. Desserts were prepared by Pixie Sevilla, who created an assortment of brazo, and Roselyn Siapno, who made her trademark Ube Sans Rival.

There are also, as Filipino traditions go, “pasalubong” items. This year, the pasalubong were Rhoda Aldenese’s Villa del Conte chocolates, and Baby Pats Ensaymada (without bias, perhaps the best ensaymada in the entire city) by Pearl De Guzman.

A ticket to these dinners—it is important to stress that very rarely do 12 superstar chefs come together for one event—is at P4,000, about the cost of one wheelchair. It has been Dedet’s practice to work with organizations like Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko, and the charitable arm of hospitals like Makati Medical Center, but this year’s beneficiaries include wounded soldiers from Marawi. At the dinner, three “battle casualties,” one who lost both eyes, another who lost an arm, and another a leg, were present to talk about how the gift of wheelchairs will impact their lives.

“You know, I really can’t count how many wheelchairs we’ve given away,” says Dedet. “Although we do a benefit dinner annually, all year we try to give wheelchairs to those who ask.”

Dedet has been all over the Philippines—Tacloban, Cebu, Tuguegarao, Davao. She doesn’t even have a van, but she will rent one if she hears about people in dire need of wheelchairs.

“When you bring a wheelchair elsewhere, the expenses come from your own pocket. When we go to Davao, it’s not just the wheelchair, it’s also the cost of bringing of the wheelchair. It’s another thing that we consider,” she says.

In Tarlac, she not only brought wheelchairs, but diapers, vitamins, and other items for kids.

“What’s touching is that, in their own way, those who have barely anything to give back, would try very hard to,” she says.

“They were so touched that they also want to give, so they’d try to give products from their farms like sitaw, okra, talong…” Post Haiyan, Chef Tatung went to Tacloban to bring wheelchairs. A few people approached to ask him for  one. “When they saw the wheelchair that was meant for their sibling, they cried. All their lives, they took turns carrying their brother, and to see that he finally had a wheelchair, it was something they could only dream about,” says Dedet.

This year, the benefit dinner raised 203 wheelchairs successfully— another couple hundred people whose lives are going to be just a little easier because Lauren lived in this world. Says Dedet, “We never found the father and daughter who needed a wheelchair, but doing this annually feels like, my daughters and I, have come full circle.”

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