There are many reasons to be inspired by Dedet de la Fuente. Whether it be her incredible passion for Filipino cuisine, her to die for crispy-skinned stuffed lechon de leches (stuffed suckling pig) of Pepita’s Kitchen, her advocacy, Project Wheelchair, or just the big, beautiful heart that shines through her face and lights up her eyes when she looks your way, you know that Dedet really is something special.
Best known for her Lechon Degustacion and Hayop na Degustacion dinners, Dedet started sharing her love for the art of roasting pig with her circle of friends and family, to opening her magnificent space to other guests, to bringing her talents and tasting menu dinners as far as Purple Yam restaurant in New York, thus earning her nickname, Lechon Diva.
It was such a pleasure getting to chat with her about her food, her daughters, and her motivation behind Project Wheelchair. Spoiler Alert: get your tissues out.
… on what she thinks makes the perfect stuffed lechon de leche.
The perfect lechon de leche is stuffed with ones favorite flavor. My very first stuffing was binagoongan rice – I love binagoongan rice, so it was only logical to put two of my favorite foods together. No real process in choosing a stuffing. All the stuffings of my lechon de leche are the food me & my daughters love to eat – I am sure everyone will find a stuffing they will like. You must watch out for our newest stuffings – I have a feeling it will be everyone’s favorite stuffing!
… on how Pepita’s Kitchen Degustacion Dinners came to be.
I would always invite my “happy gang” over to our house whenever I had a new lechon variant with other courses to go with the de leche. I had fun coming up with unique and playful Filipino dishes every single time we would have a “taste test”. Then one time, a good friend – Spanky Hizon, the Pepito behind Pepitas Kitchen – suggested that since I enjoy serving full course meals to my friends, I should start my private dining. I have introduced two kinds of degustacions – the Lechon Degustacion and Hayop na Degustacion. I will be coming up with our third degustacion very soon.
… on her favorite Pepita’s Kitchen guests.
I have many favorite customers – its like asking what ones favorite ulam (dish) is… hindi pwede isa (you can’t just have one)!
There was this one particular guest who took the time in sending me an email saying how she and her family LOVED our de leches, that even the ribs and bones that was left over was fried crispy the next day for their breakfast – truly a person with much grace and class. Her family owns one of the biggest companies in the country – bank, real estate, hotels, etc. and she even introduced me to her husband when we bumped into each other in a restaurant. The husband was so generous in his complements about the Pepitas de leche!
Another is a restaurateur who called me and asked about our de leche, explaining that she was ordering one for her parents’ anniversary. Her dad loves lechon, but he has been bedridden for a long time and has not been able to eat much through his mouth and she just wanted him to be able to taste just a bit. She kept asking me if it was not too fat and if the skin was crispy – which was how her dad liked it. I had always wondered if her dad liked the de leche. So after around a year, I saw her in a mall and introduced myself – it took a few seconds before she remembered. She told me it was the first time her dad ate so much, savoring the tender meat and crispy skin. They were all so glad to see him eat and enjoy his favorite food with much gusto! She hugged me and thanked me for that moment.
There was also this time I got a call from a lady inquiring about our de leche. She explained that she was a vegetarian but that she has a friend flying in to Manila who wanted to taste our de leche. The day after her order, she sends me a text saying it was the first time she had eaten meat in 10 years, but she enjoyed every bite she took! She said she is glad to have tasted the best pork dish and it was worth the “cheating.”
… on how her daughters take active parts in events
On our first degustacion, Curly Pepita made the welcome drink – butter beer. She researched online how to concoct that famous Harry Potter drink and she added a few touches all her own and she was able to make the perfect recipe for the Butter Beer. Little Pepita, being still little then, said she would massage all the guests. Then she will tell them, “No need to pay me because my mom will pay me… but I accept tips!” On our second degustacion, Curly Pepita again was in charge of the drinks. She introduced her magical drink “Pepita’s Magic Potion” and the Little Pepita, being not too little anymore asked to be the lechon chopper.
… on why she is so passionate about Filipino cuisine
I grew up eating Filipino food. My dad, coming from Bulacan, was a meat eater, and my mom, coming from Parañaque, was a seafood lover. I guess I had the best of both worlds. My mom would always tell me how she wanted to take up home economics – she loved to cook, crochet, and knit. When she told her parents she wanted to take up home economics for college, her mom told her to just stay home and she (my grandmother) would just teach her everything she needed to learn. Eventually, she took up law – perhaps not wanting to be “home schooled” by her mom!
… on the motivation behind Project Wheelchair
My first born Lauren was an 8.3 lbs when she born. She had the longest lashes and the chubbiest cheeks. She was my perfect baby. When she was 4 months old, we were wondering why she still did not have a good head control and her eyes would not follow. We brought her to an eye specialist & were told her eyes were perfect. Then we brought her to a neurologist. This was where she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I had so many hopes & dreams for Lauren, as all first time moms would. The first few seconds after the doctor told us of her condition, so many images of children sitting on wheelchairs flashed in my mind. I cried myself to sleep for many nights. Then I would wake up early in the morning – for a second would think, “Was it just a bad dream?” Then I realized it was real, and I would cry again. The pain of knowing my daughter may never walk, run or speak is beyond words.The news of Lauren’s condition hit hardest for my mom and dad. My mom kept crying as I broke the news to her, so I had to find strength in me to tell them Lauren would be alright because she would be loved ten times more now.
Lauren became an older sister to Lileya who was born just before she turned 2 years old, then another little sister – Liyora – who was born 3 years after. I would call them my Powerpuff Girls. They always did things together and Lauren was never left out of all the fun they had. We would bring her to the Baguio palengke with us where Lauren would be greeted by our nice vegetable sukis. But there were others who would stare at her like she was some sort of alien. I do not know if she noticed them, but I would always whisper to her, “They are staring at you because you are so pretty and your ‘stroller’ (wheelchair) is so nice.” Telling her this made me feel good – and I hope it made her feel good too.
Soon after Ondoy happened, Lauren became sickly. Our house was flooded and I believe this badly affected Laurens health. Right after the flood, we moved out for a few days so that the flooring and cleared all cabinets on the ground floo. Sadly, this was not enough. Lauren still became sickly after the Ondoy episode. Three months after Ondoy, Lauren was rushed to the hospital. She stayed in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) for 9 days. It was one problem after another, but each problem Lauren pulled through. I was so happy to see all the tubes and needles taken out of her frail body. We kept telling Lauren she would be coming home soon, but the next morning, her vital signs were quickly deteriorating. Her pediatrician rushed to the hospital early in the morning and told me Lauren was slipping away. What does a mom do when she knows her daughter will be gone in a few minutes? I held on to her hand and whispered, “I love you Lauren. If you see Jesus and Mama Mary, it’s ok to go with them. It’s ok with mommy. Mommy will understand. Remember, Jesus and Mama Mary love you.” I never thought I would be telling her this one last time. And I never imagined how important it was for me to tell her every night that Jesus and Mama Mary love her. Soon after, she was gone. I am thankful I was there to hold her hand in her last moments and her sisters were there to tell her they love her as she peacefully slipped away.
It has been 4 years already since Lauren has earned her angel wings, but her life’s purpose continues to unfold.
… on how Project Wheelchair has helped others
For the past three years, Lileya and Liyora have been joining food fairs. They would sell their specialty concoctions like Butter Beer and Speculoos Shakes for Lileya and Chocolate Happiness and Speculoos Pulvoron for Liyora, and more recently, they both sold Creme Brulee and Milo Dinosaur milkshakes. Every time they sell, they agree to set aside a portion of their profits to buy second hand wheelchairs. They said they want their ate Lauren to still be a part of whatever they do. Lileya named it Project Wheelchair. Little did we know that Lileya and Liyora’s project would make a big difference in many peoples lives.
When Yolanda happened, we knew there would be a lot of people who would be in need of wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches. Together with Angelo Comsti – who is a food writer – we decided to have a fundraising dinner to buy wheelchairs. We invited cooks, chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs to donate their specialty dishes, and we invited guests speakers like Mr. Manny de Guzman – the United Nations Regional Risk Reduction Adviser – who spoke about what happened and how we could help our country and countrymen. Everyone we approached were more than willing to donate their specialties.
There was that fear at first that we might not be able to sell all the 21 seats for that evening. But a week after, many people sent us messages and emails, pledging money to fund for wheelchairs even if they could not take part in the dinner. Some were from the US, friends of friends, and even a young girl from the UK, Tatjana, who had a popcorn sale in her school, and we were able to raise funds to buy 10 wheelchairs while some sent their used wheelchairs and crutches they no longer needed.
We keep Lauren’s memory alive through Lileya and Liyora’s Project Wheelchair by giving hope through mobility for the disabled and their families. And as we remember Lauren, our lives have more meaning. It’s our dream to be able to give a wheelchair for every disabled person in the Philippines.
… on her New York Lechon Degustacion at Purple Yam
It was the perfect city and venue! Purple Yam owners – Perry Mamaril & Amy Besa – approved of the idea of having lechon evening at their restaurant in New York. Most of the ingredients were sourced from NYC except for the toppings of the Super Suman. The hours went by so fast – before I knew it, we had eight guests ready for the Lechon Degustacion at 6pm. I chopped, cooked, and did the plating – but I survived (with much help from Perry Mamaril, the chef of Purple Yam, and Stephan Duhesme, the manager of Purple Yam, both of whom are Filipino)! We had to stop accepting reservations when we reached 60 people. Some of the guests who came found out about the lechon degustacion through my friends who posted on their page Facebook . Some commented they never got to see me – I had to explain a few days after (also via Facebook) that I never got to sit from the time I woke up – I only was able to go up the restaurant (the kitchen was downstairs) at around 10 at night! I also met a gentleman who owns a restaurant in Manhattan – Cloisters. He wanted me to have a lechon night there as well. He loved the shrimp, the suman and of course, the lechon too! For holding lechon night I asked for wheelchairs from Purple Yam in exchange.
… on what next to expect for Pepita’s Kitchen
We have a lot of things in store for next year. We plan to offer catering for small groups, and we will be introducing new food items, too!
If you are interested in booking a dinner party and trying the Lechon Degustacion, contact the Lechon Diva at +63 425 4605 or +63 917 866 0662, with a minimum guest list of 15 people. She also has a take out menu available for those who want to pick up dishes for smaller gatherings instead. For those intent on getting involved or donating to Project Wheelchair or inquiries the next dinner, please get in touch with Dedet at email@example.com.