On a crisp November night on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, social impact organization ARK held its third gala for the benefit of its partner communities in the Philippines. “Make Your Mark” was the theme for the evening: an homage to Filipino creativity and excellence, a tribute to the changemakers who forge new paths and inspire all of us to make a difference.
Two distinguished chefs flew in especially for the occasion: Margarita Forés of Grace Park, Lusso, and Cibo in Manila, and Johanne Siy of Lolla in Singapore. Forés and Siy, the only two Filipinas who have been honored with the Asia’s Best Female Chef award, helmed an extraordinary three-course dinner highlighting Filipino ingredients. Supporting them was a phalanx of Filipino culinary talent, including sommelier Jhonel Faelnar of Michelin-starred Atomix in New York and Wine Enthusiast’s 2023 Beverage Director of the Year, who curated the wine pairings for the festivities.
An organization fighting to eradicate hunger and ensure food security in rural communities, ARK was co-founded in 2009 by Ayesha Vera-Yu with her husband Jerry Topitzer. In the earliest years, their work focused on a school-feeding program with fresh vegetables and protein sourced from the local community, creating a new economy and a new source of livelihood. When schools closed during covid lockdowns, ARK had to find new ways to continue their mission. Despite the prevailing circumstances, Vera-Yu and her team were undeterred. “A lot of our innovations come from adversity,” she said. “It comes from having to figure out how to solve challenges with limited resources.”
The result of their pandemic pivot is the Feed Back Program, a vegetable exchange where families share their excess harvest and each take home their fair share of everyone’s excess.. Every eight weeks, the collective exchange is ARK’s innovation; they are the first to share it in the Philippines, and still the only one that does collective exchanges instead of a traditional 1:1 bartering system. As a community-driven, self-sustaining solution to hunger and food insecurity, Feed Back has made a difference in the lives of 19,000 families—providing food and income for 138,000 Filipinos in 77 barangays across 8 provinces, in just over two years. From their school-feeding program to this backyard farming initiative, ARK’s principles and values have remained the same. “We solve with inclusivity, we solve from the point of sustainability.”
ARK’s partners, supporters, and friends gathered to celebrate this collective feat, and to champion the organization’s dream of expanding Feed Back within the Philippines and in developing countries around the world. The evening was a rare opportunity to enjoy both Forés’s and Siy’s cooking; they’d previously collaborated in Manila and Singapore, but it was their first time cooking together in America. For the two chefs, it was doubly meaningful to be back in New York, a city that was formative for their culinary careers, and to be here to support ARK’s mission of solving hunger for good. “I feel very blessed to be in a position to give back—to not just inspire, but use your passion to be able to make a difference and make other people’s lives better,” said Siy. Forés, who has long been a supporter of ARK and has joined Vera-Yu in visiting its partner communities in Capiz, agreed. “ARK deserves our fullest support and we hope we can do more with them to raise more funds,” she said.
A hamachi kinilaw, complemented by jalapeño and avocado, served as a sublime overture to an unforgettable dinner. Forés brought in uniquely Filipino ingredients, such as an XO sauce made with etag (cured and smoked meat from the Cordillera region), which the chefs paired with tinigib or Visayan rice and corn grits. Roasted squab arrived with a trio of accompaniments on the plate: barako coffee sauce, guava jelly, and a root crop pavé with taro, ube, and carrot, its layers visually evoking sapin-sapin. Gracing the table as well were bamboo placemats handwoven by ARK’s partner communities and wooden fans with watercolor illustrations by artist-calligrapher Reena Gabriel.
Mayor Jono Jumamoy of Inabanga, Bohol, one of the municipalities that ARK partners with, took to the stage to speak about the difference Feed Back is making in the lives of his constituents. Jumamoy, who has been a public servant for 16 years, and whose region has been severely affected by Typhoon Yolanda, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, and insurgency, said he’d never seen a project succeed with this level of visibly immediate impact. “We have numbers and metrics to prove that in eight weeks, families directly benefit [from participating in the program.]” Feed Back has been instrumental in helping secure food for their communities, as well as providing additional income for families who sell their excess harvest. 16 barangays are currently part of the program in Inabanga; the local government hopes to partner with ARK to bring the initiative to 24 more.
Vera-Yu honored Mayor Jumamoy, as well as Lashawne Meriwether and Yvonne Whitaker of NCR Atleos and the NCR Foundation, whose ongoing support makes the Feed Back program possible, with hand-beaded medallions made by ARK’s partner communities in Capiz.
The gala also celebrated and recognized the producers of Here Lies Love, Broadway’s first musical with an all-Filipino cast. Speaking on behalf of the musical’s team, Clint Ramos and Jose Vargas celebrated the groundbreaking, audaciously creative production—and reminded the audience of the importance of being able to tell our own stories, so that future generations can see themselves in it. Renee Albulario, the show’s dance captain in addition to being part of its ensemble, serenaded guests with the titular song from the musical.
Guests were invited to indulge in a spread of desserts from an all-star Filipino-American lineup of chefs: canelés in calamansi curd by Paolo Dungca of Hiraya in Washington, D.C., doughnuts in ube, black tea, and turon by Stacy Flores and Louis Bayla of Grain & Cane in New Jersey. Young chocolatier, pastry chef, and The School of Chocolate contestant Daniel Corpuz crafted chocolate bonbons in kalamansi and roasted corn flavors, as well as ube chocolate chip cookies for ARK.
As the night drew to a close, Vera-Yu asked the dozens of chefs, sommeliers, curators, and partners who made the gala possible to come up on stage. Each individual had volunteered and freely shared their time and resources to make the evening a success, all in hopes of making a difference in the lives of ARK’s partner communities in Bohol, Aklan, Palawan, and all over the Philippines. It was a beautiful testament to the power of bayanihan, of what we can collectively achieve—the change that we make possible when we work together, hand in hand.