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Learning Curve: Bettina Arguelles says that the Adversities She Overcame Become Empowering Lessons for Her Daughters

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“This is what I want to show my daughters. You cannot let people tell you what you can or cannot do,” says the Sofitel executive chef.

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Bettina Arguelles has never been one to shy away from risks. The Sofitel executive chef has always followed the path that she believes is right for her no matter how winding the journey gets.

She has proven in every step of her career that her success represents a larger message to inspire her fellow women, Filipinos, and most importantly—her daughters.

Different path

You wouldn’t expect the culinary track to be one set for Arguelles at the start of her work life. After graduating from Ateneo with a communications degree, she worked in advertising agencies for around two years.

“My first job was in direct marketing and advertising here in Manila,” she recounts. “When I got married, we moved to Japan. So it was cut short, my advertising career.”

Living in Japan made her contemplate on what she wanted to do in life. While Arguelles was busy with a stable copywriting job there along with raising her family, there was still this void in purpose that she longed to fill.

“Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a chef,” she admits. “At the time, culinary schools were not common here [in the Philippines]. You had to go to the US or Europe… So I knew it wasn’t something that I could have pursued.”

Despite the limitations when she was younger, Arguelles says her interest in cooking was still nurtured. “But I was still very interested because my family loves cooking. My mom had a catering business for a time, so it was something I grew up with.”

Filling the void

When her children were old enough to go to school, that longing continued to recur. “I’m just waiting for all of you to come home, what am I doing with myself now? It wasn’t something that I envisioned for myself, although, of course, motherhood is the noblest profession in the world and all that, I was missing something in my life,” she says.

The opportunity finally came to pursue culinary study when her family moved to Singapore. She enrolled in At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy and began her training in 2006.

Singapore, then, was on the cusp of becoming a tourist hub with the rise of many integrated resorts such as Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa. The market was filled with many F&B businesses looking to make a mark.

Arguelles herself had stints in establishments such as the Fullerton Hotel, Resorts World Sentosa, Privé restaurant under Michelin-starred Chef Wayne Nish, and DB Bistro Moderne by world-renowned Chef Daniel Boulud.

This career has led to her pioneering the French Atelier in Spiral in Sofitel Manila when it opened in 2013, which was an impressive feat in itself.

Driven to excel

“You do have to have a tough character and thick skin. Going in prepared, knowing that these things can happen to you,” Arguelles says of breaking into the industry.  

The chef chalked up the struggles she went through, the biases and barriers she broke, and the rough experiences she endured as lessons for her daughters. She wants to learn that challenges should not hold them back from their ambitions.

“These are facts of life, we will have to deal with it. I hope you never have to, but you have to learn that it happens to a lot of people, not just to me,” Arguelles says. “But if in case it happens, you need to be prepared on how to deal with that. Be con dent with yourself, be sure of who you are.”

That includes age. “When I went to culinary school, I was 30. My classmates were like 18 or 21 so when I was doing my stage [I was with the trainees] and they’re like teenagers and I’m the 30-year-old mother of two,” she shares.

Now she makes it a point to teach the core lessons she learned to younger chefs that she now mentors. “I think it’s more important I tell my team, ‘You know, cooking is so easy.’ Especially now with this generation, you have YouTube and Google—all the recipes you can get there,” she says.

But character is hard to teach. “That’s something that you need to develop: the discipline, the passion, the integrity,” Arguelles continues.  

Not backing down

It’s a test of character, Arguelles always emphasizes.

“When you’re faced with difficulties or obstacles, what do you do? I guess, for me, it’s not just about getting over it, or surviving a service, or providing good food. It’s also that test of character where you can say, ‘I was able to navigate through a very difficult situation and get out of it positively’,” she explains further

Sharing these life lessons is a reflection of just how passionate she is for her craft, whatever challenges may come. “I feel proud of my job as a profession. I don’t see it as just learning how to cook. I think of it as a calling, because it’s not for everyone,” she says.  

“I pursue what I pursue because I have two daughters, I need to tell them that nobody can tell you that you cannot juggle being a wife, a mother, and a full time professional,” the chef says. “Saying you cannot be successful at all three? You can.”

There are more challenges to overcome in the future, not the least of which is the pandemic and the roadblocks it provides to having the dining industry stand back up again. But as always, Arguelles is not backing down.

“When people tell me it’s difficult, all the more that I want to prove them wrong, all the more that I want to show them. So this is what I want to show my daughters. You cannot let people tell you what you can or cannot do,” she shares.

This story originally came out in the December 2020-January 2021 issue of Lifestyle Asia

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