Celebrity baker Wilma Fernandez Ventura, popularly known as San Diego's creative baker, drove two hours in peak traffic to Los Angeles with her friends last week to make the ultimate visit -- to her idol, Filipino boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.
Pacquiao, also known as Pacman, was holding court at his trainer Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym on Vine St., in LA receiving well-wishers, autograph-seekers, friends, onlookers. Of the dozens who lined up and waited outside, Wilma stood out with her boxes of Filipino pastry.
A short while later, Pacquiao received Wilma who brought in her signature "gifts" - boxes of "Pacman Hopia" and several footlong breads named Brazo de Pacquiao (for the boxer's formidable arms).
"Pacman Hopia" is the latest innovative product that Wilma concocted to immortalize the 32-year-old Pacquiao, who's probably the only boxer in the world to hold eight boxing crowns in as many divisions.
One of those crowns, the World Boxing Organization's welterweight crown, is at stake in a 12-round fight on Saturday, Nov. 12 in Las Vegas, Nevada against challenger Juan Manuel Marquez, the 38-year-old Mexican Pacquiao had fought two times before, the first ending in a draw, the second a split decision.
"Hopia" is a well-known Filipino pastry stuffed with either mung beans paste, ground pork or purple yam paste. In the case of Pacman Hopia, Wilma combined all three ingredients and added another, mango, to fine-tune the taste to suit Filipino taste buds.
"I thought about re-making the hopia to make it truly Filipino," she says of the pastry that has its Chinese origins. "And who else would the honor go except to a man of the masses, rags-to-riches champion Manny Pacquiao?".
Pacquiao's struggle from childhood as a cigaret vendor in his hometown in Southern Philippines to a multi-millionaire boxer, congressman and businessman has provided inspiration to many Filipinos who look up to him as a role model.
Wilma can easily relate to his story, having herself started from scratch putting up a bakeshop in San Diego which in the last three years of its 26-year existence has been identified with iconic breads like the Obama Pandesal (for the US president) and the string of Pacquiao breads, including a fruity concoction that's healthier than its name implies - the Pacquiao Punch.
The Pacman Hopia has been market-tested at Wilma's own The Original Richard's Bakery a few weeks earlier and judging by the response of customers, the pastry is getting wide acclaim, according to Wilma who was interviewed by phone and email for this story.
Wilma and close friends Shariffa, John, Olive, Jayne and Mark drove two hours from San Diego to Los Angeles with boxes of freshly-baked Pacman Hopia and Brazo de Pacquiao stashed in the car's compartment. They arrived at the Wild Card Gym just in time when the boxer was meeting people.
"I was getting a little nervous getting ready to meet him. I can't believe that my dream of many years ago will come to reality, and face to face at that," Wilma recalls. She said the excitement was overwhelming given that Pacquiao is so well-known and yet so humble.
Wilma handed Pacquiao the boxes and explained their contents - Pacman Hopia and Braze de Pacquiao - all named after him.
"He deserves all the compliments, all the tributes, all the honors because he's a great man," Wilma says. "He makes all Filipinos proud," she adds.
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It is said that when Manny Pacquiao fights, everything is at a standstill.
That might well be the situation in Toronto's Filipino community come Saturday, Nov. 12, when he meets his nemesis in the ring, Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez.
Top Filipino restaurants in the city are opening their doors to boxing aficionados for a fee to view the fight on cable.
Max's - the restaurant that fried chicken built - offers a "Knockout Combo" for $14.99 consisting of two pieces quarter leg chicken, two bottles of San Miguel beer, the Philippines' most famous brew, and the whole time to see the fight from start to finish.
Owner and manager Clyde Pacis said the offer was a way of giving recognition to Pacquiao while promoting Philippine cuisine. The restaurant is located at Dufferin St. and Steeles Ave.
Max's seems to have the best-priced promo for the event.
Four other restaurants within the Greater Toronto Area - Aristokrat on Wilson Ave., Time Zone on Bathurst St., Prestige on Dufferin and Cusina on Wilson Ave.- have a cover charge of $10 plus $15 for consummables.
The boxing match is also a convenient excuse for get-together parties for Filipino families. Usually, one family pays for the pay-for-view cable and the rest of its invitees bring food and drinks for everybody to share.