How in Manhattan in 2002, Doreen Fernandez was ‘ready’

Writer, educator and jazz lover Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. Flickr photo: BJ Patino

By Tony Joaquin

Long before she became known for her critical writing on food which later led to several distinctive books on Philippine cuisine, writer, educator and critic Doreen Fernandez was a fellow jazz aficionado.

Café Indonesia in the 1950s was our jazz oasis for after-hours dining and singing. She and I became regular habitués of the cozy bistro managed by an affable Indonesian-Dutch gentleman. Other passions she shared with me included Broadway musicals. In fact, she loved to watch Broadway shows whenever she visited Manhattan for some academic conference when she was chair of the Communication Arts Department at the Ateneo University.

At the time we used to enjoy jazz as well as literature, Doreen was completing her master’s course in Literature also at the Ateneo. It was during our jazz sessions at the Café Indonesia where she met and eventually married Wili Fernandez, an interior designer.

Over the years Wili and Doreen and me and my wife Chita would become a foursome especially at the opening of new hotels and restaurants. By this time, Doreen was already a noted food columnist.

'Tikim,' one of Doreen's bestsellers.

Through her writing, Doreen would introduce her readers to the culinary customs of Filipinos – the way we eat and how we use indigenous ingredients.

Perhaps unknown to many, Doreen struggled with diabetes, just one of the many illnesses she suffered from. But that did not stop her – by this time a widow — from being actively involved in things she loved like food and literature.

When she was invited to read an academic paper for a conference in Manhattan in 2002, she was beside herself in excitement. It would be an opportunity to catch one or two Broadway plays. She brought her younger sister Della this time instead of a nurse who would accompany her on overseas trip.

It was May 29, 2002 when Doreen and her sister arrived in San Francisco to visit her niece, who is Della’s daughter. After a short side trip to Napa Valley where they sampled dishes from Julia Child’s Kitchen, the sisters left for New York on June 6.

It was early the following morning, their first day in Manhattan, when Doreen woke up at 4 complaining to her sister that she felt “weird” and suspected that her blood sugar may be low. Doreen then took her anti-diabetes medication and seemed all right a bit later. Della proceeded to prepare breakfast. When she got back to Doreen, she noticed Doreen was barely conscious; she promptly called 911.

In minutes the paramedics from New York Presbyterian were over and administered first aid to Doreen and at the same time suggested to have her confined at the hospital for further observation.

On June 10, Doreen was released. Della wheeled her four blocks back to their condo. Friends and relatives who heard about her brief hospital visit came to bring her books, flowers and cheers. Doreen may have been exhausted by the stream of well-wishers and developed a cough that required another 911 call. Surprisingly enough, the same paramedics who came the first time around arrived.

Doreen, said to have developed pneumonia, was brought to the ICU. At this time one of the doctors asked Doreen what treatment procedure she preferred, and she answered, “Anything short of invasive is OK.”

The doctor replied: “Not even if you needed say a respirator and you would die if we could not insert a tube?”

Doreen answered “Well I do not want to die, but…I am ready.”

Doreen’s condition showed no sign of improvement. When Della did not get assurance that Doreen would have a good quality of life after all the invasive procedures her doctor proposed to apply, she decided “to obey Doreen’s wish. Just let matters take their own course.”

Doreen passed away on Monday, June 24, the Feast of John the Baptist, at 8:20 p.m. after receiving the last sacraments. She was surrounded by people she loved and who loved her.

To this day, I remember how Wili and Doreen would enter Café Indonesia, and trumpet player Toots Dila’s band would stop in the middle of its music and play the opening strains of “Audrey” by Dave Brubeck. Another of Wili’s favorite was Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” which he hummed as he beamed to Doreen’s delight.

I did some vocals in my time at least after hours, for I was a young bachelor then. Nowadays, I still sing Sinatra and Bennett, which my friends Wili and Doreen also enjoyed.

Tony Joaquin was a television producer, director, newspaper journalist, industrial trainer and soap opera actor in the Philippines. He still gets excited by new ideas, films, love and living. He is 81.


  1. M. Matthews wrote:

    A wonderful article about beloved friend life and time by a friend who reminisce about love for music, food and culture.

  2. Celina wrote:

    This is the first I’m reading about the details of Doreen’s passing away. She was one of the founders and advisers of a national theater group I joined in the 70s — Dulaang Babaylan. I never had the chance to sit down and talk with her but it was enough that we’d see and greet each other at gatherings. Thanks for this, Tony.

  3. rad hermano wrote:

    she was a real lady and your article did capture all she was.

  4. armando baltazar wrote:

    Doreen always was a gracious lady. And she belonged to the times . . . of courtesy and culture, of graciousness and elegance. We, who belonged to those times, now like to say, “Dem were the days.”

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