On a recent summer day, Jossie Reyas, 77, sat on a bench outside a small food pantry in Woodside, Queens waiting her turn to get cans of beans, fruit, soup and vegetables.
Reyas, wearing frayed slippers and a faded floral blouse, was quiet and soft-spoken, but when asked about her life, she spun a tale of cooking for New York socialites, including a European countess and a future president of the United States.
She still keeps signed post-it notes, checks, menus, pictures and holiday cards from all of her employers. She keeps them in a plastic tote bag along with her flip phone and paper napkins.
One Christmas card, with cartoon angels and musical notes scattered across the front, reads: “Dear Josie, Thank you for your help this year. You do a great job and we certainly appreciate having you with us. Warm wishes for 1990! Mr. Mrs. Trump and Christopher.”
Born in the Philippines, Reyas was the oldest of eight children: three boys and five girls. In 1970, she studied business administration at Manila’s University of the East before moving to Madrid with her sisters. There she worked at the Denmark, Mexico and Uruguayan embassies.
The Countess of Romanones, Spain just happened to live across the street from the Uruguayan Embassy. One day the Countess recognized Reyas as a Filipina and asked if she would cook for her.
“Europeans love chicken adobo,” Reyas whispered.
It was there she heard of her father’s sudden death. Her parents were en route to the United States when he suffered a heart attack at the airport. Her mother handled the funeral arrangements before moving to America months later.
In 1986, Reyas’s mother summoned her to New York City saying, “it is time,” as the rest of her siblings had already moved. Reyas, in her mid-forties, dutifully obeyed.
In 1987, the Countess asked Reyas to cook for a private party she was hosting in New York. Reyas’s cooking, attention to detail and dedication to decoration garnered praise from the wealthy guests.
Soon, Reyas said, her services were requested by socialites such as Blaine Trump, Nancy Reagan, Mark Thatcher, Lally Weymouth, Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Susan Hess, Betsy Bloomingdale and Vera Wang, among others.
Reyas even lived with Robert and Blaine Trump at Trump Plaza for six months during the construction of the Trump Taj Mahal in 1989. Robert’s older brother, Donald, and his family were frequent visitors.
“They are nice. Even Donald, even the children of Donald – simple,” Reyas said. “I don’t know why many people don’t like him.”
Several employers asked Reyas to move with them, but she declined every offer that would permanently take her away from Manhattan.
“I came here because of my mother. Why would I leave her?” Reyas said.
Reyas’s mother died in her Manhattan home in 1994, but Reyas doesn’t want to move back to the Philippines like her siblings. She hasn’t been back since 1975.
“They all go home when they get married because they have business in the Philippines,” Reyas said. “I did not get married. I stay here, that’s why. If I [got] married, [had] children and a family, then I [would have gone] home also.”
These days, Reyas says, she makes a meager living as a decorator, working only for select employers of her choosing.
“No more cooking,” Reyas said smiling. “ I cannot cook anymore. I’m old.”