May Cover Story 2021: Meet 5 Pillars Of The Philippine Dining Scene
1/5 Tony Boy Escalante
Chef and restaurateur
“Never follow the crowd,” Antonio “Tony Boy” Escalante advises aspiring restaurateurs. In his case, however, the crowd follows him, all the way to Tagaytay, from far and wide, such as this wedding party of 80 who once flew in from Singapore. Originally from the southern capital of Bacolod, the former flight attendant settled in this equally bucolic but cool and hilly place around two hours away from Manila.
Here he put up a farm supplying organic vegetables to high-end restaurants. With this business in place, he left for a year and a half to train at the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Institute in Adelaide, Australia. When he came back, he joined the old Mandarin Oriental and trained under the esteemed chef Norbert Gandler.
Back in Tagaytay, Escalante began doing “private dining” for friends and friends of friends who would enjoy both food and the ambience.
By word-of-mouth, he says, people became aware of this farmer chef who specialised in farm-to-table dishes. In 2002 he opened Antonio’s, which he calls his big break. “The minute my doors opened, my dream turned into reality,” he says.
He also opened a second restaurant, this time for casual dining and called it Balay Dako.
Soon enough, his reality grabbed global attention. He has been on many a prestigious list including The Miele Guide, Asia’s Best Restaurants and 25 Chefs and Restaurateurs You Should Know. He also received the 2014 World Gourmet Summit Manitowoc Restaurateur of the Year from the World Gourmet Summit.
What keeps Escalante excited these days are his new ventures, one already ongoing and two soon to be launched. Ongoing is his AGR Online Deli, fast-tracked because of the 2020 eruption of Taal Volcano. Still in the works are retail stores in Manila and a homemade ice cream line. “I guess you can say that we are working with what we have in more creative ways, as we wait for the pandemic to end,” Escalante remarks.
More dreams are unfolding. And everything possible, Escalante believes, because of his loyal staff driven to ensure excellence.
2/5 Margarita Forés
Chef and restaurateur
The image of a woman born to privilege, creating a culinary buzz sizzled throughout the local food scene in the late Eighties as Margarita Araneta Forés, from an old rich family, revealed her passion for the gustatory arts. She entered the scene quietly, via small private dinners while slowly growing her catering business. But her love for Italian cooking, discovered while in political exile in New York with her family and honed in Italy via a short immersion, shone and grabbed the limelight. In 1997, she opened her first Cibo branch in Glorietta Mall. The next two years would be a growth spurt that included the opening of Café Bola, Pepato, Lusso and her floral atelier brand Fiori di Marghi.
As her business grew, Forés began delving into Filipino food, catering dinners at Malacañang Palace and helping government bring in the Madrid Fusion gastronomy congress to Manila in 2014. Her Asia’s Best Female Chef award from The World’s 50 Best organisation, “opened doors for me globally and allowed me to fulfil my mission to help promote our country’s cuisine, cultural heritage and beautiful produce”.
Her successes have enriched her culinary direction. She elaborates: “Initially I considered sharing my passion for Italian cuisine and creating beautiful settings with my catering business in 1987, then bringing authentic Italian food to Manila in a very accessible way in 1997 as my major contributions to the food scene. Then, through the years, bringing new concepts to the market became my calling. But coming full circle, perhaps the most fulfilling thing for me is to be a part of the movement that has championed the promotion of Filipino cuisine, culinary heritage, produce and the Filipino farmer and artisan to the world.”
With the pandemic hitting her industry hard, Forés became more creative than ever. She made the necessary improvements on packaging for food delivery and takeaways and on digital marketing efforts and e-commerce logistics. She added on to her product line to include food kits, new food such as Ramen Ron and recipes. Launching soon are the bottled iced tea and packaged gelato line.
Forés is a picture of optimism. This hopefulness gathers strength from her team, as she says, “The quality of service and the commitment to excellence is their mantra, allowing our brands to endure. I cannot do this alone.”
3/5 Claude Tayag
Chef and food writer
The public first met Claude Tayag as a painter of watercolour art; then, as a painter who writes; and then, as a painter who writes and who sculpts functional and sculptural wood pieces. Yet again, as a painter who writes, who sculpts and, yes, who cooks. Seeming transformations revealed in a natural flow that raised the question of whether they were really multi facets of one artist.
Best bet is the latter, as Tayag reveals, “Having been born and raised in Pampanga where the food culture is quite strong, I had been cooking since school days.”
His culinary journey officially started in 1988 when, he says, “I unfurled [nagladlad] my apron to the public at Larry Cruz’s Ang Hang Restaurant.” The road has been speckled with many highlights, among which were a month’s cooking stint at the Prince Albert Rotisserie of the InterContinental Manila back-to-back with French resident chef Cyrile Soenen. And of course, Claude’s Dream, a buco-pandan dessert that found its way to the menu of many food establishments.
In the early 2000, he invited a literary group headed by the late doyenne of food writing Doreen Fernandez to Balé Dutung (wooden house), his home with wife Mary Ann. When Fernandez asked for the bill, Tayag was taken aback. “I did not think of charging, especially to guests.” Fernandez said she will write about the lunch in her food column, and assuaged Tayag’s concern over losing privacy saying, “You should share your art and cooking talent to the public. Do it on a limited basis first, by appointment only. And do charge for the meal.”
“This was how our home opened up to private dining,” Tayag says. “Balé Dutung has become my platform in promoting Filipino cuisine using only local produce and tastes. Mary Ann and I take turns in doing the narratives behind each dish of the usual 10-course meal.”
Interestingly, this multi-faceted creative mind may be undergoing another “transformation”, as Tayag says he has taken up the brush again.
4/5 Abba Napa
She has always been business-minded, starting her retail journey at age 22, with a variety of ventures from skincare to casual footwear and, yes, restaurants, helping her father’s L’Opera team open three new branches including a tiny wine bar. That took a toll, however, and six years later, Abba Napa was burnt out.
“When I was 28, I took a sabbatical from doing so many things at the same time; I needed to slow down,” she shares. Feeling “insipid and tense because it had been over a year and I was nowhere close to feeling motivated or to finding a purpose”, she went to New York City. Dining at Gramercy Tavern once, she was served “the most exquisite rosé I had tried. Suddenly, the dining room changed from grey to technicolour and the buzz of the place went from mono to stereo”.
“It may sound dramatic”, Abba continues, “but after that sip, I finally accepted that as much as I wanted to stay away from this world, restaurants are really my happy place.” She then applied for a course in restaurant management and culinary techniques at the French Culinary Institute in New York.
Today, Abba is the creative director and co-founder of The Moment Group (TMG), the company she founded with her two partners, Eliza Antonino and Jon Syjuco, in the summer of 2012. Starting with three homegrown restaurants, TMG went on a record-breaking pace of opening one restaurant every 56 days. It is now home to 2,500 employees, 12 food brands and 45 shops including the wholly owned popular brands 8Cuts Burgers, Manam Comfort Filipino, Ooma Bold Japanese, Mo’ Cookies, chef’s table Mecha Uma and Bank Bar. It also went into a partnership with the global brand Din Tai Fung, launched its cook-at-home-line Moment the Grocer, as well as its in-house delivery website supported by its own Mo’Go delivery fleet. “The Moment Group creates dining experiences priced for all wallets and for more Filipinos to enjoy,” she says.
As the business grows, the group’s philosophy deepens from being “just for fun” to “a desire to uplift”. Napa wistfully hopes, “One day, when people look back at our country’s food history, it would be nice if they remember Moment as a company that played a part in uplifting the dining scene even further.”
5/5 Rikki Dee
In 1987, when he put up his first restaurant Chin-Chin on Pasay Road with his wife Beng Dy, Rikki Dee had a very important regular customer. A few minutes before closing time, Henry Sy, Sr, the patriarch of the conglomerate of mall retail, banking and real estate, would come and order the restaurant’s speciality, fish head soup. Sy would soon invite the couple to open a branch at the Food Court of SM City North EDSA.
“That was my biggest break!” Dee acknowledges. He must be predestined for business success, growing up in a family immersed in commerce, his father being in the lumber business. But Dee was leaning towards food. “I have always had a passion for food. My family does not eat to live but live to eat,” he says.
Today, his portfolio consists of 353 stores (158 Sunnies Studios & Optical and 195 restaurants), 3,800 employees (up from the original five), and a multi-billion revenue up from an average sales of PhP10m per day. Throw in a few office buildings, three malls outside the city and, currently, the biggest number of Michelin-starred restaurant franchises in the country under the brand Foodee Global, handling all the restaurants.
It was no smooth sailing, for Dee. “Years ago, I was about to retire [after distributing the tasks of running the businesses to his four children]. But I felt I will be sending wrong signals to my next generation as they were just starting in the company. I went back to the action, this time with my children. I motivate and share a lot with them and, in the same breath, learn from them.
This is what excites me day after day,” he says. This included facing the challenges of the pandemic head on. “We had to act quick, redirect our resources and manage our budgets to make sure that we will weather this storm,” he shares. He pivoted to reformat current business trends, including safe dining, virtual kitchens, aggregation and food delivery, which he sees as “a crucial part of the revenue stream with restaurants”. The forward-looking businessman also ventured into the cloud kitchen space via Kravers ghost canteen.
Never losing his keys to success—focus, dedication and being hands-on—the future for Dee and his businesses remains stable and bright.
- Photography Francisco "Paco" Guerrero
- Make-Up Patrick Rosas
- Hair Carlos Castrillo
- Production Isabel Martel Francisco
- Location Manila House
- Set Design (Props) Moss Manila and Manila House