Bernardo M. Villegas
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Eating Out

           The GDP increase of 6 to 7 percent annually that the Philippines can enjoy for many more years to come (despite some occasional glitches due to government underspending) is a consumer-led growth.  Consumption spending is outpacing investment and now accounts for more than 70 per cent of GDP.  This is worrisome in the long run but it is a welcome trend to consumer-oriented businesses.  One of these fortunate sectors is the restaurant business.  Marketing research shows that Filipino households at all levels except those in the rural areas who are below the poverty line are increasingly eating out.  In fact, grocery stores and supermarkets are experiencing a slow down in their sales because families are reducing the number of times they eat at home.  Even in those cases where they still have the family dinner at home, a lot of dishes are purchased cooked from all types of fast food outlets.

          At the higher middle income markets in the National Capital Region and other highly urbanized areas like Metro Cebu and Metro Davao, one can also observe a proliferation of restaurants that serve foreign cuisines.   I am especially struck by the number of Spanish restaurants that have mushroomed in the last three to five years.  Adding to the decades-old establishments such as Santi’s, La Tienda and Dulcinea are the Barcino chain of restaurants, Donosti, Las Flores, Las Ramblas and many others.  I take special note of these Spanish restaurants because I have resided in the region in which the best restaurants in the world exist, i.e. Catalunya in Spain.  I attribute the large increase of Spanish restaurants partly to the economic crisis that Spain experienced in the last four to five years.  There is a very high rate of unemployment among people in their twenties and thirties.  Some of these unemployed Spaniards have been most welcome as chefs and waiters in these new Spanish restaurants.  I appreciate the fringe benefit of being able to practise my rusty Spanish talking to these Spaniards.  Also, those of them who work in the kitchen are improving the authenticity of our so-called Spanish dishes, which have been Filipinized through the years.  As one of them told me in a Barcino restaurant, he brought with him the recipes of his grandmother and is introducing authentic Spanish dishes, including the famous paella valenciana.

          A recent report of AFF that appeared in the Business World (June 4, 2015) referred to a restaurant which I personally visited in Girona, a Roman city in Catalunya, just an hour and a half by car from Barcelona.  El Celler de Can Roca is now rated as the best restaurant in the world in an award given in London.  The awards, run by trade magazine called Restaurant, lauded Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca, the three brothers who run the restaurant (where you have to make reservations three months in advance).  When I was residing in Barcelona in 2007 to 2008, the best restaurant in the world was El Bulli, owned and managed by Ferran Adria, who received the award five times.  El Bulli has closed and Ferran now spends all his time writing books and giving lectures on culinary matters. In fact, he was recently in the Philippines on a speaking tour. Thanks to our close cultural ties with Spain, we should be able to learn much from their world-class restaurants in being able to boast some day of having some of the best restaurants at least in Asia, if not in the world. 

          The following comments of the three Roca brothers (Joan. Jordi, and Josep) may give a clue on how to continuously improve “culinary tourism” in the Philippines.  The London awards lauded the brothers’ combined talents as follows:  “Curiosity and creativity propel the Rocas back to the top…This is a restaurant that has never forgotten its  humble roots, its sense of familial warmth, or the need to serve remarkable delicious dishes and outstanding wine.”  According to the AFP report, El Celler uses ingredients typical of its native region of Catolonia, and is well known for its 14-course “culinary experience” paired with wines and cherries from the Iberian Peninsula.  Already, there are fine dining restaurants in Cavite and Batangas that are serving sophisticated versions of “bulalo”, caldereta, tinolang manok, fried “tawilis”, “barako” coffee and other dishes from ingredients typical of these provinces.  These two provinces capture a large portion of the 40 million domestic tourists who are stimulating food consumption in the Philippines today.  Fortunately, these two provinces are the venues for the increasing trend of urban gardening through which so-called gentleman farmers raise such high-value crops as honey dew melon, water melon, sweet papaya, eggplants, cabbage, lettuce and other fruits and vegetables.  I have been encouraging some of the OFWS who have experience in the food industry to come back to the Philippines and be part of this very exciting agribusiness sector.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia