BUILT TO LAST

THREE FOOD IN­DUS­TRY GI­ANTS, ALL CEL­E­BRAT­ING THEIR AN­NIVER­SARIES THIS YEAR, ON HOW TO EN­DURE IN A CROWDED AND HIGHLY COM­PET­I­TIVE ARENA WHERE THE LIFE SPAN OF THE PLAY­ERS ARE GET­TING MUCH SHORTER

F&B World - - SPECIAL FEATURE - Text by MAAN D’ASIS PAMARAN, with ad­di­tional re­port­ing by AN­GELO COM­STI Pho­tos by PAT MA­TEO and ARTU NEPOMUCENO ( Forés and Es­calante) Makeup and grooming by JEROME BUS­TA­MANTE and DIONABEL QUE­ZON of BOBBI BROWN PHILIP­PINES

“I went into culi­nary be­cause I just needed a job,” chef Tony Boy Es­calante laughs. The former den­tal stu­dent went from tooth fill­ings to ful­fill­ing his din­ers’ culi­nary wishes at his An­to­nio’s din­ing des­ti­na­tion in Tagaytay, which cel­e­brates its 15th year of op­er­a­tions this year. His route took him around the world as a flight at­ten­dant, and de­cid­ing that it was not for him, he went back to his culi­nary roots in Iloilo, where food brings fam­i­lies to­gether.

While work­ing in the pro­fes­sional kitchen at Man­darin’s Tivoli Grill, Tony Boy would do pri­vate din­ing on week­ends and his days off. “As long as there were 10 of you, I would cook for you at my Tagaytay home,” he re­calls.

This even­tu­ally led to a big­ger dream. An­to­nio’s Res­tau­rant opened in Novem­ber 2002. And through­out the years, it has reeled in a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tions and the birth of other con­cepts, Break­fast at An­to­nio’s and Balay Dako.

Luck and per­fect tim­ing might have been a con­sid­er­able part of his suc­cess, but no one can dis­count his im­pec­ca­ble taste on de­sign, ser­vice, and good food. The same goes for Mar­garita Forés and the team be­hind The Mo­ment Group, both of whom also cel­e­brate sim­i­lar tri­umphs as Tony Boy; their 20th and fifth an­niver­saries, re­spec­tively.

With a no­table num­ber of res­tau­rant years un­der their belt, they are the first to tes­tify that the strug­gle is in­deed real. But just as quick as that dec­la­ra­tion can they swear that those times have also been among the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing, in­spir­ing and in­com­pa­ra­ble ex­pe­ri­ences of their lives.

STICK TO YOUR GUNS

Es­calante’s vi­sion was noth­ing re­ally grand. “We started out re­ally small, and my con­cept was ca­sual but el­e­gant, rem­i­nis­cent of how we lived and dined in Ba­colod. It was ‘they’ who called it fine din­ing.” What­ever the scale, every­body wanted to be a part of it, and claim to have gone through the An­to­nio’s ex­pe­ri­ence. “The main chal­lenge I have en­coun­tered is to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions. I do this by sim­ply do­ing my best and some­how I man­age to sur­pass it. Even from the be­gin­ning, I was not after win­ning awards; it was about be­ing able to of­fer my best to my guests. Then, when I do get a recog­ni­tion, I share it with the peo­ple I work with.” The ac­co­lades may help ex­tend and boost your pres­ence, but it can only take you so far. Those don’t guar­an­tee a longer shelf life. “You know, it is hard to open a res­tau­rant, but I think it is harder to main­tain it. You can do this only if you in­vest in your peo­ple.”

Es­calante has been called many things— bril­liant, hard­work­ing, a rock star— and has got­ten worth­while me­dia cov­er­age and plaques for that. But one thing not many has rec­og­nized him for is his savvy. He knows what he is best at. “It’s not like Asia in the ’ 80s and early ’ 90s where you had to go to a ho­tel to en­joy good food,” he ob­serves the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion. Even with the trends that have come ( and gone), he has re­mained true to his roots. “I ad­mire those who do fu­sion, but I am old- school. I would never do any­thing that does not have my soul in it.”

He is quick to ad­mit that he is not tech- savvy. And so to tap into the younger mar­ket, he hired a team to up­date his web­site and han­dle his brand’s so­cial me­dia. Get­ting him­self into this game didn’t even cross his mind. “My younger clients now were four or five when I opened An­to­nio’s. My teenage guests who vis­ited with their fam­i­lies then are now dads,” he laughs. “Be hon­est with your­self if you can or can­not do it, not just be­cause you have the money to start your busi­ness. The best way to suc­cess is know­ing your­self and know­ing what you want to do.”

TRI­UMPHANT IN DOWN­FALL

If Es­calante knew what he wanted to do early on, it was the op­po­site for Mar­garita Forés who de­scribes her 10- year learn­ing curve as a “slow burn.” “I was a me­dia nov­elty and peo­ple were writ­ing about me, which was very help­ful. But I was also on party mode and I was dis­or­ga­nized, ar­riv­ing at gigs late. It was for­tu­nate that these were friends of my mom, so they were very kind and sup­port­ive, and

didn’t re­ally hold me to the times when I didn’t de­liver. They also saw some sin­cer­ity on my part, be­cause I was work­ing on this by my­self with just one or two helpers,” she re­calls.

She started tak­ing her craft more se­ri­ously when she had her son. “It was a wake- up call be­cause I be­came re­spon­si­ble for an­other per­son’s life. Be­fore that, I viewed my pro­fes­sion as a hobby. This made me do a life- check, I got my act to­gether and started con­cen­trat­ing on my cater­ing in earnest.”

In 1997, she opened Cibo, a con­cept that was prac­ti­cally un­heard of at the time. She in­tro­duced au­then­tic Ital­ian dishes to a pub­lic that was used to eat­ing their spaghetti soggy and with hot­dogs. “My Bolog­nese was al dente, it wasn’t sweet, and a lot of peo­ple re­acted. I stuck to the con­cept of au­then­tic­ity, with my menu in Ital­ian with trans­la­tions, with the in­struc­tions that there were no sub­sti­tu­tions. I was and still am picky with what in­gre­di­ents to source for my pasta or panino.” Be­ing a stick­ler for le­git­i­macy ob­vi­ously has re­warded her well, with a dozen branches, to be ex­act.

“I think the big­gest lessons I learned in this in­dus­try, I learned from my fail­ures,” she muses. And that the se­cret to longevity is con­stant learn­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what is new. “You have to con­tinue to be at a learn­ing stand­point with all the peo­ple you en­counter. To­day, you can learn from the older chefs, and from the younger ones who have had the op­por­tu­nity to study things like molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy,” says the chef who has brought learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to the Philip­pines in the form of Madrid Fu­sion Manila.

TEAM WORK

There is a syn­ergy be­tween Abba Napa, El­iza An­tonino, and Jon Syjuco that was ev­i­dent from the very be­gin­ning. Abba re­calls an in­ci­dent when they were eat­ing at their out­let and, in uni­son, left their ta­ble to of­fer their seats to those wait­ing in line. “We didn’t even talk about it, we just stood up. It showed that we have the same wave­length, that same ded­i­ca­tion to of­fer­ing not only food but hos­pi­tal­ity to our cus­tomers.” It’s this com­mon pro­fes­sional out­look that has laid the foun­da­tion not just of their friend­ship, but of The Mo­ment Group, a com­pany that con­tin­ues to show much prom­ise since it started in 2012, with the open­ing of Mod­ern BBQ Cue. “When we opened it, we were just do­ing it for fun. It was the worst rea­son,” she laughs. “After that, it be­came very ex­cit­ing in the din­ing scene, and we got very ex­cited as well. It was not hard to cre­ate a new con­cept in that at­mos­phere.”

An­tonino adds, “The in­dus­try has grown so much in the five years that we re­al­ized there are so many

“As hard as it is to build [a res­tau­rant], it is 10 times harder to run. There is so much that goes be­hind a res­tau­rant group, which is why you need to have peo­ple who are ded­i­cated to that vi­sion,” says

Abba Napa.

things go­ing on and maybe we get to make an im­pact. The Filipino diner just wants to ex­plore and have new ex­pe­ri­ences, and we have fun in cre­at­ing those new ex­pe­ri­ences for them, whether with our home­grown restau­rants or the ones that we bring in. I think that is the pri­mary rea­son why we have grown so much ex­po­nen­tially.” This year, they have grown to 10 brands and 27 branches spread across these con­cepts.

Un­like Es­calante and Forés who call the shots in their own busi­nesses, with TMG, the three de­cide as one. They have to rely on each other and though they ar­gue— a lot, their bick­er­ing turns to con­struc­tive de­bates that not only help fully dis­sect prob­lems, but also re­sult in well in­formed de­ci­sions. “When we don’t ar­gue over some­thing, that’s when we have a prob­lem,” Syjuco quips.

The team plays smart, and doesn’t jump on the band­wagon just be­cause it’s the trendi­est thing to do at the mo­ment. “When we cre­ate restau­rants, we look at un­der­served cat­e­gories. If some­one is do­ing well in a cer­tain space, we don’t try to com­pete. There are so many op­por­tu­ni­ties that can be filled be­cause the in­dus­try is very young. We cre­ate things that might not be ex­ist­ing or might need more on.”

An­tonino agrees, “we are very for­tu­nate to find our­selves in that po­si­tion to be able to make some­thing of op­por­tu­ni­ties or craft our own op­por­tu­ni­ties, but some­times we may bite off more than we can chew.”

“As hard as it is to build [ a res­tau­rant], it is 10 times harder to run. There is so much that goes be­hind a res­tau­rant group, which is why you need to have peo­ple who are ded­i­cated to that vi­sion,” says Napa. Luck­ily, they have each other— and a grow­ing work­force of over 1000.

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