A Fil-Am Food Trip: The DOT Hosts A “Chefs’ Tour” With International Tastemakers
The Department of Tourism (DOT) has been tremendously busy of late cooking up targeted campaigns to spark tasty conversations both here and abroad. Lobbying a two-pronged approach, these campaigns not only highlight the success stories of Filipinos who have made it overseas, but also swivel the limelight on the exciting goings on right here at home. And when the narrative gets nostalgic, we are often reminded that the best things aren’t always inventive or newfangled but have been right under our noses all this while.
One such highly successful DOT foodie crusade was the recently concluded Chefs’ Tour, which brought three US-based restaurateur-chef personalities Charles Olalia, Lanai Tabura, and Tom Cunanan back to the Philippines, thereafter hailing them the new “food tourism ambassadors.”
The first edition of the project was conducted in January 2018. It spoke to the DOT’s ultimate goal of creating an army of culinary tourism ambassadors who will bear the Philippine flag through their creations, wherever their careers might be or take them.
Explained Tourism Secretary Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat, who played the consummate host to the esteemed visitors, “The long-term goal is to promote the Philippines as a major culinary destination and centre of food and gastronomy to the international market. We would like the invited chefs and restaurateurs to learn more about Philippine culinary tourism destinations, heritage dishes, iconic delicacies, and local ingredients, with the end view of tapping them as ambassadors for the Philippines.”
Additionally, “The Chefs’ Tour,” continued Romulo-Puyat, “is also aimed at providing a platform for the invited chefs and restaurateurs to share their successful experiences by introducing Philippine cuisine to the international market and inspire the local culinary tourism industry and food enthusiasts through interactive symposia.”
As such, the culinary stars ate their way through favourite foodie destinations Pampanga, Cavite, and Quezon City (Luzon), Iloilo, Bacolod and Cebu (Visayas) and Davao (Mindanao) for two whole adventure-filled weeks last November 2019, degusting local flavours and heirloom recipes like burong babi (fermented deep-fried pork), balbacua (a stew of oxtail and entrails), chicken binakol (soup made of chicken and coconut water with lemongrass), and sinuglaw (grilled pork belly and fish ceviche).
Soaking up the experience like sponges, Cunanan, Olalia, and Tabura learnt century-old Filipino cooking techniques such as halabos (steaming), buro (fermentation), and sugba (grilling). Among our country’s biggest names and brightest trailblazers, the three ended up exchanging plates with UNWTO ambassador for gastronomy tourism, Margarita Forés, Claude Tayag, Tatung Sarthou, and JJ Yulo, as well as beacons of heritage cuisines like the Hizons of San Fernando, Pampanga; Olive Puentespina and Carmina Mapa del Rosario of Davao; Iloilo’s Tibong Jardeleza; and the grand dame of Pampangueño cuisine, Atching Lilian Borromeo.
At each leg of the national tour, interactive “Fun Food Talks,” organised in conjunction with the World Food University—the teaching arm of the World Food Expo (WOFEX), showcased the celebrated chefs in their element. Students and practitioners simultaneously got a taste of the chefs’ own renditions of local dishes as they eagerly tuned into inspirational talks about how all three kick-started their careers.
The tour culminated in an open dialogue at the Enderun Colleges in BGC, followed by a friendly cook-off featuring their individual signature dishes.
Describing Filipino food as muscle memory, Cunanan, the owner and chef of the 24-seater Bad Saint in Washington D.C., said that he “grew up in the States eating Filipino food like buro, tinola, and sinigang.” He nostalgically traces his love for Filipino food back to his late mother, who is of Kapampangan descent.
With a number of international accolades under his belt, including Bad Saint having been named the No. 2 Best New Restaurant in the US in 2016 by Bon Appétit, and Cunanan himself being a recipient of the 2019 James Beard Best Chef award for the Mid-Atlantic Division, he retains much adulation for his hero, Tayag. “He’s a phenomenal artist,” professed Cunanan, thinking back on the time recently spent with the veteran. “When Claude said to me, ‘Food with no story has no value,’ it reminded why I’m [doing] this.’’ It’s why I got ‘Pagkain walang kwento, walang kwenta,’ tattooed on my chest.”
Admitted the Hawaii-based Tabura, whose grandmother hails from Cebu, “I never thought I’d be able to witness as much culture and history, flavour, and variety.” The Emmy award-winning food presenter noted “how just one dish like adobo can be cooked several ways and is nothing short of amazing,” adding, “Filipino food is nature’s food; its flavours are [straight] from the earth. The Philippines is the best place to eat.”
Pampanga-born Olalia shared Tabura’s sentiment, saying, “Everything is so new to me.” Despite having been away from his birthplace for a long time, his connection to the Philippines remains firmly intact. He recalls growing up on rice and longganisa. His restaurant in the heart of LA, Ma’am Sir, is unapologetically Filipino with dishes like lumpia on its bill of fare, and has garnered recognition as one of GQ magazine’s Best New Restaurants in America for 2019.
Looking back on the successful campaigns, said an elated Romulo-Puyat, “Nothing can bring Filipinos together like Filipino food. But more than just heating up the interest for our country’s heritage cuisines, iconic delicacies, and food tourism destinations, the tour’s main mission is to harness our Filipino master chefs, both here and abroad, to help us stir the Philippines’ culinary profile in the world foodscape.”
With the DOT’s Secretary propelling this effective platform where personalities can, in her own words, “share their stories, skills, acquired learnings from the tour, and ultimately, inspire more individuals from the local culinary and tourism industry—most especially the youth—to follow in their footsteps and introduce Filipino cuisine to the world,” it is quite evident that the Chefs’ Tours have been nothing short of an informative albeit scrumptious success.