'Put your food where your mouth is'
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, traditional Filipino cuisine has a limited appeal to many international travellers ( a review of TripAdvisor/LonelyPlanet etc would confirm that) ? and the country is generally not a great inspiration to chefs, unlike Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and obviously Japanese, but I agree the issue is not to have a meaningless pissing contest, but to apply the principle ? 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating', and to develop the industry as appropriate, highlight excellence where it exists, take advantage of opportunities, create dishes which excite, and strive to improve at all levels, as many other countries have done over recent years to great effect/benefit.
The question is whether the Philippines has the will to improve and adapt, particularly in the mid price range, which tends to be where most tourists focus, or whether Filipinos are too blinkered to do anything about it, too 'proud' to even acknowledge/recognise the problem, and also whether the apathy of the department of tourism simply continues to both miss out over time on the possibilities of increased business/jobs/tourism, or to act as a contributory change agent within the culinary/food sector, which obviously extends beyond restaurants alone, to the whole supply chain.
Mon dieu! ? the Philippines is not even a member of The World Travel and Food Association ( WTFA). This is what happens when you put incompetents in charge of tourism. They really have no clue about the industry, or customer needs, are not businessmen, and certainly do not have the creativity to come up with new initiatives, or maybe, as i suspect, they just don't really care, are devoid of passion for the job and are purely interested in their own personal gain.
So, no surprise that Expo 2015 is another missed opportunity.
The country needs a different approach to attract tourists than a lacklustre advertising campaign. Mon Jimenez is a simple advertising guy and is too insular and inexperienced for the job, and certainly not a strategic thinker by all accounts.
The Philippines also has the world's worst airport food throughout the country ? run no doubt by a San Miguel subsidiary, and the food courts in malls ? a dog's dinner!
Countries such as Australia and Ireland used food as one of the central strands in their tourism promotion last year which proved very successful, and culinary tourism is now becoming a major segment in its own right. Whilst the Philippines cannot currently compete at that level, it can over time at least improve, learn, develop, and take action.
The first step is to take a step back, and apply critical analysis, without fear or favour, and listen to 'customers'. The second step is to do something, rather than endless trips/seminars/meetings etc. There is no such thing as a free lunch ? except in DoT where it is seen as a perk of the job.
But back to the essence. I have been to a number of culinary schools in the Philippines, and many produce excellent trainee chefs, but the point which immediately comes to mind is that the training is heavily, sometimes exclusively, geared towards cooking international food from the outset, and few, if any, train people to be restaurateurs. Many of the chefs learn by 'rote', rather than experimentation, so that the mechanics may be there, but often the passion isn't.
I fully understand that the courses are geared towards the student chefs going on to cruise ships, working abroad, or in international hotels, however from the perspective of national food it leaves Filipino cuisine languishing as an also ran in global terms, since there are few chefs who not only champion national cuisine, but more importantly who do not have the creativity to develop it. That in itself is self-incrimination, and a vote of no confidence.
In the UK it took two brothers from France ? Albert and Michel Roux ? to change the palate of the whole nation and its attitude towards food. Now a whole brigade of English chefs such as Gordon Ramsay who was trained by Albert, Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver, and arguably the worlds best chef and master of molecular cuisine ? heston Blumenthal - have taken up the baton, and continue on the quest for excellence and innovation, which has a ripple effect at all levels.
The Philippines needs serious chefs if it is to be taken seriously, and should consider a new style of Filipino fusion cuisine, traditional dishes de-constructed etc., and people's passion for food needs to be re-invigorated. Sustainable produce, farm branded/sourced products, healthy options, garden restaurants, tasting menus, wine pairings, gluten-free are just some of the global trends and is therefore part of the mindset which tourists bring with them.
And irrespective of market segment/price point, the over-riding principle is that standards must improve across all facets of food production, nutrition, hygiene etc. for the benefit of all.
Dining out is always about the total experience, even more so for tourists/holidaymaker ? quality, presentation, service, decor/environment, value etc. And any chef worth his salt will tell you that you are only as good as your next meal, and that each service starts with a clean slate, but must end with delighted customers. There is no excuse, or room, for mediocrity, whatever part someone plays in a restaurant ? executive or sous chef, waitress, or dishwasher.
Food/customer tastes change over time and how dishes can be in vogue one year, but out of fashion the next, and new trends change the fundamentals, such as 'farm to table' becoming more popular, recipes becoming healthier, fusion cuisine catering for new demands, and the constant search for new ingredients/combinations. Travellers and diners want new experiences, but will not sacrifice quality. Less is more ? good taste and less waste. And organic ? more delicious, highly nutritious ? less suspicious.
Most of the best restaurants in the Philippines are run by foreign chefs, and the best hotels managed by foreign GM's. That is a black mark on the industry as a whole, but even where the food is good, the wine selection is appalling, and the country must also move away from buying cheap 'bin ends', be more selective/knowledgeable, and again from a business point of view start to educate and encourage potential customers.
Apart from a clear strategy, a co-ordinated structure, and stakeholder involvement, there are a myriad of practical initiatives which could be examined/undertaken, ( even at a regional level, exempt from the inertia and bureaucracy of DoT) ? e.g.,
- using jeepney adapted/designed food/travel trucks in selected tourist areas/events, home and abroad ( expo 2015!),
- co-operative marketing on a regional basis ( food passports ? a cooks tour),
- angel investors ( food sector),
- DTI advice/support for current/new restaurants ( 'success on a plate' ),
- free iPhone/android app for tourists ( IT students to develop),
- culinary school students guest at local hotels/restaurants,
- pop-up restaurants,
- culinary tours/cooking lessons,
- local cooking competitions in malls, restaurants to sell more local produce ( i.e deli),
- tapas/tapas style
- new Filipino sauce ? '7107′ sauce
- restaurants to market souvenir food items, food art/posters etc
- farmers markets,
- local press to run regional restaurant of year competitions ( multiple categories),
- start up finance packages,
- short term training at restaurants abroad/partnerships,
- development/farming of new crops/foods, the great filipino menu ( the best of the best) ? tv programme/contest with the winners of each course eventually serving the complete menu once at a major international event/dinner/ASEAN meeting etc.,
- visiting/guest chefs etc, etc.
The list, and opportunities, are endless, but the challenges also daunting. Kitchen nightmares on a national scale. The ingredients for success ? diversity, quality, creativity, a love of cooking, respect for the ingredients, a passion for excellence, the desire to delight customers, and an inquiring mind which is eager to learn and innovate.
[This is a Featured GRP Comment]