10 Wishes for the Manila Restaurant Scene

What does the Manila food scene need more or less of? Our Spot.PH food blogger lists 10 things he hopes will happen in 2011.

2010 was an interesting year for the restaurant scene, as you can probably attest to by now. Interest in the food world in general is at an all-time high, thanks to cable TV and publications, and a thousand and one culinary schools. All good, if you ask me-this only brings us one step closer to breaking through to the rest of the world as a great food destination. Here are some of my wishes for the year ahead:

1.  That celebrity chefs give a little more time to their restaurants. Manila is no stranger to the phenomenon of celebrity chef-dom. Faces of the "Who's Who" of the restaurant world are splashed all over magazines, newspapers, TV commercials, and for the fortunate few, even their own TV shows. That's great for them, because making good cash in a restaurant isn't easy. It's always a good idea to be looking for other forms of revenue. Here lies the problem. Their restaurants are their babies and the items on their menu, their creations. Often, it'll be difficult to translate expectations to their kitchen crew, or at the very least it'll be tricky to get the exact flavors the chef expects from the dish, especially if the food is alien to them (if you have a line cook from some tiny, remote corner of the Philippines, how would he know the real flavors of some complex sauce?). That's why I think it's imperative that the chefs check in on their line as often as they can to taste and make sure the food is what it's supposed to taste like. I know, it's easier said than done what with their busy schedules but that's just it-I've been to restaurants of very competent chefs, and things just fall apart when they're not there. Incidents like that sink reputations, no matter how capable they are.

2. The demise of blogger abuse. Blogging is God's (and the internet's) gift to free speech. You can say anything you want, describe your most intimate details, rant, curse, be lascivious, be emotional-you name it. It's your right, and when taken seriously, it sometimes makes for compelling reading. However, I find the present state of food blogging, especially here in Manila, a bit disturbing. Why? I've heard dozens of stories from chefs and restaurants owners of bloggers who enter restaurants, introduce themselves as bloggers and then proceed to demand things-discounts, a free meal, etc.-simply because they are bloggers who may just write you a favorable review. If you don't give in to their demands, they often cut you down indiscriminately on their blog. How this started, I'll never know. That isn't blogging; it's extortion. This is also the main reason why I feel a bit queasy every time I'm addressed as a "blogger." Running a restaurant, even a bad one, is a difficult proposition. Sure, call them out if your think there's something wrong, or if the food is off, and if the service is bad. But be constructive, and be responsible. This is especially true for them fortunate bloggers who actually have a following. You have, in that creative brain of yours, a way to help restaurants improve. Bad reviews can cost precious jobs.

3. Support the food artisans. One of the things I do is take people on tours to centers of food culture, and not just to eat the good stuff, but to learn about them as well. One of the biggest observations I have is pretty common worldwide: there is a whole universe of artisan food producers out there-several generations deep-that make all sorts of goodies with specialized skills passed down to them that have the same problem: there's no one to continue the business. The members of the younger generation have other plans, and making, say, excellent chicharon isn't part of it. The sad news is, this means all these really old recipes will just be forgotten, which is not a good thing because these foods are also a part of who we are, our culture, and our identity. I actually have a secret wish that someone who takes our tours will be inspired to take up one of these fast-fading businesses and preserve its legacy. Perhaps restaurants can take them into their wings, and serve their concoctions on their menu? Who knows? My fingers are always crossed!

4. Fresh is best! We are all victims to mass-produced, industrialized food. Yes, it's the food we grew up with, and it's also the easiest to get and the most available, but it's all full of crappy stuff and one of the reasons why people get sick. It's time to at least try and eat better, not just for health's sake, but also for us to realize that the freshest, best ingredients often make the best dishes, plain and simple. I, for one, want to start planting little things in my apartment, like herbs, perhaps. Though I'm no green thumb, apparently it's much easier than I thought. I also recommend making friends with people who own small farms. Get great veggies and protein from them when budget allows. I know all this organic stuff can be a bit pricey but it really makes such a difference when you eat it, and your system will thank you for it. It would be great to see restaurants serving these kinds of products on their menu-a win-win situation for everyone, especially the customers!


5. Stand together in the name of good Pinoy eats. There has always been much talk and debate about how to get Pinoy food on the world stage. Many theories abound, for sure, on how to do this, but I think that the one thing that rings most clear is we have to take a united front and actively promote our food. Cook, serve, write, photograph, discuss, learn, and bounce ideas off others. I am one of those who believe we are very capable of putting our cuisine on the world stage, and elevating our restaurant scene into a destination one.

6. That the rise of the neighborhood restaurant continue. It's no secret that malls suck restaurants dry with rent and other demands. Unfortunately, they are also some of the most traversed areas in the metropolis, thus they remain breeding grounds for restaurants, even if their owners know that they may as well shove all their cash money into the coffers of the mall owners. Fortunately for all of us, there is a proliferation of areas that are producing decent restaurants that don't have to kick and scream for our attention-the nice neighborhood joints. Good, solid food in casual spaces makes for great meals and great conversation.

7. Improved coffee service. As a coffee (or more specifically, an espresso lover), one of my biggest pet peeves is when you have a great meal, with everything just working out great, only to end with a cup of swill passed off as an espresso. I say if you don't have a properly trained barista, don't even bother with serving espresso and other espresso-based drinks and stick to brewed. Am I being too nitpicky about this? I don't think so. Coffee should be taken just as seriously as everything else, because after all, it bookends meals. I can count the number of restaurants that give enough attention to their coffee service. Sadly, on less than both my hands.

8. Healthier food items on menus. I am a carnivore, albeit a reformed one. When I eat on a day-to-day basis, I choose to eat as healthy as I can, unless it's a time to indulge. It can be a bit tricky if you go out a lot. I'd love to see more healthy options, not like, say, "vegetarian" options that are just haphazardly slapped together, but rather well thought out, flavorful and delicious dishes that are substantial as well. In line with this, I declare a ceasefire on overcooked, dried-out fish as well. For a nation of 7,000+ islands surrounded by water, seafood always plays second fiddle to pork and beef, which is a shame. I think we can all benefit from eating more fish.

9. Inspiring the staff.  I have this theory that one of the reasons why there are numerous places with mediocre food and/or bad service is because the crew are simply uninspired. They don't care about where they're working, and what they're doing-all they care about is what they're going to do the minute their shift ends. Perfectly understandable, I guess, but wouldn't it be great if the powers that be inspired them to be proud of their restaurant and give them a sense of ownership? Cooks wouldn't take shortcuts, waiters wouldn't be indifferent, and food and service would be noticeably better. Wishful thinking? Well, it's a wish list, ain't it?

10. Bread and breakfast! The past year saw all sorts of stuff open: a Beijing noodle joint here, a Hungarian place there, an Eastern European burger spot here. Manila is truly shaping up as an even more international city. My wish list thus must end with something I selfishly want for the restaurant scene. The first would be more sandwich shops. I am a bona fide sandwich lover, and have often toyed with the idea of opening a good sandwich shop or deli that really takes the art of the sandwich seriously. When I would talk about it, of course, I would always encounter the comment that Pinoys love rice. True, but times have shifted a bit in this day and age, methinks, and it can be done. I know of one place in the Fort area that has blazed a clear trail in the sandwich arena, and believe me, they truly stand out. Another thing I'd love to see is a good breakfast place. Although I appreciate a good Pinoy brekkie as much as the next guy, there is so much more to breakfast than that. It's hard (ok, almost impossible) to find good eggs Benedict here, or good hash browns, or more creative omelets and frittatas. There are so many things one can do.. but it's not on our restaurant radar just yet. One day soon, I hope!


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