June 18, 2017 1:25 pm JST

Farm-to-table dining wins Filipino fans

Organic food movement grows, but seeks breakout from upmarket niche

PRIME SARMIENTO, Contributing writer

From the farm -- chili peppers, exhibited by the Philippine Department of Agriculture (Photo by Prime Sarmiento)

MANILA -- Filipino chef and cookbook author Michael Giovan Sarthou III, better known in the Philippines as Chef Tatung, has always been ahead of his time. Instead of playing with his cousins, the young Sarthou chose to garden and cook with his grandmother. At the age of 10, he already knew how to slaughter, dress and cook the chickens that he raised in his backyard.

Fast-forward to 2011 and Sarthou used the knowledge he learned from his grandmother's kitchen to transform a portion of the family home into a reservation-only restaurant. Chef Tatung's Garden Cafe, in a middle-class residential area of the Philippine capital, served national dishes such as okoy (shrimp and vegetable fritters), caldereta (meat stew) and palabok (noodle dish with shrimp sauce) made with ingredients sourced from Sarthou's garden and local organic farmers.

At the time, it was a novel idea; most restaurateurs bought their food from industrial suppliers. For Sarthou, though, using the fruits and herbs from his garden to prepare meals was second nature. "This was how I grew up. This was how I was raised and fed," he said.

The restaurant shut in 2013, but it managed to generate rave reviews, maintain a solid client base and pioneer the farm-to-table (F2T) movement, which promotes the consumption of food made from ingredients sourced directly from local farmers. Its advocates say that knowing where food comes from, cutting out middlemen and focusing on organic produce promotes healthier eating, sustains small-scale farmers, and preserves farmlands.

The F2T movement gained traction in the Philippines around 2012 as the country's solid economic growth brought prosperity and busier lifestyles, encouraging more consumers to dine out and seek the latest food trends. Several F2T restaurants were established in the business districts of Makati, Ortigas and Bonifacio Global City, carving a niche in the expanding food services industry. Meanwhile, renowned chefs like Margarita Fores and Robby Goco opened up restaurants serving pasta, salads, juices and meat dishes made from produce supplied by local organic farmers, and crafted menus based on freshness and in seasonality.

Outside Metro Manila, some organic farms - such as Costales Farms in Laguna and Penalosa Farms in Negros Occidental -- regularly conduct farm tours and provide buffet meals to urbanites who are curious about farm life and want to savor meals made straight from the farm.

One such customer is freelance writer and researcher Claire Madarang, who frequents farm-to-table restaurants around Manila. She recently visited Costales Farm where she got the chance to harvest organic lettuce, talk to the farmers about how they raise their produce, and savor the fresh taste of braised tilapia and chicken soup with basil for lunch buffet.

"I feel more connected to my food. I also appreciate it more [because I know] the process that went into making it," she said.

Food and travel journalist Cheryl Tiu said the growing international interest in Philippine cuisine has also encouraged more people to buy local. "Filipinos are becoming more and more proud of their heritage, culture and cuisine," she said.

But the relatively high cost of organic produce threatens to limit its appeal in the Philippines, which suffers from deep income inequalities.

Sarthou said that in the Philippines, the F2T movement is "faddish, trendy" and may not be sustained over the long term. "The farm to table [movement] has been glamorized but it still doesn't make economic sense to the majority of consumers," he said.

Upscale diners

Most F2T restaurants cater to a small circle of upscale diners who can afford to pay 400 pesos (roughly $8) for a bowl of organic green salad, which is twice as much as fast food establishments charge for a full meal. Steep prices keep the movement from becoming mainstream, but lowering prices would put restaurants in the red and defeat the purpose of buying produce at a fair price.

Organic farmer Enzo Pinga, a supplier to F2T restaurants, said the labor-intensive organic farming process makes his crops more expensive than those of conventional farms. "There needs to be more understanding on how we [organic farmers] grow it. We could produce [a big] volume and just send it to the depot. But that's not how we do it. We want to produce something nice, and that takes a lot of effort," he said.

On the other hand, Pinga knows that charging premium prices limits his client base. "If we don't introduce this [F2T concept] to the mass market then it will not really catch on," he said.

Sarthou said that education -- making most consumers aware of the high quality and flavor of fresh produce compared to processed food sold in the supermarket -- was the next step needed. "Without teaching the consumers how to use these vegetables, they will never know [how to cook them]. There's a void of creativity in the household," he said.

Sarthou hosts a cooking segment in a popular morning television show to teach viewers how to cook vegetables such as puso ng saging (banana blossom) that have been forgotten by a younger generation used to the convenience of packaged and fast food.

"What I'm trying to do with my show is to make these [vegetables] accessible. Can consumers identify with this product? If they can't identify with this product, they're not going to cook it," he said.

Sarthou has also written two cookbooks on Philippine cuisine, opened another restaurant that features handline-caught tuna supplied by community-based fishermen, and is planning to teach urban gardening and cooking to children in local communities.

Veteran restaurateur Pacita Juan had similar concerns when she and her partners opened ECHOcafe in 2012. ECHO stands for Environment and Community Hope Organization, and in 2008, in line with Juan's plans to promote environmentalism and help small farmers, she created ECHOstore -- a retail chain that sells food and toiletry products made by organic farmers, artisans and rural communities around the Philippines.

Now Juan's retail business includes a cafe and a farm in Amadeo, Cavite province, some 60km south of Manila. "We wanted a complete experience for the consumers, so we invested in an organic farm," she said. "We planned to sell [the produce] through our stores. But to sell them well, we thought of opening a cafe where we can teach our customers how to prepare these dishes at home. So you can eat at the cafe, buy the vegetables and duplicate the recipes at home."

Juan said encouraging more people to cook, and to know where their produce comes from, will make F2T more relevant to Filipino consumers

For Sarthou, taking F2T mainstream is not just about expanding the market for restaurateurs and organic farmers. He also wants to improve the quality of life through the joy of eating.

"We have forgotten the idea that the function of eating is about nourishment. It should be a way of celebrating, living life. If it becomes functional, it's just fuel. You are robbed of the experience of eating," he said.

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