Interview by Marbbie Tagabucba
It has been more than a year since Tonyboy Escalante received the phone call relaying to him that Antonio’s placed in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, debuting as 48th. He was told it was the first for the country, too. His small-town fine dining restaurant, his other Tagaytay concepts Breakfast at Antonio’s, Balay Dako, and Lanai Lounge, somehow cohesive as they are unique, as well as Escalante himself as a chef and restaurateur have all been recognized before. But for this big one, the elation came later on; at the time he was unaware of its significance. Perhaps for a perfectionist, it is never about the awards.
Nor is it ever just about him. Escalante’s plate is full: he’s making new dishes for Balay Dako, improving the coffee service at Breakfast at Antonio’s, creating new events spaces at Antonio’s, perfecting the overall dining experience to taste. It’s never just about the food, either.
Has being a destination restaurant indeed turned out to be an advantage?
When we started Antonio’s in 2002, many people thought the idea of opening a fine dining restaurant in the middle of nowhere was crazy. I admit part of me also thought that. But abroad, many of the finest restaurants in the world are no longer in urban centers but closer to the farms, seas, and forests. They understand the benefits of living and working closer to their source of ingredients. Antonio’s was doing farm-to-table even before the term “farm-to-table” became a thing. (Besides, if Antonio’s did not work out, I would still have the farm and a nice vacation home.)
What are your thoughts on the crowd-drawing concept of the “celebrity chef?”
I don’t think about it. It’s never about just about one person. For a restaurant to succeed, it takes a village. A team of people working together to make things happen.
Antonio’s success is a step up for our local dining scene. What elements in Filipino dining, whether in entertaining or cuisine, should be preserved and elevated?
Filipinos are naturally welcoming people. We love taking care of people, making them feel at home. This element of the Filipino psyche makes us unique and is the cornerstone of any service-based industry. We need to harness this, train ourselves to show the world what real Filipino hospitality looks like.
I believe that dining should be a communal activity. It is a time when family and friends should eat and enjoy the each other’s company. In this age of social media, I worry the Filipino trait of eating together is slowly disappearing. We should not only reinforce this kind of human interaction but celebrate it as well.
What would you say is your biggest achievement, and is there a goal that you are still working on achieving?
I think my single greatest professional achievement has been to bring my little group of restaurants to where they are today. Looking back at the struggles and victories over the past 12 years, I can honestly say it has been no small feat.
Moving forward, what challenges me is reinvention. Imagining what the restaurant group and my own career will look like in the coming years.
What’s next for Antonio’s group of restaurants for you? You’re known to be a bit of a perfectionist. Is it more about fine-tuning the existing concepts or is there a new one in the works?
I confess. I can be a perfectionist.
People have said that Antonio’s (and even the other restaurants, for that matter) is always in state of perpetual construction. I’m always build or improving elements of each restaurant. If I’m not making a new events space at Antonio’s, I’m working on new dishes for Balay Dako’s menu or I’m improving the coffee service at Breakfast at Antonio’s. There is always something that can be done better.
I’ll say it again. It is a never-ending process of searching for the perfect dining experience.
What comes next? Well, I can say that I am working on something exciting. But that’s for another interview at another time.
Photos by JL Javier
Antonio’s is in Purok 38, Barangay Neogan, Tagaytay City.