Ecotourism. Extreme adventure tourism. Spa tourism. Medical tourism. Agritourism. And now, make way for food tourism.
“Food should be the destination itself in a tourism program, not just an appendage,” said Brian Jao, project coordinator of Culinary Albay, a program under the office of Gov. Joey Salceda (firstname.lastname@example.org). And he added: “Tourists come here to taste sili ice cream.”
Jao spoke in a recent press conference at the First Colonial Grill in Legazpi City, capital of Albay, in connection with the Magayon Festival. Beside him was Wilson Tan, festival guest and owner of Top Meals in Makati City.
First Colonial is well-known for its innovative cuisine like tinapa rice and ice cream flavored with fruits and vegetables such as malunggay, ginger, and the spicy sili the Bicol region is known for.
“We want to popularize the restaurants here,” Jao said, and he recalled the Karangahan food festival last December (karangahan is a Bicol endearment). There were 15 applicants, and 10 stores were chosen, and all they had to do was sell their own food products.
“It was a major event, and the bestseller was sili ice cream,” said the project coordinator.
There was also a contest of the best restaurants in the province, and three emerged the winners: Small Talk, First Colonial Grill and Balay Cenauna, which has an elegant, Old World style.
On recent trips to Albay I have had the occasion to dine in these three restaurants and, although not a gourmet, I can vouch for the superb cuisine. They offer innovative Bicol, native as well as international specialties.
Another restaurant on my list is Alvi’s Albay Café in Daraga, co-owned by personable businessman-councilor Alan Rañola, who treated national media visitors to the best his restaurant could offer—pork Bicol express, pinangat (vegetables with coconut milk), callos, caldereta, fried lumpia and guiniling (ground beef).
The café, redolent of the past, is actually the ancestral home of the Imperial family, which has been rented out to Rañola and his business partner, Legazpi Vice Mayor Vittorio Roces.
“We want to raise the level of restaurants in Albay,” Jao said.
And next year the program expects more restaurants and food sellers to compete for the honor of being Albay’s Best. The menu of some restaurants is inconsistent, he noted, and a few have dirty toilets.
The program also has an Albay Social Media Team online, which researches on anything about Albay but focuses on food, traditional methods, and eventually will promote all Bicol dishes. Another output is a guidebook titled “Kaon Kita” (Let’s Eat) which was being printed as we went to press.
“Hopefully we will able to professionalize chefs in Albay,” Jao said. There are also plans to improve the quality of the food in schools, and for a rating system for carinderia and street food. As the project coordinator put it: “Hindi dapat iwanan ang mga maliit (the small eateries should not be left out).”