When it was announced that I was going to be Department of Tourism Secretary, I didn’t think people would be that interested in me,” says Bernadette Romulo Puyat. “Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the attention. I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”
Okay, forget for a while that she’s a Romulo, who was married to a Puyat, and is now in a relationship with a Cojuangco.
Forget also that she is perhaps the only Agriculture Undersecretary to be featured in glam photo spreads in the posh glossies.
Her appointment dropped her right in the middle of a storm in DOT: Her predecessor Wanda Teo resigned under a cloud of corruption allegations, dropping the messy and highly questionable P320-million “Buhay Carinderia” project under actor Cesar Montano right in Puyat’s lap.
Then there’s that picture, now an internet meme, of her holding President Duterte’s hand during a public function, the camera capturing a look of astonishment on her face.
Although the photo was later discovered to have been taken in 2014 when Duterte was still Davao City mayor, it has led to some speculation that her appointment came because of the President’s “fondness” for her.
It’s a rather sexist view that ignores her substantial track record: 12 years as Agriculture Undersecretary, serving under three presidents and three secretaries, and before that, 14 years as lecturer and teaching fellow at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, her alma mater.
The incoming DOT secretary is also credited with bringing local Filipino ingredients to the attention of the international culinary world through her involvement in the wildly successful Madrid Fusion Manila event, now in its third year.
So, of course, people are curious.
In any case, Puyat—“Berna” to friends—has come under intense public scrutiny since she took her oath of office last May 14, which happened to be her 49th birthday.
“I’m surprised at all this and I’m really freaking out,” she says. “I didn’t ask for this; it was given to me.”
“People will find this very funny, but I’m an introvert,” she adds. “Normally on a Saturday I just open my laptop and watch Netflix, or do Facebook. My idea of fun is sleeping, and eating.”
Now those are on hold, at least while she puts things right in DOT.
After receiving her marching orders of “no corruption,” the President has given her virtual carte blanche to clean house, including courtesy resignations of all DOT undersecretaries.
“In the past week I’ve cried a river because of all the pressure, and all the things I’ve seen I never thought I’d see,” she adds. “I’ve been in office four days. It’s still surreal. I have to admit I’m a bit scared. But I’m happy.”
Eventually, she hopes, the fuss will die down so she can concentrate on the admittedly daunting task that lies ahead.
Puyat has been fielding interviews all day in the elegant Mediterranean-style home she built with her late husband, the lawyer Dave Puyat, who died suddenly in 2010 after suffering a heart attack.
He is still in her thoughts, she admits, especially after she was appointed.
“I knew he would be happy for me,” she says. “I’m kind of an empty nester now because my son is studying abroad, and my daughter will be graduating from college in July.”
They were her first calls after learning about her appointment.
“All that matters to me is that my children are happy,” she says. “If they weren’t, it would have been hard for me. They know they’ll see less of me. But they’re happy for me and they understand.”
It’s a bit more complicated with her boyfriend, Tarlac Congressman and art collector Charlie Cojuangco.
“We’ve been together for two years,” she says. “He was already complaining about my time when I was DA undersecretary. What more now? We manage to talk to each other, we manage to see each other. It’s a test. But I must admit, it’s a challenge. This is new territory for us. Time will tell.”
With Montano’s resignation from the Tourism Promotions Board, and the investigation of corruption allegations now endorsed to the Commission on Audit, she hopes she can finally buckle down to work.
“One thing I have going for me is, I really believe in what I’m doing,” she says.
Will it still be more fun in the Philippines with you as DOT Secretary?
It will be. Every secretary has his or her own vision.
There is a Farm Tourism Law passed by Senator Villar and Representative Garin. One of the ways to promote tourism is through agri-tourism, where you invite people to the farms and it becomes experiential.
A lot of people as of late have been interested in agriculture. I’m lucky I came from the DA because I know this by heart, so that’s at least one aspect I know I will implement.
The next is culinary tourism. When you go to another country, always on the list is what you’re going to eat and where. You really get to know a country through its food, and you can see it with Instagram and social media.
Will you continue Madrid Fusion Manila?
We’re on our third year with Madrid Fusion, and we’re in charge of all the regional launches where we promote local products, local foods and locals chefs.
Madrid Fusion is an event that is the food world’s way of giving back to the country. I had 45 local chefs, all working pro bono. Even the Enderun students are helping out for free. People donate local ingredients. Our hashtag is always “para sa Bayan.” This is the food world’s way of showing what’s best in the country.
Madrid Fusion, as I’ve said countless times, was a game changer. When I entered the DA, nobody was interested in agriculture. After Madrid Fusion, there was an interest in agriculture. Suddenly there was the idea of farm to table.
All these chefs wanted to join me because they wanted to meet the farmers. They realized how important the farmer is, and how hard it is to grow. Consumers wanted to know where the ingredients come from.
In the first Madrid Fusion we wanted to show the world that we had world-class ingredients and world-class food.
Elena Arzak, the number one female chef in the world, went nuts about the pili nut from Bicol. Andoni from Mugaritz, the number one restaurant in the world, wanted to meet Enting of Sagay, Negros Occidental. Enting is not even a chef, he’s a cucinero, but when he presented his kinilaw, they all went ‘who is this guy?!”
I know I can promote the country through its food. But, of course, that’s only one aspect.
What about Boracay? It has become a negative example of how not to do tourism.
Some people said, “You’re so unlucky, you became DOT Secretary when Boracay is closed.”
I say no, I’m lucky because people now know the value of sustainable tourism: taking care of what we have. In other countries, the beaches are closed twice a year to allow nature to heal.
There are a lot of things we should be doing. You need infrastructure like airports, medical facilities. For tourists to be there, those should all be present.
Boracay will always be Boracay, and when it reopens I will be there. But I want to promote other destinations. My experience in the Department of Agriculture allowed me to experience all those places that are not tourist spots.
When people ask me where you find the best food, of course, you have Pampanga and Negros and Davao. It’s Isabela. They have the best kutsinta made by Manang Irene, and the best longaniza.
Filipinos always serve you food, and usually you just taste, but in Isabela I finish the whole plate.
I went to Camiguin for the Lanzones Festival, and the resorts are beautiful and the food fantastic.
And the Cordillera—because of my experience there, I also want to promote heritage tourism. I want to preserve the indigenous culture.
I was fortunate enough to witness the punnuk, it’s an end-of-harvest festival opened to the public only in 2014 by Kidlat Tahimik.
It’s magical: Three tribes go down from the mountain and meet at the river for a tug-of-war, and whoever wins is supposed to have the most bountiful harvest.
One destination that is fantastic and is run by millennials is La Union. They go there to surf, but they also do coastal cleanup, and they buy only local ingredients so they can support local farmers.
They’re afraid it will become too popular because they know the dangers of overcapacity.
A lot of people make fun of millennials, but all my staff are millennials and they’ve been great—they think out of the box. Ang sisipag nila, and the love of country is there.
And you know what? The first people to get in touch with me and offer their help pro bono are the millennials.
So there’s a lot of goodwill. People have been asking me, “are you scared?” I say “no, I’m challenged.”
This is a challenge for me, but with people helping me from all political sides, all ages old and young, I’m so happy because you need the private sector’s help. The government cannot do this alone.
About that picture of you with President Duterte, some critics seem to think you got the job only because the President is “fond” of you.
Actually, he’s close to the family. My mother was his neighbor in Davao, and my father and he became close because when my father was Executive Secretary, he was the presidential adviser for Mindanao.
That picture was taken in December 2014. I had investors from abroad who wanted to buy cacao, when you think cacao, you think of Davao. That was how I met the mayor. Why did he hold my hand? If you notice my face, I was in shock. The mayor is very playful. He did that once, I said, “What are you doing?” and he’s never done it again.
People say I got the job because the President has a “fondness” for me, but they can look at my track record: I graduated cum laude from the UP School of Economics, took my masters degree, major in public finance, with a magna cum laude standing, I was a teaching fellow and lecturer in the UP School of Economics for 14 years. Then I worked for the National Economic and Development Authority, was appointed a deputy Cabinet secretary with the Presidential Management Staff, and spent 12 years in the Department of Agriculture as undersecretary.
What was that experience like?
I got my appointment papers in January 2007. The first thing I asked (then Agriculture Secretary) Arthur Yap was, “What am I going to do?” and he said, “Make yourself relevant.”
Then my husband died in 2010, (the new Agriculture Secretary) Proceso Alcala wanted me to handle gender and development. I started to go around the country. I was very hesitant. My comfort zone was Manila. Would the farmers accept me? Because of how I look—I’m tisay.
When I started talking to woman farmers, they were wary of me. But as soon as they found out I was a widow, there was an instant connection. Because their priorities are always their children, how to feed them and how to send them to school. As soon as they found out I was a single parent, they knew I could relate to them.
I’ve been to probably more than a hundred farms, and I’ve had to ask myself: How come nobody knows about this? I’ve been so blessed that because of these farm visits, I got to discover not only the food but how beautiful the country is.
Your family is known for public service. Your granduncle was Carlos P. Romulo, the first head of the United Nations. Your father, Alberto Romulo, has been an assemblyman, twice a senator, Executive Secretary, Foreign Affairs Secretary and now chairman of the Development Bank of the Philippines. Your brother Roman was a congressman.
My dad was always compared to his uncle, Carlos P. Romulo. One of the reasons I went to the Department of Agriculture was because it was probably the only department that my dad had no knowledge of.
I wanted to make a name for myself. When I was in the Presidential Management Staff, my dad had been the boss, and I was always compared to my father. But in the Department of Agriculture and now the Department of Tourism, I’m not compared to my father.
I have to give credit to my parents—they taught us not to get used to power, because it can just as easily disappear.
When my dad was DFA secretary, I had to line up for my passport. It took me three hours. The girl said, “Name of father?” I said, “Alberto Romulo.” “Occupation?” “Secretary of Foreign Affairs.” And they were like, “Huh?”
My dad always told me, “Power is fleeting.” It’s always good to be grounded.