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Out to redefine dining experience

Posted on October 07, 2015

Antonio Agustin Escalante
Escanova Ventures, Inc.

SINCE he was in high school, Antonio Escalante, 49, has always looked for opportunities to make a sale, such as charcoal from the mountains in Negros and the guava his brother would grow and harvest. He was a third year dentistry student when he decided that it wasn’t the right path for him. He then left school and found a job as a flight steward for Philippine Airlines. Eventually, he left the airline to pursue culinary studies at the Regency Park Institute of Tafe in Adelaide, Australia.

Before leaving for Australia, he had acquired a small property in Tagaytay, Cavite and hired two gardeners to convert it into a small farm. He envisioned the farm to be self-sufficient, where he could grow his own herbs, vegetables and other produce. After completing his culinary studies, Mr. Escalante came home and took up an internship at the Mandarin Oriental’s Tivoli Grill.

His arrangement was a bit unique. “They wanted to hire me full time but I said ‘no,’ because they might put me somewhere like in banquets or another position I did not want,” he recalled.

For three years, Mr. Escalante worked without pay in the kitchen of Tivoli Grill on weekdays. His arrangement with the hotel was that he could keep his weekends free so he could cook for paying guests at his home in Tagaytay.

He recounts, “As long as you’re a group of 10 I will cook for you. It started from there and then I started adding gardeners and also hiring the staff from my home.”

In 2002 Mr. Escalante opened Antonio’s, which began with a very small team. “I was doing the purchasing, the cooking, answering the phone and taking reservations. I only had one professional cook, the rest of the staff came from the province,” he recalls.

Antonio’s is located in a Spanish colonial-style house. Mr. Escalante says that his menu reflects Filipino culinary heritage, his passion for fresh farm produce and diverse world cuisine influences. Every dish keeps the natural flavors of top-quality ingredients, many of which are grown at Antonio’s own farms.

One of the problems Mr. Escalante encountered at the start was capital. He recalls: “Considering that in 2002, we opened a restaurant literally in the middle of nowhere, I could see why banks were hesitant to grant us loans.”

He overcame this challenge with the support of a regular customer who then headed a bank.

Another challenge has been hiring competent staff. With this in mind, he offers employees compensation at par with those of Metro Manila restaurants.

In the early days of Antonio’s, Mr. Escalante invested in improvements to the restaurant, including upgrading the kitchen and buying a generator to provide power in case of outages. “It started really small like a backyard thing. I was just lucky that within two to four months it became a full-blown operation,” he states.

Mr. Escalante opened Breakfast at Antonio’s a year later, a casual restaurant that serves breakfast all day.

In 2004, Mr. Escalante opened The Grill by Antonio’s, which he closed recently and replaced with Balay Dako, also in Tagaytay.

His restaurants cater to various types of clients -- from those seeking fine dining to those looking for casual, more affordable options while maintaining the quality of food and service.

With many fine dining options in Manila, Mr. Escalante realized he had to ensure that Antonio’s stood out, particularly in terms of dining experience and service. “We pride ourselves in showing that Antonio’s goes beyond food. It’s also the service, the ambience, what things look like. We take into account all the little details.”

Mr. Escalante has received various awards. At the 2014 World Gourmet Series Awards of Excellence, he garnered the 2014 Manitowoc Restaurateur of the Year Award. Antonio’s became the first and only restaurant from the Philippines that was included in the 2015 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. It is also the only Filipino restaurant to be included in The Miele Guide’s Top 20 Restaurants from 2008 to 2013.

He plans to offer training on how to become good chefs or waiters, and hopes to get participants certified by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. “This is my way of giving back to the community,” he said.

With Tagaytay becoming a popular venue for weddings, he is also positioning Balay Dako as an affordable, value-added option.

To those hoping to venture in the same business, Mr. Escalante says: “Be really focused on what you want to do. Invest time and effort and stick to your budget. Take risks, all businessmen do.”

The official airline of the Entrepreneur of the Year Philippines 2015 is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, operating on behalf of the Air France-KLM Group in the Philippines. Media sponsors are BusinessWorld and the ABS-CBN News Channel. Banquet Sponsors are Alaska Milk Corp.; Bench; Bounty Fresh Food, Inc.; Fiori Di M; HSBC; Hyundai Asia Resources, Inc.; Jollibee Foods Corp.; Manny O. Group and Universal Harvester, Inc. Winners of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2015 will be announced at an awards banquet at the Makati Shangri-La hotel on Oct. 14. The Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines will represent the country in the World Entrepreneur Of The Year 2016 in Monte Carlo, Monaco in June 2016. The Entrepreneur Of The Year program is produced globally by EY.