THE KING is dead, long live the king. The popular phrase has been used to symbolize continuity; that in an institution like a monarchy, while the head may die, the show goes on.
Alba’s opened its 5th branch last week, its first since its founder and De Alba family patriarch Anastacio de Alba (more popularly known as Don Alba, sometimes called the Paella King) died in 2016. The starts in the 1950s when Mr. De Alba arrived in the Philippines in February 1952 to train the cooks of Casino Español. He fell in love with the country and opened Alba Cocina Española, a modest five-table eatery at Isaac Peral (now UN Ave.) and later transferred to a bigger location near Luneta in Florida St. (now known as Ma. Orosa). Affluent Filipino patrons (lawyers, politicians, businessmen, cabinet members) and tourists frequented the restaurant. News spread that even Spain’s Prince Juan Carlos and wife Sofia dined at Alba when they visited the Philippines. The phenomenal popularity of his restaurant encouraged Mr. De Alba to expand. Nine years later, he opened two more fine-dining venues specializing in Spanish cooking: Alba Restaurant and Supper Club (along Dewey Blvd, now Roxas Blvd.) and Taberna Gitana (in Quezon City). A few years later, the Alba chain of restaurants was born to include La Parilla and Patio Flamenco, both on Roxas Blvd.; Jardin de Alba in Greenhills, Alba Patio de Makati, now also known as Alba Restaurante Español. He also added a unique and opulent nightspot called Las Cuevas, and, finally, one that he considered one of his greatest pride, La Mancha.
Mr. De Alba was succeeded by both his son and daughter-in-law, husband and wife team Miguel and Cachelle de Alba. Asked how it felt to open a restaurant without “Papa,” as they call him, Ms. De Alba said, “Very sentimental.” Meanwhile, her husband said, “We poured everything here. Heart, soul, lahat (everything).”
The new branch, on the second floor of Capitol Commons’ Estancia, will serve as the brand’s flagship restaurant, featuring a life-sized portrait of the senior De Alba, and his story along the walls. His favorite quote about service — “Todo lo que yo deseo desde el momento que llegan que le sirvan con esmero” (All that I desire from the moment you arrive is to serve you with care) — is on a wall, while his memorabilia is displayed on another wall. This includes his first contract, which gave him P500 a month (then a princely sum), and his Order of Isabella the Catholic which is awarded by the Crown of Spain in recognition of services to the country: in Mr. De Alba’s case, it was promoting Spanish cuisine outside the country.
The Spanish culinary scene has changed drastically since the Alba restaurant story began in the 1950s. While Spanish cuisine turned to molecular gastronomy the 21st century, Alba’s salpicao, cochinillo, and lengua all remain. Stagnation? No. “Even if there’s an urge or temptation to go modern or change it, it’s been working. It’s traditon that you pass on from generation to generation,” said Ms. De Alba.
Mr. De Alba says, meanwhile, “We strive to do what we do best: we do our food traditionally, the way my father would cook it.”
The junior Mr. De Alba, with the prompt of modernization, began to think about the years ahead, building on the legacy left behind by his father. “If you graduate from culinary school, how you wish you could be your own person; do your own restaurant. In my case, it’s different. I would say that it’s much harder to maintain somebody else’s work.”
BusinessWorld joked that since his father was the Paella King, the younger De Alba would surely be Paella King now. Mr. De Alba said, “To live up to that — it’s been hard to fill the shoes of my dad. It’s too much pressure, but I decided one day: just take it easy. I want to continue the business. I want to make people happy. I want to keep the legacy alive.”
And what’s a monarch without his people? “I work hard with our people. You can’t do it by yourself. I have tons of people to fill it in (his father’s figurative shoes, that is) with me.”
“I just give it my best, day by day.” — Joseph L. Garcia