Carlo Miguel: Feasting forward

Although the immediate past president of LTB Philippines Chefs Association has finished his term, Carlo Miguel continues to strongly advocate the use of local Filipino ingredients, as well as plant-based dining in the name of sustainability

Could you provide some background about the LTB Philippines Chefs Association?
LTB stands for les toques blanches, the white hats that chefs wear. Our objectives are to advance Filipino culinary chefs, improve culinary standards and make the association relevant to Filipino chefs.

Our members are anywhere between 150 and 180. We make up for (the small number) with quality. Most of our members are very involved and come to our events and support a lot of our charity projects. We could be bigger but I’m happier with a smaller number that’s more involved.

We have three main types of members: professional, individual chefs, and affiliates who are non-chefs like suppliers and general managers but are part of the industry and belong at the corporate level. When we conduct our annual general meetings, only professional members are involved.

How is the Filipino food service industry doing and evolving?
We’ve come a long, long way. When I moved back here after staying in Sydney for over a decade, in the 1990s, the industry was very far behind the rest of the world.

Around the world, the best restaurants were usually not hotel restaurants during the 1990s. However, back in those days, the only good restaurants in the Philippines were usually hotel restaurants. However, they tended to be devoid of creativity. They served up a good plate of food made with good quality ingredients and high-level cooking, but I noticed there was not much of the Filipino chef’s personality coming through. That to me, meant that Filipino chefs and the Filipino industry were not involving.

But the industry has improved by leaps and bounds. The best restaurants are no longer in hotels, and we have a new generation of young skilful and creative Filipino chefs who are bringing Filipino ingredients, cooking techniques and processes to a whole new level.

In what other ways has the industry evolved?
Back in 2007-2008, I used only local ingredients such as roasted coconuts, mangoes, cashew nuts and passion fruits in my desserts, but I could only sell two to three bowls a week. When I changed the ingredients to almonds, champagne-cooked peaches and raspberries, I was selling eight to nine bowls a week because of that mentality that imported ingredients are much better.

This is because previously, people were stuck in the belief that if it is imported, it must be better. These days, local flavours and local ingredients are rising in prominence. Younger chefs are constantly showing how foraged ingredients from provinces around the country can be better than foreign ingredients because they are fresh. Moreover, these ingredients are in our DNA.

Many fine dining chefs are now pushing for local ingredients. French restaurants like Metronome are also highlighting local ingredients, while Filipino restaurant Metiz (No. 48 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023) showcases all things Filipino, using all-local ingredients like pork and chicken.

There are limitations, though. We don’t have beef, and although we are surrounded by oceans, unfortunately, the quality of the seafood that comes to us in the city is terrible. That also has to change. Frozen fish from the other side of the world won’t taste as good as something fresh.

The more demand there is for local seafood, and food providers will have to step up their game. This will also benefit the fishermen and the food service industry. I don’t mind paying a third more for a better-quality, sustainably fished piece of fish. That’s still going to be cheaper than imported seabass.

Do you think that Filipino food is underrated?
It’s not underrated anymore and the cuisine is becoming accepted in the world. This year, the bakery and modern Filipino restaurant Kasama in Chicago received a Michelin star.

Over in Melbourne, Filipino restaurant Serai was awarded Melbourne’s best new restaurant by Good Food Guide and Restaurant of the Year by Timeout Melbourne. Serai offers Filipino dishes reimagined, and cooked over a wood-fired grill.

We even have two Filipino restaurants in Manila – Metiz and Toyo Eatery – in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2023.

What’s your take on food being affordable and inclusive?
We eat food every day. What we do in restaurants touches just a small part of the population. The majority of the population in the Philippines do not have much choice with what their next meal is going to be. They eat whatever they can.

At tech startup CloudEats, of which I am culinary director of, we have 44 different food concepts including the 99 pesos (US$1.80) chicken rice bowl. It’s one of our strongest brands because there is a big untapped market. We sell thousands of bowls each day.

CloudEats was formed in June 2019, and we only sell food through Grab and Food Panda. It is the largest operator of cloud kitchens in APAC. We have 24 kitchens in the Philippines and seven in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Our next target is Thailand then Malaysia.

What about sustainability?
There has to be a big shift away from traditional eating towards more plant-based eating, otherwise, there’s not going to be enough for the entire globe in 2045 or 2050. I’m 46 years old now and it probably won’t affect me. But I have a 13-year-old daughter. What is she going to eat?

We have to start somewhere. If we don’t start, we will run the earth into the ground. We have a unique situation in the Philippines where the majority of the population cannot choose their next meal. But we also have to consider environmental factors, and go plant-based to change the way people eat so there’s enough food for everyone.

Big multinational companies that are in the plant-based business are not enough. What we need to do is ensure that plant-based food has to comprise 80 per cent of the food we eat. However, plant-based meals are still way more expensive and the quality isn’t there. Companies will need to bring the price down.

I have committed to ensure that all my menus will be 20 per cent plant-based by 1Q2024, and I do not think it will affect my profitability.

What’s LTB Philippines doing along this line?
There was a Worldchefs directive to move towards plant-based food a few years ago. Now we have vegan categories in the global chefs challenge, global pastry chef, and global young chefs challenge. At LTB’s recent Philippine Culinary Cup, we had plant-based dessert and meal categories as a challenge to the next generation.

What is LTB Philippines’ connection to WorldChefs?
LTB Philippines is the sole member in the Philippines of Paris-based Worldchefs (The World Association of Chefs’ Societies), the biggest membership of culinary professionals with over 100 chef society members.

LTB recently hosted the Worldchefs’ Asian President Forum 2023, the first time it was held in Asia. The Worldchefs’ Global Chefs Challenge semifinals were also held here, along with the yearly Philippine Culinary Cup.