Tony Boy Escalante: The Perils of Perfection

Katrina Lagman uncovers how a self-professed farm boy from Negros went on to steer his small-town restaurant, Antonio’s, into Asia’s 50 Best list

by Rogue, photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Chef Tony Boy Escalante has always been without a definite plan, save for knowing that being stagnant was never an option. In the ongoing search for his place in the world, it’s the world that’s on the brink of discovering him. Katrina Lagman uncovers how a self-professed farm boy from Negros went on to steer his small-town restaurant, Antonio’s, into Asia’s 50 Best list

There is an adage that goes, “Work hard until you no longer need to introduce yourself.” By that measure, one might think chef Tony Boy Escalante has not worked nearly hard enough. For there we were in Antonio’s, his eponymous restaurant that’s been loudly lauded since it opened over a decade ago—where, of all places, he should be immediately recognized—yet several times during the course of our interview, he left our table to introduce himself to customers. They did not approach us, mind you; we were seated outside the main dining area precisely so as not to attract attention. But each time a diner happened to walk by, Escalante would get out of his chair, walk towards them, hand outstretched and smiling, and say, “Hello, I’m Antonio.” He explained to me, “I can’t just look at guests [when they pass by]. This is my home. I call myself Mickey Mouse—and Mickey Mouse has to be in Disneyland!”
The analogy is inadvertently apt, except Escalante isn’t Mickey Mouse; he’s Walt Disney. Just as Disney’s dream was to build “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Escalante’s goal is for his Tagaytay restaurant to provide the most pleasant dining experience. If Disneyland’s Main Street represents the small town America of a bygone age, Antonio’s is a reflection of the home Escalante grew up in—one of elegance, gentility, and old-fashioned manners. In their own ways, the two men share an obsession for creating their idea of the perfect world. And both undeniably succeeded—Disney Corporation is a multi-billion-dollar company and Antonio’s is a multi-awarded restaurant. The latest accolade is the most prestigious yet—the first Filipino restaurant to be included in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, a list compiled by the same people behind The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Guide, considered an alternative to the Michelin Guide.

But perfection has its perils. When something seems too good to be true, we’re compelled to search for flaws to prove that it is. Hence, the fascination with not only “the dark side of Disneyland” (Google yielded 1,380,000 results), but also the rumors that Disney himself, who projected a wholesome, benevolent image, was actually racist, sexist, and even an FBI informant. Perhaps, after all the acclaim, not to mention Escalante’s friends unanimously and repeatedly telling me how humble, genuine, and generous he is, it was that same compulsion which made me wonder: is he really what people say he is, or is there a dark side under the chef whites?

It turns out that uncovering the real Escalante is like looking in a fun house mirror—each perspective showing a different, sometimes contradictory, view. For instance, to hear him tell it, he had an idyllic, albeit simple and bucolic childhood. Summer vacations were spent in their farm hours away from Bacolod, where his favorite plaything was his father’s carabao and its cart, and he swam in the river with the farm workers’ children. “It’s a big part of who I am right now. Probinsiyano talaga!”

Yet, that depiction would seem to belie that he was born to an affluent Ilonggo family. Teddy Montelibano, his friend and fellow Negrense, describes Escalante’s early life quite differently. “Growing up during our time . . . people in our class, we were waited on.” Escalante concedes that his parents, Manuel Escalante Jr. and Azela Montilla-Escalante, came from wealthy backgrounds, but insists that, as the seventh of eight children, he did not. “You know naman how it is in Negros, these big families. And my father was a gambler . . . [later on] he didn’t have so much money anymore.”

Maybe he was simply being modest by playing down his privileged upbringing, or maybe he wanted to make it clear that he is his own man; that he charted his own course rather than depend on his parents. He doesn’t hide the fact that he had a testy relationship with his father. “My dad wasn’t really present. He went to my school only for my graduation, late pa! He and I would always argue. We were totally opposite.”

Even so, when his father dictated that Escalante take up a medical course in college, he acquiesced. Originally interested in Veterinary Medicine, when his dad scoffed, “Mag-me-medicine ka na langsa animals pa!” he took up dentistry instead. Unsurprisingly, although he endured it for five years, he never took it seriously. He spent his time having fun and financing it by selling everything from his brother-in-law’s guapples to pesticides to charcoal, honing his entrepreneurial instincts in the process.

He might have continued on this route—doing, yet not doing, what was expected of him—had his father not left the family. “When my parents separated, I took it hard. I realized I didn’t like what I was taking. Why will I continue something [my dad] wanted me to do, when he left us? When I don’t like something, I have to change it. I’m not the type who can take it sitting down, let it pass. Bahala na si Batman? No.” So, right before exam period, he took off for the beach and spent all his allowance. After which he returned to school, failed the exams as he knew he would, then went home and told his parents he was quitting. As if it weren’t bad enough he dropped out of college, Escalante also refused to work for his dad. Not knowing what to do next, a chance encounter with Mila Abad, then Vice President of Philippine Airlines Inflight Services, led him to become a flight attendant. His father was so upset that, for years, he called him his “waiter son.”

Working in PAL during its heyday had many perks, and Escalante took full advantage of them. His personality was well suited to the job. In fact, he was known as “The Ambassador,” because he’d be the one to take new crewmembers around. And when he’d had a bit too much fun, he had a little trick to get out of flying. “I would put lemon in my eyes so I’d get grounded. Kasi sore eyes is one week. One drop and it’s like one minute of putting acid in your eyes! I’d be shouting in the car before going in to the clinic! I did that mga three times a year. The in-flight center, Nichols, Makati Med—every year, iniikot ko yan!” He snickers at the memory, then hastens to point out, “But when I fly, I really work. No shortcuts, no excuses. I like traveling myself, so I know how it is to be a passenger.”

Of course, the most valuable thing flying allowed him to do was eat at the world’s top restaurants, which he loved. He didn’t know yet he would become a chef, but already he was consciously observing the details whenever he dined out—not just the food, but the interiors, the service, and notably, the appeal of areas like Napa Valley and Hunter Valley, which drew crowds despite being far from the city.

As much as he enjoyed it, he knew the PAL stint would be temporary. When he got married to his wife, Agnes Hechanova, and was ready to start a family, he made plans to leave. He went into business selling corporate giveaways. It’s almost laughable to imagine a necktied Escalante going around Bacolod, peddling his wares. He did that for three years, saving up so that he could resign. But before he could do so, PAL, which had been under strike, retrenched. With his lemon-sprinkled attendance record, he got the ax. So, once more, he had to forge a new path.

Even though he’d been cooking since he was a kid—when he was a Boy Scout, everyone wanted to be in his platoon because he could work magic even on bivouac food, and he loves entertaining so much that he prefers hosting people at home to going out—becoming a chef was not a long-held dream for Escalante. It was all the traveling and international dining experiences that gave Escalante the idea of turning his hobby into a career. “I just thought, magaling ako maglutoSiguro I’ll study, and then this will be the last shot of my life. Make or break.” The real inspiration came when he first went to lunch at Sonya’s Garden in Tagaytay. “When I met Sonya Garcia, I told her, I want a life like yours! After two months, I told her I’m looking for a lot in Tagaytay. Then I went back again to tell her I’m going to Australia to study!” He realized that the destination restaurants he’d seen abroad could also work here. “I wanted a place outside the city with a farm, like Chez Panisse in Berkeley. When my brother and sister visited [the property I bought] because I’d borrowed money from my mom, they asked, ‘What are you gonna do here?!’ But I was confident because Sonya did it and she doesn’t even cook!”

His siblings were certainly not the only skeptics. Escalante’s dad was flabbergasted that after working in a stable job for years, he would go back to school. “He said, ‘There you go again!’ He called me ‘atribido.’ That’s why I really believe, if you have your own life already and you want to do something, you want adventure or whatever . . . don’t consult your family. Because they want you to always stay on the safe side.”

In Australia, Escalante was the opposite of his formerly carefree self. He was mature by then and spending for his own tuition. He chose Regency Park Institute of TAFE in Adelaide to avoid the distractions of Sydney, applied himself, and was third in his class.

Once back in Manila, he took an internship with the Mandarin Hotel’s Tivoli Grill, training under chefs Norbert Gandler and Humphrey Navarro. He chose to work there for four years without pay so that he wouldn’t be transferred to the hotel’s other outlets. Tivoli used to host five guest chefs from abroad every year, and he again happily took on the role of Ambassador—using his natural talent for entertaining to learn as much as he could from the experts.

The other condition to his internship was that he’d have weekends off to spend in Tagaytay. There, with the guidance of the Mandarin’s organic produce supplier and some relatives from Bacolod, he cultivated the farm that would eventually be run by Agnes. He also started cooking for private dinners in the cottage they lived in on the farm. He’d tell customers about his plans and they could see the restaurant being built there, which helped spread the word before it was even open.

Antonio’s didn’t start out as grand as it is now. The small dinners didn’t bring in enough money, so Escalante took out loans. Only Chef Ricky Sison from the Mandarin joined him, and because he couldn’t afford to pay trained staff, he hired non-professionals, some of whom were illiterate. There was no electricity; just a generator. No phone line, either, so he couldn’t accept credit cards. If customers didn’t have enough cash, he’d just take their word for it that they’d come back to pay the next day. Hedging his bets, he even designed the restaurant like a house so that if it didn’t succeed, his family would just live there.

Nevertheless, this is no ordinary-looking house. His vision was no more that of a rustic, countryside eatery than Disney envisioned Disneyland as a country fair. Isabel Lozano, Antonio’s design curator, says that Escalante chose everything from the lanai chairs patterned after his grandmother’s, to the recycled bricks taken from Victorias Milling in Negros, to the hand-picked plants and trees. Despite Escalante’s protestations that he’s a typical “probinsyano,” the restaurant interiors’ understated elegance, studiously trained staff dressed in black and white maids’ uniforms, and relaxed yet genteel atmosphere leave no doubt how he truly grew up. His old friends from Bacolod all agree that Antonio’s resembles his family’s ancestral home. None of it is a put-on; as Montelibano states, “This is really how he lived.”

Food was very important to both sides of the family. He was not the first among them to open a restaurant nor be known for his attention to detail. His paternal grandfather, Manuel Escalante, to whom he credits his flair for entertaining, was famous for his big parties which took many days to prepare for, down to going two towns away just to gather flowers to be strung together for leis for the guests. Several times, Escalante repeated to me what his father always told him: “What’s important in life is what you put inside your mouth and where you sleep.” He elaborates, “What he means is like, ‘Naka-Rolex ka nganagsasardinas ka lang naman!’ And I believe that.”

From his mother, he learned about proper service and meticulousness. Escalante’s mantra to his staff is, “Look for mistakes and you won’t commit mistakes.” What critics might do to tear away the impression of perfection is what he does to achieve it. He says that when he enters the dining room, he can always tell if something’s wrong. “I look for mistakes. Like my mom before, when she checks if the table is clean, she does this . . . (He runs his fingers under the table.) To see if my car is clean, I don’t look at it from the outside. I open the trunk. I look under the seats to see if it’s vacuumed. I look at the things that people don’t see.”

It’s the little touches that most of us wouldn’t notice that set Antonio’s apart. Like how you won’t see a soda can or bottle on the table—if it’s not empty after being poured in your glass, the contents are transferred to a carafe. When I was there, he gently reprimanded the new waitress (trainees are assigned to him first) for taking his used plate away while I was still eating. He felt that, as the host, it might look like he’s rushing me to finish eating. He took the matter so seriously that he called the manager to say that they needed to have a meeting to discuss the correct way. I couldn’t help but think of the TV series Downton Abbey. He hasn’t watched it, but when I told him about its depiction of the very strict, formal ways of service in Victorian times, down to using a ruler to align table settings, he was immediately interested and said he might start doing that too. Somehow, I doubt his staff will appreciate my adding to their already long set of rules. But this is why Antonio’s service rises above the rest—Escalante is never satisfied, never complacent. And when he gets that rare customer who truly appreciates the extra effort, it’s all worth it.

One of those discriminating people is Isabel Kahn. As she and her husband Rene walked past our table on their way out, instinctively, Escalante stood up to greet them. It turns out Isabel was an old acquaintance from PAL. The couple was in Antonio’s for the first time, celebrating their anniversary. Isabel effused, “Let me just tell you, I was so impressed by the service! Your staff is so well trained and so much better than any place else. It’s difficult to impress me—I grew up with the old way of service and nobody does that anymore. When we go out, we’d like to get a better experience than we can have at home. And today? Amazing! It exceeded my expectations.” Escalante beamed. I think it’s safe to say that was the highlight of his day.

It was also his mother who taught him to be a gracious host—to approach people and introduce himself. Contrary to his friends’ assertions about his shyness, Escalante attributes part of his success to his outgoing nature. “I think entertaining is my plus factor. If I’m not busy in the kitchen, I would definitely go down and meet everybody.” That may sound like the stereotypical chef who needs his ego stroked by an adoring public, but it’s more an eagerness to connect with his guests. He appeared shocked when I called him a celebrity chef, but he can’t deny his fame: the night we had dinner at the Fort, we bumped into my friend, Bennii Obaña. When Bennii realized who I was with, the long-haired, black leather-clad drummer spread his arms and asked him, “Can I give you a hug?” Escalante readily obliged. He’d had an even more unlikely encounter with fans over a year ago. He and Agnes were on the Champs-Elysées in Paris when a taxi stopped in front of them, some Filipinos got out, and shouted, “Antonio!” He recalls, “Agnes and I laughed about it a lot. She kept on teasing me. I felt so elated!”

His stellar success makes me wonder if anyone around him had seen it coming; the answer is a resounding “no.” Mariza Buhay Ketcher, a friend from his days at PAL, said that when she first learned about Antonio’s, she was surprised. “I didn’t take Tony Boy seriously before, because he was just fun. He didn’t seem serious. Puro kalokohan.” Montelibano, as well, didn’t know the restaurant would turn out as it has. “I thought the [Tagaytay] property would just be a weekend hangout—that he just wanted to have friends around him.” Escalante doesn’t deny his image as a party boy. “You know, people in Bacolod perceive me as happy-go-lucky, but . . . I’m not. I just don’t share it with others, but I’m responsible. Would you believe I’ve never attended Masskara? I always have work. When I get into something, I’m focused. After just one year of Antonio’s, I built Breakfast. Then on the third year, I did The Grill.” Soon, he will open two new establishments: The Grill will be reincarnated at another Tagaytay location as Balay Daku, which will have three stories and an expanded menu. “I want to uplift the Filipino food scene here [in Tagaytay]. It will be a place for balikbayans to bring their foreign guests.” And finally, Escalante’s iconic dishes will be available in Manila, in a yet-unnamed restaurant. “I’ve said many times, okay, this is enough na. But I’m a workaholic. I like working!”

Escalante’s productivity is especially admirable because when one talks to him, focus seems to be something he doesn’t have. I thought at first he might have just been nervous during our interview, until one of his oldest friends, Christine Sicangco, concurred that he “thinks, talks, and acts a mile a minute.” Ian Carandang of Sebastian’s, who collaborates with him on Antonio’s ice cream, also told me, “The thing that I remember most about Tony Boy is how overflowing he is with ideas about food . . . his brain is buzzing with so many ideas, it’s like the rest of his body can barely keep up.” Carandang’s observation was actually spot-on, as Escalante was diagnosed with ADHD eight years ago. He’s upfront about his condition—after all, by the time he found out, he’d already managed to overcome it on his own. “[That’s why] when I think of something, I do it right away. I’ll wake up at three in the morning if I have to! But one thing I’ve learned is not to expect people to be like me.” Then again, maybe others wouldn’t mind being like him, because not only has his condition not held him back, he has excelled beyond measure.

Escalante has garnered a slew of local and international awards, such as getting into the Miele Guide for five years in a row and winning the Manitowoc Restaurateur of the Year Award in the 2014 World Gourmet Series Awards of Excellence. And now that he’s the first and only Filipino to be part of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants—from the same group as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants whose winners include El Bulli and Noma—he is undeniably on the world stage.

When I brought up the topic of awards, I half-expected him to be reticent. His friends had told me that Escalante is too humble to care about awards and often (like at the recent Manila’s Best Kept Restaurant Secrets awards night) doesn’t show up to receive them. But I’m of the opinion that one should be proud of one’s work, so I’m wary of false modesty and dreaded hearing him say that he just got “lucky.” Fortunately, he never tried to diminish his achievements. “Who doesn’t feel good about awards? I was so sorry about not going to MBKRS, but I just lost the date because of my ADHD!” Nor did he go the “humble brag” route when I asked if he thought he deserved the accolades. “Of course, I worked hard for my restaurant, so it just follows. I love [awards], but I never told my staff to work hard just to win. Antonio’s is not just my business, it’s my passion. I love to deliver!” He did, however, admit to the downside of this sort of attention. “After you win awards, parang nagti-tiptoe ka because you have to live up to it. When I got in the Miele Guide five years ago, I heard bad comments. There are really haters. I didn’t care. I believe if you know yourself, why will you be affected? If there was no pressure, I wouldn’t be different from the others.”

His proudest achievement, of course, is having children with Agnes. Although he makes it clear he doesn’t resent his late father, he’s trying his best to be closer to his sons, Basti and Pedro. As a supportive dad, he goes to all of Basti’s karting races. In an effort to not let the next generation make the same mistakes he did, he imparts his regret about not taking school seriously, which is why he lacks confidence in public speaking. Escalante says that he has turned down many opportunities, such as hosting a TV cooking show, because of it. That’s about as far as he’ll go when talking about his regrets, though. “I don’t dwell on my mistakes. I never dwell on my parents’ separation; I never dwell on the bad things that happen to me; I never dwell on people who hate me—I’d even befriend them. I would rather move forward. I love life. Life is so good to me!”

Escalante’s positive outlook is rooted in something I didn’t expect and wouldn’t have asked about if Sicangco hadn’t told me about it. The avowed party boy confesses, “Maski gago ako, I’m so attached to my faith.” He’s a Marian devotee—he prays the rosary every day, goes to Manaoag every month, and has gone to see Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis. He even supports seminarian scholars. Ironically, in attempting to expose his dark side, I uncovered quite the opposite.

The Tony Boy Escalante I got to know was no saint, nor the exceedingly humble, totally ego-less person his friends made him out to be . . . and for that, I’m glad. But neither did I find the arrogant, self-absorbed celebrity chef I tried to reveal. Like the rumors about Disney, Escalante’s hidden side, while perhaps not entirely non-existent, was greatly exaggerated. The reality is this: he’s a chef; let him cook. He’s a consummate host; let him provide an enthralling experience. And if I can still get a table in Antonio’s after the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award is announced, I’d be more than happy to let him keep his secrets.