The Experience Economy and Other Things We Learned From the Culinary Heritage Workshop with Ige Ramos
When it comes to food, how much is our money’s worth? We had dinner at this new restaurant a few nights ago. [Writing this comes with the best effort at concealment. Our mantra has always been this: if we don’t like a Dumaguete restaurant’s fare, we’ll try our very best to resist the temptation to write a review — even though bad reviews are so tempting to do. Because we’d rather champion what we love, to be honest.] In any case, this restaurant was something we had not tried before. Ian always felt a strange kind of resistance whenever we passed by it, but he soon changed his mind, and we got ourselves a table — and we ordered a chicken dish for Ian, and a pork dish for Renz. Neither dish was filling or tasty.
And the service left a lot to be desired — even if the staff tried their hardest to be polite.
And we were eaten by mosquitoes.
And when we got the bill, we were floored to see the sum of a thousand pesos for bad dinner.
Where did it all go wrong?
Mostly, the food. We run by a simple philosophy in our culinary adventures: the food should be good, and better if it comes with an experience we can cherish later. Because that’s the thing that makes us come back, right? Sure, we can excuse the worst of atmosphere, and the rudest of staff, and the deadliest of mosquitoes, and even the steepiest of prices — but the food must be good, and also commensurate to the price tag it comes with. What’s worse than a meal bereft of flavor and soul is a meal that doesn’t justify its exorbitant bill, that falls short of the value attached to it.
The end of pandemic lockdown is upon us, whether we like it or not, and it’s mostly back to business as usual, but now we have a race for patronage with pre-pandemic restaurants and pandemic-era ones [and there’s a lot of them!]. Given the inflation, some of these are bound to bite the dust — but we think the ones that will survive are those that are unstinting in their quality, mindful of their pricing, aware of the value of experience, and also solicitous of the local palate. That last element is the hardest one to pin down because it involves a knowledge of the local food heritage, and a respect for it. We have a friend who recently bristled at a foreigner’s suggestion that our tablea was “unrefined chocolate,” with too much of a “burnt” taste: “I don’t get why he would denigrate our local tablea as ‘unrefined’ — that’s exactly how we want our tablea to taste like. And why dismiss ‘burnt’ as a taste marker? Filipinos love a ‘burnt’ taste. That’s how we enjoy our grilled pork fat and everything else!”
Last March 18, a Saturday, we had the opportunity to place all these in context with culture and entrepreneurship, in a day-long workshop and lecture by one of the country’s leading voices in culinary heritage and cultural entrepreneurship, Ige Ramos, at 58 EJ Blanco.
Ige came with an invite from Slow Food Dumaguete/Negros Oriental organizers [in particular, Bea Misa-Crisostomo of Ritual] and the workshop was a jampacked event — perhaps with its participants enticed by Ige’s resume. A book designer, food writer, and visual artist, he runs IRDS/Republic of Taste Food Network, a platform for his publishing, book design, and independent research projects in edible design, comparative gastronomy, food history, anthropology, and public policy. He has designed some of the most important and influential food-themed books and cookbooks in the country, including Simply Delicious, Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit, and Bakery Traditions, The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521–1935, Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter, Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine, Salu-salo: A Celebration of Philippine Culinary Treasures,¬¬ The Aristocrat Stories: Since 1936, Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines, and The Ultimate Filipino Adobo: Stories Through the Ages. On his own, he has written and published Lasa ng Republika: Dila at Bandila — Ang Paghahanap sa Pambansang Panlasa ng Filipinas, Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine, and Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa with Essays on Her Life and Work. He also calls himself a cultural entrepreneur, which he defines as someone who is “a cultural change agent and resourceful visionary who organizes cultural, financial, social, and human capital, to generate revenue from a cultural activity that benefits a community.” It is in that capacity that he undertook the Dumaguete workshop — which he also did in Bayawan and Bacolod soon after. He considers being a cultural entrepreneur as a kind of “activism,” because it “valorizes the local as the new premium in the experience economy.”
This is where we first marveled at the workshop — because most of us in attendance were doing exactly what the concept entailed, but now we had a word for it. In terms of culinary culture, experience economy means “giving or ascribing value or validity to something [e.g., by raising or fixing the price or value of a commodity],” particularly that which “belongs or relates to a particular place,” and declaring them as “premium” or of superior quality, and therefore should command a higher price. Ige explains: “In the twenty-first century, designing and selling experiences [have] eclipsed the manufacture of physical things. An experience stirs emotions and generates memories. It embraces dramatic action, sensory engagement, and temporal interaction with users. During an experience, users create meanings and associations that become more important than the event itself. The experience economy has changed the way commercial companies design and deliver products. The experience economy has also changed how schools, hospitals, museums, and other organizations provide services to communities.”
You can give a literary tour of Dumaguete places, for example, highlighting spots that appear in Philippine literature — and end it with a sale of local books. [You give consumers an experience of literature come alive.] You can take people to the coffee shop in Baslay, Dauin — and sell coffee made from beans cultivated by local Baslay farmers. [You give consumers the experience of locally produced coffee unavailable elsewhere.] Experience is the key. This is how musicians make money now in the age of Spotify: they go on concert tours, maximizing that experience of live music by selling merchandise [including albums] on the side.
Ige cites Don Norman’s Three Layers of User Experience, where we start with the visceral [“The colors of that homemade ice cream look beautiful”] and the behavioral [“That homemade ice cream actually tastes good!”], and proceeding to a future reflective stage [“I enjoyed eating that homemade ice cream, and I’d like to try it again”]. The rise of the experience economy also entails going from mere commodity to hyper-local/full-bodied experience, employing more design features that makes it more expensive — because the experiential entails providing a memorable event.
Take coffee, for instance: you start with the basic commodity — the beans — which comes cheap for the most part. You take it higher, and it becomes a basic product, like Kopiko — packaged instant coffee for daily use. You take it even higher, and you get service coffee, like the one from 7–11 — no frills coffee from a convenience store. You take it even higher, and you get Starbucks — which gives you ambience, and wifi, and air-conditioning. The highest level of the experiential is to turn coffee into a hyper-local experience — serving it in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and promising some singularity, like a unique culture or location. The challenge of course is for cultural entrepreneurs to put a premium to their efforts — but at the same time still make it accessible to the locals, and also not short-change the producers of the basic commodity [like the farmers of coffee beans].
Ige gave specific examples of experience economies he found successful — which include tourism in Faeroe Island, Denmark [where you pay to just unwind with locals as they go about their daily tasks], tourism in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia [were you pay to stay in a farmer’s hut in the middle of a rice field, and participate in local customs and rituals], and a homestay he undertook in Basey, Samar [where you pay to stay with local families and eat the food they prepare for their daily meals].
From his own efforts, he cited doing a DIY tour in 2016 called “Sampalan ng Side View Mirror sa CaviteX,” a project he did on Facebook where he posted pictures of local food vendors that could be found along CaviteX [a series of highways in Cavite], giving specific descriptions of what they could offer, and pinning their locations for people to find. It was a huge success, with many people liking the posts and taking on the tour on their own, and sampling the food stuff that the vendors offered. It was so successful that he soon got contacted by Cavitex officials themselves — who commissioned him to do an official food tour for them. What came about was “Viaje Feliz x Lasa ng Republika,” which attempted to connect local gastronomic and cultural communities of Cavite via CaviteX, something he accomplished by taking on a two-week study of the project, identifying the problem [how to promote the local culture, gastronomy, history and traditions of the smaller coastal towns of Cavite], the threats, the weaknesses, the strengths, and the opportunities it entailed. Having identified the factors, he managed to design a culinary event that was also a huge success — and was followed by two more culinary showcases for Cavite.
On the challenges of Philippine gastronomy, he began by doing away with the question of “What is Filipino food?” and opted instead with a better question: “How does food become Filipino” — taking note of how much of our culinary culture is really a mixture of many influences, making it difficult to ascertain what is “pure” Filipino. “There is no such thing as ‘pure’ anyway,” he said.
Still, Ige insisted that we continually look at food through the lens of cultural glasses — following the philosophy of Franz Boas — but in his research, he could not find a proper framework to distill his findings, so he made his own theoretical framework instead, which mixes the lens of ingredient, geography, ethnicity, and technology, leading to combined lenses of terroir, community, trade, and culinary, and leading further to various lenses involving space. [It’s all too complicated to include here, but it was an interesting development of succeeding Venn diagrams.] Part of this is looking at the usual markers for taste — sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami, as well as spiciness, astringency, and oleogustus [pertaining to fat as a medium that carries flavor] — but also knowing that Filipinos have taste markers that cannot be defined by these things, including the specificities of raw fish, of coconut water, of green fruit, of patis with calamansi and sili, of alagaw, of palapa, of pork fat, of pig’s blood, of balut water, of rendered oil from chicken skin, of bagoong, of batwan, of mabolo, of katmon, of bile, of annatto.
Ige also talked about how hard it is to put a “standard” to Filipino food. Like the adobo. Most people think that the adobo comes with bay leaf, with black pepper corns, and with soy sauce, and that all these should be part of the “standard adobo,” but in his studies, he found out that the oldest recipes for adobo do not even call for these things. They are recent additions to the dish!
He ended with the insight that a good sense of local gastronomy involves the following things: valuing the palengke or tianggue as public space and cultural hub; valuing the carinderia as a gastronomic ecosystem of taste, trust, and tradition; valuing nature as being definitive of our food culture, and the source of our traditional and heirloom ingredients; valuing our living food heritage tools, technology, and infrastructure [which may be disappearing fast because of “progress” and politics — citing for example the Philippine salt law, which has wrecked havoc on traditional salt-making in the country]; valuing living food heritage methods; valuing farm-to-plate eating as a culture of sustainability; and valuing cooks as repository of heirloom ingredients and knowledge.
How do we preserve all these?
By documenting our heritage food in cookbooks, even in rudimentary ways.
By saving our food heritage and culinary traditions as much as we can.
And by telling our food heritage stories.
What was most enriching about the workshop was the chance to convene with like-minded individuals, friends and strangers alike, with whom we shared a similar vision of culinary heritage. We were cooks, and divers, and writers, and entrepreneurs, and teachers, and chefs, and socialites — all supportive of a future that enriches the way we relate to each other and the way we relate to food. We learned that not every meal should revolutionize our taste buds, and food shouldn’t be a luxury unattainable to a majority. At the very least, a meal should be filling and nutritious at any price point. What’s terrible about the hellscape we call the present world is that a statement like that feels rebellious when it should be the standard we aspire to.
The workshop with Ige was punctuated with a simple smattering of merienda food sprawled all over a tiny kitchen island table. We had bilao lined with banana leaves serving biko with ginger and calamansi, budbod with muscovado, and linuyang rolled in pinipig and dessicated coconut. We paired these delectable offers with water, coffee, and sweet tuba. All the food were sourced from within Negros Oriental and made by local cooks and chefs. Everything was delicious.
A final thought with regards sustainability: a great meal can come from any origin, any upbringing. If paying for it means our farmers, fisherfolk, grocers, butchers, bakers, and cooks get to eat their next meal, wouldn’t that make what we eat a little bit better?
[Written with Renz Torres]