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My final Interim Bureau of a fascinating and diverse trip to the Philippines – my first since January 2019 – sees me filing this Blog from the PAGSS Premium Lounge at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3. With a brief store tour behind me, replete with a little retail therapy, it’s time to head back to Hong Kong.
What a week it has been, one of poignancy, reunion and joyous celebration.
The poignancy came with my visit (along with Sunil Tuli, Group CEO of King Power Group Hong Kong) to the Smile Train unit at Philippine Band of Mercy in Quezon City, Metro Manila. You can read about that experience here, a Blog that I hope will encourage you to support our Smile Raising Charity Dinner in Singapore on 6 May.
On Monday and Tuesday evenings, I had the immense pleasure of catching up with Jose Maria ‘Chim’ N. Esteban III, Founder & Chairman of Regent Asia Group and the great pioneer of duty free in the Philippines. Two of Chim’s family enterprises are the ‘suppliers’ (effectively sub-concessionaires) to Duty Free Philippines in the perfume & cosmetics and fashion & accessories categories, respectively. Regent Travel Retail Group also enjoys a powerful and growing presence in the airport food & beverage, news/books/convenience and duty paid retail sectors.
Chim hosted Sunil and me along with his family at a sublime dinner on Tuesday night at Balai Palma Artisan House & Kitchen, a brilliant private dining concept launched by acclaimed (Gault et Millau-awarded) Chef Aaron Isip in the Poblacion district late last year. Private dining? You bet. It’s the Chef’s home.
It’s fiendishly difficult to get a reservation here and upon entering you can instantly see why. First there’s the intimacy (the main dining space on the first floor seats just eight people) and – inspired by what Chef Aaron calls his second home, Tulum Mexico, Balai Palma – the place has a beguiling, homely beauty. The décor is all understated neutral shades, while the dining room features a collection of Aaron’s hammocks, antique pottery, Filipino baskets and hats, copper kitchenware, rattan chairs and more.
Then there’s the food. “I always say I do not want to call my cooking ‘Filipino’ cuisine since it’s not strictly following the traditional codes and such,” Aaron told Manila Bulletin. “But if you think about it, my food has techniques from old Europe, flavours from both Latin America and Asia, and local produce from the Philippines.”
We were treated to a ravishing ten-course meal which ranged from live Halaan clams to ‘Halo Halo Del Mar’, the latter a thrilling combo of Tamarind Shrimp Sinigang (a classic Filipino soup dish), raw Irish Gallagher oysters, Hokkaido scallops and live bamboo shells, and a lot more besides, all laced with a fusion of local and international add-ons. Exquisite. As was the wine selection, all chosen by Chim – a wine aficionado – from his extensive home cellar. Not quite so extensive by the time we finished. An unforgettable evening.
The next day I had the chance for another reunion, this time with Duty Free Philippines Chief Operating Officer Vicente Pelagio ‘Vico’ A. Angala and his two senior colleagues Chief of Staff Atty. Grace Malabed (pictured below left) and Administration Head Atty Riza Paduada (right) over an excellent steak lunch at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
It’s been a tough few years for Duty Free Philippines, which saw sales plunge from US$226 million in pre-pandemic 2019 as border closures devastated the business. A recovery is underway (revenues are projected to reach US$123.5 million this year) but the company is still posting heavy losses and significant restructuring lies ahead. Watch this space.
So much for the reunions. What about the celebration? Simple. My main reason for being in the Philippines was a long-standing commitment (and privilege) to attend the wedding of IPP Travel Retail Chief Executive Officer Phillip Nguyen to his lovely bride Linh.
What an occasion. A beautiful and deeply moving church ceremony and a gala dinner at Shangri-La The Fort in Taguig that simply had everything. Phillip and Linh are a lovely and loving couple and deserve all the joy that surely lies ahead.
It was an honour to be there, one reinforced by the opportunity to spend some more time with Phillip’s father, the legendary Johnathan Nguyen. You can read my interview from last year here – the only one Johnathan has ever conducted with the western press, and I can promise you it’s a compelling one.
“It’s more fun in the Philippines’ runs the Department of Tourism tagline about this remarkable country. It certainly is. ✈