What President Duterte told new DOT sec Berna Romulo-Puyat

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A tourism campaign focused on food? The new DOT secretary’s agricultural background might just bring one of our biggest assets to the international spotlight. Photo from DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM - PHILIPPINES/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — For the last 12 years of Berna Romulo Puyat’s career, she’s been used to working behind the scenes as an undersecretary. But now, as the new Department of Tourism secretary, the position might take a while to get used to. “Until now,  when people call me sec, I look back and I look for the secretary,” she says in an interview with CNN Philippines Life, during her first day at the job.

Romulo-Puyat has served three presidents. During the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration, she was a consultant to the Presidential Management Staff and then an assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture (DA). She then became the DA undersecretary during the administrations of Noynoy Aquino and Rodrigo Duterte.

Prior to her work in the government, she was a professor at the University of the Philippines where she taught macroeconomics, microeconomics, and taxation.

Majority of her work is in the field of agriculture, helping farmers and bringing in a new approach in promoting the use of local produce and ingredients. It was during her term in the DA that Madrid Fusion came in, the “gastronomy congress” that brings together international avant-garde chefs. The event began in 2015 and has since been a tool for the government to promote local culinary talent and introduce Filipino food, ingredients, and produce at an international level.

Romulo-Puyat has also been bringing in Filipino chefs to farms in different cities and provinces, where they work with farmers and understand the agricultural business better.

“A lot of people have been going to farms, planting, harvesting, etc. to experience it,” says Romulo-Puyat. “It’s been helping people to get into agriculture, increasing the income of the farmers and it’s exactly what we’ve been doing in the department.”

Romulo-Puyat discusses helping farmers around the country, the importance of events such as Madrid Fusion, and how food might be the best tourism tool. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

In your time as undersecretary in the DA, it seems that you’ve found a way to boost the tourism sector of the agricultural industry as well. Should we expect a focus on agricultural and culinary tourism under your term?

Not limited. Culinary is always what we’ve been promoting because ‘di ba when you go to a different country, a different place, you go there for the food. Like when you go to Davao, you have to eat the durian, the marang. You want to go to Camiguin because they have the best lanzones, you want to go to Cebu because you want to try Zubuchon … When you go to Japan, you have your list of where to eat. When you go to Thailand, you go for the street food ...

That’s why we always believe that tourism is the ultimate boost to economic growth. You help the local economy. But of course that’s only one dimension of tourism. I mean that’s why I said I’m coming in and my background is more of food but of course I’m excited to hear the other ways of promoting tourism.

For me kasi food is the most apolitical. It’s there in the table. For example you said na, “Ay hindi masarap ‘yan,” I won’t get offended because we know we have different tastes.

Former DOT secretary Mon Jimenez said promoting a country is like selling a product. Do you believe in that as well?

It is. Definitely. You sell your food. In fact it was funny, I make it a point to go to a province every week, because I visit a farm, and so many people join. I would even joke to people, ano ako, tour guide? Because people really want to come with me, meet the farmers, harvest, actually my work, the DA has been more fun because you share it with friends and … when you meet the farmers, you value them more, you realize how hard it is to grow rice, and you don’t make kuripot na, when you buy heirloom rice, OK lang to spend that much because it’s hard to plant rice or harvest rice. There’s an additional appreciation.

I’m an advocate of slow food, food that is clean, fair, and good. It also encourages you to be a co-producer, not only by buying products that are local, or buying from restaurants that use local ingredients but you also want to be part of the production process, you have to learn how a farmer grows rice, harvests rice or fruits, etc.

Chefs like Gaita Forés have planted rice with me. It was the first time she planted rice and she cried because she didn’t realize how hard it was to plant rice and I think she said that in a lot of her interviews. One time, Jordy Navarra, he’s one of the awardees for Asia’s 50 Best, called me up and [asked], “Berns, can I go with you to Guimaras? Because I want to serve Guimaras mangoes in my restaurant. And I want to meet the farmers.” It’s so nice that a lot of farmers now [are interested in local produce]. When I was younger, local produce or ingredients were considered inferior. Now that’s not the case, people want to buy local.

There was a perception that Madrid Fusion was only about high-end tourism but you mentioned in your interview with Pia Hontiveros that the event was, as its name suggests, a fusion of two culinary worlds.

Precisely. Everyday we had local chefs cooking for the guests using local ingredients, etc. and we had themes. The first year we had Luzon Visayas Mindanao, all dishes and ingredients. The second year, the first day it was about street food, second day was breakfast food — because Filipinos love breakfast — and the third day it was all about panlasa because we like it very sweet, etc. Last year it was ingredients. The first day, it was all about rice, some of our chefs got heirloom rice, brown rice, organic rice. Second day was nose to tail, people keep thinking it’s only sisig but I had nose to tail cacao, coconut, that means nothing is wasted. The third day was about corn, all the dishes were corn-based. Some people were saying Madrid Fusion was just promoting imported products … when it comes to agriculture … it was a game changer. After the Madrid Fusion, not only the chefs but also consumers realized we had good local ingredients.

I read that you were strict as a leader.

Well, lalo na that we deal with money, this is the money of the people so you make sure that the money is spent well, no kurakot, and that you know it goes to something good for the people and the country.

Especially now in the wake of the controversy of former DOT secretary Wanda Teo, transparency will be a big issue. How do you plan on making that happen?

As long as they’re properly bid, everything has to be bidded out. I’m not saying that she didn’t. But with me, everything has to pass through the process.

You mentioned nga that you wanted to check the Buhay Carinderia project because there are claims that it didn’t go through the right process.

Yeah because I’m not sure if … then again I can’t judge TPB. There probably was a proper process but then I read an article by Boo Chanco saying that they got an advance of 80 million and yet the project hasn’t even started yet. So now I wanna take a look at it. Let’s say Cesar goes “O baka ganito kami…” As long as you can liquidate it naman eh … we’ll see.

(Update: as of this writing, the project has been put on hold)

You also met with former DOT secretaries Mon Jimenez and Wanda Teo. What were your learnings from them?

With Wanda Teo, be careful with everything you sign. With Mon Jimenez, he was saying that basically, it was just more of telling me on how to deal with the private sector, how to best do my job and thanked me for saying that we’re not gonna change the slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines” because it works. If it ain’t broke, why fix it.

At the end of the day, money is not important, it’s your reputation that’s important. When you’re not corrupt, people will see it, people will be inspired.

There was an ad in the New York Subway of “It’s more fun in the Philippines” and was plastered with a sticker that said Its more deadly in the Philippines. How do you deal with an issue such as this?

No, when you go abroad, you see all these Filipino restaurants, Bad Saint in Washington D.C., there’s a long line just in that restaurant; in LA you have Lasa, Sari-Sari, and people — Americans ha — are lining up to eat. You know it’s easy to sell food and now you see everybody saying na Filipino food is the next big thing and it’s more of continuing the momentum. I remember Mon Jimenez said it’s all about momentum and there already is a momentum.

For me kasi food is the most apolitical. It’s there in the table. For example you said na, “Ay hindi masarap ‘yan,” I won’t get offended because we know we have different tastes. But I noticed that with food, when I post, it’s so apolitical and we really have fantastic food.

I remember I posted, for me ha, the best kutsinta in Isabela, everybody was texting me, “Mag-uwi ka!” In every place you go to, there’s always a dish that its known for. In Isabela, when you think of a culinary destination you think of Pampanga, or Negros, or Davao. But for me Isabela has the best longganisa, the best kutsinta, and they have what you call then serkele, it’s a soup like dinuguan and it’s fantastic. And you can only get that if you go there. The pancit cabagan is fantastic. And when you go to Tuguegarao they have batil patong naman… it’s like every place you go to they have a different pancit, or even lechon, like in some places they put tamarind inside, in Visayas they put batuan, some put lemongrass and it depends on what ingredients are available. And they all taste different, they’re all masarap.

A lot of Filipinos are now exploring the country. How do you plan on capitalizing on that momentum?

I noticed that a lot of people exploring the Philippines are millennials. They post it on Instagram and I’d like to tap the millennials — actually all my staff are millennials. And I’m so happy because they give me this perspective that I would normally not have. I’m very lucky because a lot of the people now who are offering their help are millennials or even teaching me how to post! A lot of people, it’s so funny they complain about millennials, me I’m fortunate but the people I work with are fantastic. They’re masipag, they have love for country, they love local. It’s so in to buy local and for me that’s the millennial influence.

You mentioned sustainable tourism. How do you make sure that it’s more than just a buzzword and something that is implemented in the long term?

You have to make sure that the food is sustainably produced, no chemicals, the soil uses organic fertilizer or for example, for fishing, no dynamites, it should be handline fishing, etc. These little things. You have a sustainable restaurant which would get a produce that is near the place, the lower the carbon footprint, the better.

With sustainable tourism, I’m sure you’ve been to La Union, the people there are very particular about trash. They have the ridge to reef program … they want to limit the number of tourists, they know that there’s a tendency for it to overflow.

Especially in light of the Boracay closure …

Yes. So I always believe in you boost tourism without harming the environment, which is what they are doing in La Union. I love them because [they don’t think na] more people, more money, but no, they just want to maintain [the environment]. If these millennials can do it [there], you can do it everywhere.

It’s just your first week on the job. What’s the number one thing that you want to improve on?

It sounds so basic but the first thing the president told me was no corruption. That’s it. At the end of the day, money is not important, it’s your reputation that’s important. When you’re not corrupt, people will see it, people will be inspired. Especially because my staff is young, I’d like to think that they would want the people they are working with to be honest. It makes you want to do more for the country. It’s so basic, no corruption, but it’s not basic pala it’s such a huge undertaking.