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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

entry arrow9:00 AM | The KRI Decade

In September 2010, roughly ten years ago, KRI opened along Silliman Avenue with Ritchie Armogenia as its chef and visionary, and with its establishment came a kind of Dumaguete dining that was leaps beyond what came before. There were, of course, other earlier pioneers in the local food scene—chief among them the Fuenteses behind Lab-as—but you could make an argument that a distinct approach to local restaurateuring was honed when KRI appeared on the scene and then perfected in the ten years that followed.

That decade saw KRI grow from a tiny “neighborhood restaurant”—which was how it tagged itself then—to one which soon needed expanding to handle more tables, to handle more specialties, and to handle the growing attention not just of Dumagueteños, but also the growing interests of national food magazine editors, as well as tourists whose guidebooks inform them that when it came to Dumaguete dining, the place to go was K-R-I.

Its success became a model for other restaurants to follow—or if not that, at least provided the energetic impetus with which to brand Dumaguete as an emerging culinary hub in the country. From Adamo to Sobremesa, from Green Chef to Si Señor, from Sinati to Cafe Alima [both sadly gone], most of what we know as Dumaguete dining now owes something to KRI. If anything, it prepared our palette to demand more sophisticated fare—and here we are, in a current dining landscape that is as vast as it is diverse.

I wasn’t there when KRI opened. I was somewhere else on the other side of the world, but every time I’d open my Facebook back in those latter months of 2010, my friends back home in Dumaguete were crowing about nothing else except KRI. There was the matter of prices: nothing on the menu was priced above P99—which was good news for notoriously cheap and very discriminating Dumagueteños. “The goal,” Ritchie told me then, “was to make good food available and affordable to everyone, especially the student market here in Dumaguete. Healthy options need not put a burden in our budgets, and we have all been there, being students eating on a budget.”

He had just arrived home from an extended stay in the U.S. then. After studying culinary arts at the Colorado Institute of Arts, and after stints at Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago (he also trained briefly under Chef Thanawat Bates in 2008 as part of the James Beard Foundation in New York), he had returned to his hometown to try to make his mark in local cuisine.

His initial effort, which we loved, was Likha, a tapas bar at South Seas Resort, which is now The Henry. But together with his cousin Kris Zubiri, his sister Kit, his father Rene, and his wife Iris, he launched KRI—which became an instant success. What they offered was the fusion cuisine that Ritchie had already become known for, but always working with local ingredients and adding a twist to them.

My first favorite dish from KRI was the Negrense Fried Rice, which was comfort food fried rice with tiny bits of carrot, plus some scallions and chorizo, topped with pork belly and then a sunny-side-up egg. It had a texture I found tender and enticing, the taste of the pork somehow lending a surprising softness by the yolky juice that covered the dish. There were other favorites: the sambal chicken with stir-fried vegetables, the herb-crusted chicken breast with lemon caper beurre blanc, the spicy shrimp (sautéed with chili, garlic, and tomatoes) and the marinated tofu, and the oven-braised pork baby back ribs with San Miguel Beer barbecue sauce. And then there was the pad thai—perhaps the best one could find in the city then—and the KRI burger with Swiss cheese and the turkey on ciabatta and the barbecued pulled pork. So many delectable memories.

KRI closed its Silliman Avenue doors shortly before it turned ten, and shortly before the pandemic. But it’s not gone, not entirely. All our favorite dishes are now served under the banner of Esturya along Hibbard Avenue.

What follows is my interview with Ritchie Armogenia at Esturya sometime in September 2020. It has been condensed and edited from hours of transcript.

What made you go from Likha to KRI in 2010?
There was a shift in our hotel business in South Seas. Because of the status of the property, I was forced to do something, an alternative. I thought of another restaurant. Likha only did tapas. And drinks. Nothing heavy. I thought that maybe it was time to give fine dining a try. I thought, let’s do rice—lunch and dinner and snacks. We were just tapping on the student market at that time.

One of the things that I remember from the old KRI was that nothing was above ninety-nine pesos!
[Laughs] Yes! True! I think I just wanted to try. We didn’t want to make the prices too high because we were, like, the new guys in town. Who will be dining out at P150, P180? That was a lot of money at that time! Even until now, P200 is still a lot of money for locals. I thought, okay, let’s give them smaller portions lang. What’s worth the P99? But the place was packed. We were noted for our P99 ribs at that time!

What do you remember to be your best-selling items in the menu?
There was the General Tso’s [chicken]. I think also the burger, the sandwiches, and the salads. The tuna wraps became one of the classics. I must tell you that Likha was an experiment for me. The breakthrough was KRI. Until now, I’m still analyzing what made it work. I think Dumaguete still goes back to comfort food like how the other restaurants are doing it with rice, but I think portion-wise, I will always stick to small. I don’t really want big portions yet because I want everybody to try a bit of everything.

I’ve been theorizing that KRI jumpstarted a decade of good Dumaguete food and good casual fine dining. I thought KRI really influenced how other restaurants have come to position themselves, or how they cook their food, or to open up following your style. Did you ever feel like you were kind of a pioneer for the Dumaguete food scene?
I think probably just in the influencing of new flavors. There were already so many restaurants when I started. Mamia’s was already there. Don Atilano was already there.

KRI was different. In fact, if you remember, some older restaurants reconfigured themselves after your success.
It happens when you’re new and trendy. Adamo, right now, is the trend.

But you were the precursor for Adamo. You could say you paved the way for the likes of Adamo.
I love what Edison Manuel is doing with Adamo. We also have our younger chefs like Gabby Del Prado of Gabby’s Bistro, who has done his share towards Dumaguete dining. His stuff is his own style. Then there’s Sande Fuentes of Lab-as! Sande is still the classic guide for Dumaguete food. And now we also have so many good restaurants in Dauin. Back in 2010, there was no dining in Dauin then.

So you never felt you were groundbreaking for Dumaguete?
No. I think the people were just ready for something new in 2010. It’s just a matter of what—and when—to start something, to slowly introduce culinary innovation instead of something pakalit, which Dumagueteños do not like.

Can you trace for us your development at KRI over the past ten years?
When we started, the menu was mostly catered for students and foreigners equally. But eventually we evolved to catering mostly to foreigners because at one point, those were the strongest customers we were getting. Not too many Filipinos! It made me think, there is a trend here. And then that was when Dumaguete was becoming noted for diving. And tourists like to eat healthy—so we evolved by not just focusing on the taste but also on the nutritional value. Also in the process, like how to blanche the vegetables properly, how to do cooking techniques like roasting, braising, stewing, poaching, frying with respect to the ingredients and how to use them properly also. I’ve mostly learned to balance Western and Eastern flavors, so both sides can appreciate.

What have been the challenges?
“Consistency.” Consistency with my crew, and to make sure they’re able to operate with or without me. Of course, pricing for Dumaguete is a challenge. Sometimes it goes up, then steady, steady for a long time. Before, when people from Manila would come here, they’d be asking, “Why are you charging this low?” I’m like “You don’t know Dumaguete!” This is Dumaguete! And now that this pandemic’s going on, I’ll also be like, “Should I compromise with the quality?” It’s hard. It’s hard because I can’t serve you something I cannot be proud of.

Is running Esturya during the pandemic your biggest challenge right now?
Yes, yes. This is my biggest challenge so far because I know I cannot cut corners. For example, I made stock the other day. I had a bunch of bones. I don’t know how many kilos. So I made chicken stock. I started with a big pot. Six hours, eight hours, reduce it, reduce it pa gyud the next day… Two-day, three-day process to make up the final product—which the customers don’t see, but I “see” it everyday because I want that flavor to explode and to make the dish interesting. Not like, uy, chicken stock ra ‘to, gibutangan ra og Knorr cubes. Or something like that. Our hamburger patties, even our sauces, we make them all with love. We don’t cut corners, even with the pandemic…

And maintaining the machines is a challenge. At this time, I can no longer expect a mechanic to come in from Cebu because of the lockdown. We have ovens and other things to maintain. Who will maintain them? Lisud siya. But at the same time, I’ve learned to become my own mechanic, I just call Manila and ask the company, “What should I do with this in our oven?” So now I understand what to do. And in a way it’s also a blessing.

You do all kinds of other responsibilities, too—consulting, making menus for other family restaurants, catering, etc. How do you manage to juggle all these?
Throughout the years I was in America, I was working under pressure and was always multi-tasking. It was a normal thing for me, so I’m used to the stress. But now, with the pandemic, all of these things have stopped—then I try to get busy, but I’m trying hard to figure out how I did things before. I think it’s consistency again. Everyday, I get busy, with only a few days for relaxation. But now nga taas kaayo ang pahuway, lisud siya. I have to keep myself motivated physically, mentally. To keep myself and my crew going, everyday, because I tell them let’s work like it’s going to be busy, you know? And then I always tell them: it doesn’t matter. Slow day or busy day, you need to perform the best. Because once we compromise, then that’s the start. Relaxed na siya. And where’s the drive? Dili na sila driven. And this kind of business is stressful, especially if you have a family, because I also have domestic duties. It’s not just like I’m working all day and I’m staying in the restaurant. If I wasn’t married, maybe I’ll be in the restaurant 24/7.

Why did you give up on the Silliman Avenue space for KRI?
Because of the dining capacity, we couldn’t cope with it anymore. The dining room at the back was too big. I needed to be efficient, I needed to cut costs, especially right now in order to survive the next few months. That was a nice place though.

Did you ever think you would last for ten years after opening KRI?
Time goes by so fast. The restaurant scene in Dumaguete goes up and down. The tourist crowd—the foreigners, the Koreans, and the Chinese coming—helped. Most places were packed because of them.

And then the pandemic happened.
The tourists are gone. The students are gone. We’re relying on local patrons now. Kita ra gyud.

What have you learned so far from losing your two main clienteles, and this new reliance on local patrons?
The people of Dumaguete love and want comfort food. Sometimes the pizza is a big draw, but it’s Italian. Most locals prefer what they know—rice dishes, you know? The staple, the regular—that’s what makes them happy. This may be the best time to open a Filipino restaurant.

What do you think will happen to the Dumaguete food scene in 2021?
We will still be trying to survive—but there are also new restaurants opening. But I doubt if the mall will open with even more stalls. That depends even more on rental. Rental is a big factor. If you own the place, then of course you can survive. But if you’re renting and your landlord won’t adjust the rent then it will be difficult.

We’re just trying to learn and to do the best that we can at this time. I don’t know. I can’t say what can happen. It depends on certain factors. But again, I ask that question: “Why are we doing this anyway?” And it’s because we love to serve good food, and we want to help Dumaguete out. It’s like when people come, we have something to offer. We appreciate the food that is well-made.

But I think we’re still blessed in Dumaguete. I think we’re still in a good position right now. Let’s count more of our blessings right now. Of course, we’re helping out our employees as well. I didn’t lay off anybody. Bahala’g daghan mi basta, we’ll just make them work na lang. Ipuli-puli ra. But we never know. If we go back to ECQ, I’m ready. I’ve learned from the first ECQ, so I’m ready.

When you say you are ready, what does it mean?
I will still open. Then I will make sure we’ll be efficient this time. We’re ready. We’re ready to survive this.

A pandemic is a weird way to celebrate your tenth anniversary.
I know. I wanted to do one more party in KRI to say, “This is our last day for KRI!” I wanted to do a special menu—. The pandemic has made me really appreciate everything though. I’ve become appreciative of whatever comes, be it a good day or a bad day. As long as my staff, and everyone, is healthy, that’s still the best of everything.

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