Clinton Palanca was 45 years old when he passed away Wednesday. For most of us with an interest in Manila’s food scene, his column appearing every Thursday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer was a weekly habit -- not just to know what was the newest restaurant in town, but more importantly, to find out his views on the food, his opinion of the chef, his thoughts on the concept.
In real life, he was sweet and soft spoken, gifted with a wry sense of humor and an easy smile, but in print, he could be savage. His review of a certain Asian restaurant in Makati some time back was so scathing that not long after his piece was published, the establishment ended up shutting its doors.
In a town with a million-and-one differing opinions about food, and Instagram feeds littered with easy raves, a bonafide restaurant critic is a rare entity. Clinton skewed close to that model— paying for his meals, always offering an honest critique whether good or bad, and steering clear of the usual restaurant launches and media events that food writers and editors tend to flock to.
He was a writer first and foremost, graduating from the Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in Philosophy and English Literature. He wrote fiction and non-fiction alike in his early years. He was also a chef and former restaurateur who was well traveled, and possessed a deep knowledge of food and a chef’s culinary vocabulary. While most knew him as a restaurant critic, he also wrote books on food like My Angkong’s Noodles which delves into the old recipes of Chinese-Filipino families like his own, and his collection of essays, The Gullet: Dispatches on Philippine Food. He contributed stories to various food projects, most recently The Malagos Book of Chocolate together with frequent collaborator, renowned photographer Neal Oshima.
Clinton on ANCX:
Just a few months ago, ANCX tagged along with Clinton and Neal as they visited Angeles City to sample the local fare, with Chef Sau del Rosario as their guide. Not wearing his restaurant critic hat that day, Clinton acted more like a student—inquiring, tasting, and quietly enjoying his way through the carinderias and eateries of the city.
In this digital age, food reviews have become a competition of sorts—What’s the hottest restaurant? What’s the best dish to order? Who’s the best chef in town? Food writers (and influencers) are always in a mad rush to be the first ones to review the latest establishment (better yet if they snag a preview before opening), and give their two cents’ worth of the dishes worth trying. But Clinton’s work operates on a completely different level and reminds us—sometimes sadly not enough—that the inherent pleasure of dining is not about giving a grade or trading in comparisons, but about connecting in a meaningful way to that one singular and intimate experience of sitting at a table and savoring a series of dishes. That connection is always personal, involving not only all of one’s senses, but also of memories of meals past, and of the people one spent those memories with.
His loss is immeasurable to the country’s restaurant industry and food writing community. He is not someone who can be replaced easily or at all, and as food writers, we can only aspire to achieving his level of eloquence and insight. But as we grapple with digital media’s insatiable appetite for quick reviews and “best of” lists, his work can remind us to slow down, savor a meal for that meal’s sake, and perhaps, if we deem the experience meaningful enough to us, write about it with sincerity and discernment.