If you’re into local brews or are a salad fan, chances are you’re already familiar with the brand Gourmet Farms. You may have bought their brand of beans, mixed greens, culinary herbs, or salad mixes in the supermarket on a number of occasions. Or you may have been on a trip to Tagaytay and stopped over at its roadside diner in Silang, Cavite, for coffee, snacks, and pasalubong.
The ‘Gourmet’ brand is familiar because it’s been around for over four decades. Ernest Escaler, gentleman farmer, intrepid traveler, and avid cook, is its founder and CEO, the man who started it all. Escaler has worn many hats in his lifetime—he’s been an estate manager, a project developer, a restaurateur, an orchid grower, an organic vegetable farmer, and a coffee trader.
He started in coffee trading and production in the late 1970s. His goal then was to make available to Filipinos the best coffee beans from all over the world, elevate their taste in coffee, and convince them to switch from instant coffee to Gourmet Coffee—the only brand that dared to compete with imported roast and ground products at that time. He also wanted Philippine coffee beans to be recognized globally.
To embark on this mission, Escaler purchased the German-made Probat roaster, considered the “Rolls Royce of Coffee Roasters.” He housed the commercial roasting facility at his property in Silang called Gourmet Farms.
“This used to be a two-hectare orchidarium in the 80s,” Escaler says about the farm. In 1986, when salad-eating and organic farming were starting to gain popularity, he decided to convert the said property into a sustainable organic farm. “Orchids are heavily dependent on chemicals, and organic farming doesn’t use chemicals. So I decided to sell my orchids.”
The man started to grow lettuce and various kinds of cooking herbs in the property. But he realized the Filipino market was not ready for it. “[Filipinos] were not used to eating salad or using fresh culinary herbs. At that time, only the real chefs know that fresh herbs are better than dried herbs,” Escaler recalls.
When the guy sold his vegetables to the groceries, they would just spoil—and so what he did eventually was give away some of the harvest to convents and seminaries. And when his manager told him they needed a truck to bring his produce to the market, he asked how much a truck would cost. After being told it’s going to set him back P250,000, he said “Why don’t we just make a restaurant with the P250,000?’”
And that’s how Gourmet’s Café started.
Escaler considers the opening of Gourmet’s Café in 1989 as his big break in the F&B industry. The restaurant’s main attraction was its salad bar, its range of pasta dishes, and freshly brewed coffee. “I would say that I taught Filipinos to eat a salad and to appreciate brewed coffee,” Escaler was once quoted in an interview. Meanwhile, another publication crowned him Father of the Farm-to-Table Movement.
If the last time you’ve been to Gourmet Farms was back in the late 80s and 90s, you probably remember only a 30-seater nipa hut standing by the roadside. Like the brand itself, the farm has expanded thru the years. From the initial two hectares, Escaler was able to acquire the adjoining properties over time until it became the 12-hectare estate it is now.
He grows kale, coriander, rosemary, kaffir lime, tarragon, dill, parsley, and different types of lettuces. “We have no tractors here, only carabaos and farmers,” Director for Franchise Operations Paolo Quimson offers. “If we mechanize things, people will lose their jobs.”
It’s a beautiful, well-maintained farm. Hard to imagine it was ravaged when the Taal Volcano erupted in early 2020. “All the initial crops we planted, sunog lahat. It was like driving into a black and white movie,” Quimson recalls. The farmers had to cultivate the soil five times and wait for the sulfur to wash away before they could plant anew.
Apart from plant-growing, there’s also a soul-nurturing facet to Gourmet Farms—an area of the property was developed to become a space for meditation and reflection. It’s called The Sanctuary, a half-hectare compound inaugurated 15 years ago comprised of a guest house with 10 rooms, a chapel, a conference center, and an outdoor pavilion. Escaler, who once entertained the idea of entering priesthood, goes on retreat about once a year to rest and renew his energies.
There was a time in the 2000s when busloads of students would come to the farm for a tour. For now, tours are limited to families, but Quimson says they are developing Gourmet Farms to become an eco-tourism spot. “We’re moving towards that,” he says. “[Escaler] wants that to be his legacy.”
It’s impossible not to smell the aroma of fresh herbs and roasted coffee beans when you’re at the farm. But the Gourmet Farms experience would not be complete without The Dining Room’s menu offerings.
If you’re coming in the morning—and we suggest you do—you can enjoy its Roman-inspired breakfasts, featuring a selection of salads and sandwiches. We love the Pancetta Egg Sandwich—that’s pancetta, creamy scrambled eggs, tomato and rocket, in a soft coffee brioche bun. The Superfood Bruschetta—toasted bread topped with avocado mash, rocket, smoked salmon, and poached egg—is a hearty delight. If you like Filipino breakfast, they have silog offerings too, just choose your ulam: naked longganisa, rosemary adobo, pot roast tapa, bangus, lamayo or smoked tocino.
But whatever you pick, we suggest you end your meal with a bite or two (or three) of the Maritozzo—that’s Roman soft bread filled with luscious whipped cream.
If you decide to do your farm tour first, you may decide to enjoy lunch after. The Dining Room’s executive chef Enrico “Ico” Molera and his team offer a full menu consisting of soups, starters, salads, mains, and desserts. We had the Artichoke Fritti (fried artichokes with aioli), Sauté di Cozze (sauteed mussels with garlic and herbs), Gourmet Pizza (with prosciutto, shrimps, zucchini, and blue cheese), Gnocchi al Forno (baked blue cheese gnocchi), Branzino Alla Griglia (grilled whole local seabass from Batangas with salsa verde), among many others. Then we had some Affogato as a sweet ending.
As a response to the times and with the season of gatherings upon us, The Dining Room has opened a spacious al fresco area for hosting intimate weddings and events at Gourmet. In the recent event they hosted for a select crowd, Chef Ico presented a special dinner menu which, according to Quimson, is only a taste of better things to come.
Gourmet Farms is located at KM 52, Aguinaldo Highway. Silang, Cavite