Feature

In the Light of the Garden

In a small coastal town in Western Visayas, two people take on the gargantuan task of redefining what it means to build a sustainable business.

  • As told to Klea Gonzales
  • Story by Carmel Laurino
  • Photos Courtesy of Nicole Garcia
  • Est. Read Time 5 mins.

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There are moments when you see something new and immediately think to yourself, “I’ve found something magical.” You want to keep it all to yourself, as though it should belong to you because you found it first. Eventually though, you opt for doing everything you can to share it with the world, because it’s much too special to be kept a secret. 
 
This is how I felt when I first arrived at Alpas. 
  • As told to Klea Gonzales
  • Story by Carmel Laurino
  • Photos Courtesy of Nicole Garcia
  • Est. Read Time 5 mins.
Alpas’s all-bamboo restaurant proudly stands at the fore of the compound, and serves gourmet farm-to-table cuisine.
Alpas is a farm-to-table restaurant, organic garden, and beach-side guest house in Tobias Fornier, a municipality in southern Antique, right at the tip of Panay Island. It reminded me a lot of my mom’s hometown in Cebu: a nondescript coastal community with mom-and-pop resorts scattered along the coastline. It’s all rather one-note until the first glimpse of Alpas comes into view: a grand all-bamboo structure right by the side of the road, sticking out against the otherwise flat landscape.
 
From the moment I saw it, I knew I was in for a treat. 
 
The restaurant is the perfect balance of rustic and fancy, and serves sustainable gourmet dining to daytime travelers and overnight guests. Just to the left is their garden, which stretches out to the back; a sprawling patch of land with fruits, vegetables, and a handful of livestock. Further into the property is the guest house for small groups staying overnight. It sits right along the beach; close enough that you can fall asleep to the gentle sound of the waves.
Ken Cazeñas and Kim Eng are the masterminds behind the place, a pair of warm and easygoing people with a love of food and sharing food with others. They met while working in the restaurant circuit in San Francisco, and lived in Hong Kong for a year before realizing they wanted their lives to be a little less fast-paced. Cazeñas’s family is from Tobias Fornier, so they decided to settle down there and take on the massive ambition of building this community now called Alpas. 
 
Eng was the first to give us a warm welcome at the front of house. At the time, Cazeñas was already hard at work in the kitchen, preparing for the next meal service with his staff. Compared to Eng, he seemed much more intimidating; so focused on his work that he barely paid us any mind. Stark as the contrast was, they balanced each other out perfectly.

Kimberly Eng is first to greet guests upon their arrival; Ken Cazeñas runs the kitchen at Alpas.

Most people find it strange at first glance: Cazeñas is a Filipino who was raised in California, and Eng is from New Jersey. They’re both highly skilled professionals, with years of experience and training in 20 world-class institutions under their belts. A provincial island town in Western Visayas probably isn’t where you’d expect them to set up a resort and sustainable gourmet restaurant, but here they are. And they’re here for reasons you probably wouldn’t think.
 
For years, the image of the foreign Filipino has often been prone to romanticization. People like to think we (being a foreign Filipino, myself) come to the Philippines for three stereotypical reasons: start a career in showbiz, play basketball, or play Messiah and try to save the local folk. Of course, these notions are as inaccurate as they are limiting, and the community here proves just how off-base they are. For both Cazeñas and Eng, creating Alpas wasn’t about saving the locals—it was about building them up.

From the art on the walls to the food on the plates, each and every detail of Alpas reflects their commitment to supporting the local community. They work closely with farmers and artisans in neighboring towns, sourcing their ingredients and supplies within the island, while showcasing works by local artists in the restaurant. Even the way they train their staff reflects how much they care; the locals get to learn practical and professional skills in a hands-on training environment. The result is a hyper-localized value chain that benefits and empowers each person in the community. 

This all goes hand-in-hand with their passion for food and their dedication to fueling an environmentally conscious business. With the thought and care they put into encouraging a self-sustaining community, it should come as no surprise that their philosophy of sustainable living extends to the kitchen.
 
All of the ingredients used in Alpas are locally sourced and organically grown, with much care put into generating as little waste as possible. The menu also changes daily, depending on what’s on offer at the provincial markets.

The restaurant menu changes daily, and local dishes are prepared in a variety of ways

I asked Cazeñas if I could go with him to the market one morning, when he went to buy his ingredients for the day. He carried a basket and reusable bags, and spoke animatedly with the different vendors as he picked out the freshest meats and produce. We eventually went back to Alpas with a whole fish in his backpack, and a dozen eggs balanced precariously on a mound of vegetables. He spoke English the whole time—not a lick of Hiligaynon—but the locals didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they knew him well enough by now.

Back in the city, the conversations around sustainable living often feel very posh, as though the lifestyle requires a certain amount of affluence to be able to work: carry a metal straw, use a canvas bag, buy organic produce, ride eco-friendly transportation, and others along that line. In Alpas, however, the community has cultivated an environment where sustainability bleeds into every aspect of their daily lives, and locals can learn about things like waste management and climate change in practical ways. Here, the “eco-friendly” craze is more than a passing trend, but a way of life that requires real commitment.
 
As humans, we gravitate towards sincerity, and it’s something this place has in droves. In Alpas, there are no gimmicks, no pretenses; only the genuine dedication of two people towards pursuing their passions, caring for their environment, and uplifting the people around them. It’s a sincerity that can’t be faked, and is deeply felt by every guest and visitor who has found their way into this little patch of land in Tobias Fornier. 
 
When I first found Alpas, I thought I had stumbled into something magical. It turns out I was right.
 

Originally published in Volume 8.