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For our dad Vicvic Villavicencio, life was a learn-all-you-can buffet |

Sunday Lifestyle

For our dad Vicvic Villavicencio, life was a learn-all-you-can buffet

The Philippine Star
For our dad Vicvic Villavicencio, life was a learn-all-you-can buffet
Vicvic Villavicencio is the founder and president of First Foods, the company behind beloved dining concepts DADS World Buffet (which houses Saisaki and Kamayan), Sambo Kojin, Number 1 Barbecues, and Ogetsu Hime. He is considered a true visionary and pioneer in the world of dining.

Vicvic had a two-door kitchen freezer full of steak in his bedroom. All steak, because for him, beef was life.

Restaurateur Vicvic Villavicencio not only changed the way Filipinos ate, he also served them joy in a buffet — an unlimited quantity of joy that is shared by families and friends celebrating milestones in their lives or simply a special lunch or dinner in his restaurants.

Vicvic was the founder of beloved dining concepts DADS World Buffet (which houses Saisaki and Kamayan), Sambo Kojin, Number 1 Barbecues, and Ogetsu Hime.

He brought affordable buffets to our gatherings and yet reminded us that even if the food was unlimited, you must only get what you can eat.

He was legendary for being generous — not just with his food, but with his time and words of wisdom. He was a true visionary and pioneer in the world of dining. He launched Kamayan restaurant in 1977, which became a landmark for enjoying delicious Filipino cuisine and seeing handprints by celebrities and society darlings all over the walls. He soon introduced Japanese cuisine in the country with Saisaki, then popularized the all-you-can-eat buffet with the first buffet restaurant, Dad’s.

Vicvic’s concepts reinvented the way people enjoyed dining, while infusing the best family and Filipino values into the experience. One of his most famous ones was offering a 50 percent discount off the Dad’s buffet if there were no leftovers, inspired by his own parents who encouraged him not to waste food. His restaurants do not charge service charge, as he always believed that good service is naturally a part of their work.

Sadly, Vicvic passed away last Monday, April 29, at 67. He is survived by his wife Maridel; his children Veejay, Pia, Mara, Cara, Bokie, Victoria, and Vic; sons-in-law Dwight and Ken; daughters-in-law Treena and Mazie, and his grandchildren Riana, Veeno, Renzo, Rico, Jadee, Aniela, Jayco, Arie and Lillie. He may have shaped the landscape of dining in the country, but for him, his family remains his greatest and dearest achievement in a full life.

Here, his children Pia, Mara, Cara and Bokie share their fond and favorite memories of their father.

Authors Cara V. Espinosa, Bokie Villavicencio, PIa V. Lago and Mara Villavicencio

Pia Villavicencio-Lago: Here’s something no one knows about our dad: he invented the California maki with mango. A real California maki is made with avocado in it. We don’t have avocado year-round in the Philippines, but we have mangoes. So when he introduced the California maki through Saisaki, he replaced the avocado with mango. It started with Saisaki, and every restaurant in the country followed. That is why until today, we are the only country in the world that has California maki with mango; every California roll around the world is stuffed with avocado.

This was decades ago, before the onset of international cuisines and food chains in the country. It was a time that people thought that eating raw food was ludicrous, so putting a familiar and favorite fruit into the foreign rice roll was his way of introducing this cuisine to Filipinos. And here we are today, surrounded by sushi bars, ramen houses, and even Japanese cheese tarts.

That’s just how our father was. There was no idea too small for him. Like the California maki. We’re talking about a roll — a single item — all the way to his famous “No Leftovers” all-you-can-eat buffet at Triple V (now, DADS World Buffet). From Kamayan to Sambo Kojin, I’m amazed at how many great and much-beloved dining concepts he pioneered.

Cara Villavicencio-Espinosa: His ideas were fueled by his love of food, travel, and adventure, something that he instilled in all of us. My favorite memory is every year as a family, back when it was just us — no husbands or kids yet — we’d always take at least one trip every year to a new place. Whether it was a short or a long trip, he always made sure we would try something new and different. Ziplining. Rollercoasters in theme parks. Driving through sand dunes. Riding snowmobiles. Even skydiving! And he was always game, even for skydiving! Since he (and even my mom) did it, we would all follow suit. Parang wala kang choice!

Bokie villavicencio: The best part of those trips was eating in different places, from a hole-in-the-wall to a Michelin-starred restaurant, or even sa tabi-tabi lang. One of our favorite things to do was to go to a supermarket, wet market or palengke because they’re different in each country, and he showed us how they’re a window to people’s daily lives. You see the things that people use or eat. You see their instant food and snacks, and you start to understand why they have certain items.

When planning a trip, we would dedicate one day to visiting them. If the markets open at 5 or 6 a.m., we’re already there at that time, too. And in every palengke, street food cart, eatery or restaurant, you’d find my Dad trying everything. Everything.

Pia: In the same way he encouraged us to do things like skydiving, he pushed us to eat any and everything. He always told us, “You can’t say no until you’ve tried it.” He did this even to his grandchildren. He would sit them down next to each other and put food on their plates. “You have to eat that,” he’d tell them as he placed different dishes for them to sample, from luscious desserts to the weirder choices, like fish eyes. He didn’t care. “You have to try it!” he would say emphatically, unwilling to take no for an answer.

He may be known as the “buffet king,” but Vicvic (center) was always firstly a father to his family. With him here are his children (standing) Veejay, Bokie, Vicky, Cara, wife Maridel, Mara,Vic, and Pia.

Cara: It was in trying everything that we all learned the ropes in the family business. I started helping out when I was seven years old, ushering people into the restaurants and assisting the servers with parlor games we used to have. My older siblings Veejay and Pia had their own rotation of work: doing the purchasing in the market, being a dispatcher, welcoming guests as receptionists, even cleaning tables. Even with our recent restaurants, we still find ourselves pitching in. When we opened Number 1 Barbecues at SM East Ortigas, my sister Vicky had to be a cashier. My twin Mara had to do the dispatching. Dad taught us that when there’s no one else to do it, you can’t just point to somebody else. You have to be able to do it yourself.

Pia: Of course, “trying” was not where he wanted us to stop at. Dad taught us you have to give your hundred percent all the time in anything you do like your life depended on it. He was also relentless about details. He always told us that the details are the important things, and for a man, he’s very, very detailed. You’ll often hear him complain how reds aren’t red enough and other seemingly small things.

Cara: Since I check the marketing materials for our restaurants, one thing he would ask me all the time is: “Did you read it?” Over and over, he’d ask me. “Did you read it? Did you read it? DID YOU READ EVERYTHING?” (He also asked me if I “copy-pasted” anything instead of reading it. He hated that.) It was a reminder to be on our toes all the time. Even if the people who are helping me are very good, it has to be perfect. I still have to read everything. I can still hear him asking: “Did you read it?!”

Mara Villavicencio: Of course he would get mad at us. A lot of times. (People do copy-paste often.) But it was never personal. It’s just that he liked getting things done really fast. He had an idea in his mind of how quickly things should get done, and he expected you to do it at that pace. If he saw a way that something could be done in 10 minutes—even if he needed it in an hour — he expected you to do it within those 10 minutes. People would see it as being makulit, but I think that’s what made him successful. He really didn’t take no for an answer. “No, Mara, find a way,” he’d say. Now, I realize — if you think long and hard, you can actually find a way. He made us think of what we could do to make things better, and we’re all better because of that.

Vicvic (fourth from left) and his wife Maridel (second from right) with their grandchildren. His biggest priority was his family, and he loved spending time and traveling with them, especially his brood of grandkids. “My Dad is what a family man is all about,” says Pia.

Pia: I think much of his passion for perfection came from his desire to feed Filipinos. He would always say that: “My goal is to feed the Filipino people.” He egged us on to think of everybody before ourselves. “Do not cheat your customer,” he’d tell us again and again. “You deliver what you promised.” Integrity is so important — even in buffet prices. We’re the only ones who offer the same buffet items for lunch and dinner, even if lunch is at a discounted price. He was adamant about having the exact same buffet offerings all the time. I cannot tell you how many times we suggested to our father to take out the more expensive items on the menu and replace them with something else to retain the same number of food items. “But it’s not a discount anymore; you’re cheating them!” he would thunder, incredulous at the idea. So in all our restaurants, when we give a discount, we give you the same thing at a cheaper price.

Bokie: We’re so proud of how many people he has helped. We can’t even count how many people he’s touched. It seems like all the people are saying the same thing to us in their Facebook messages, that he was the most generous man they’ve ever known, and we’re so honored. He had a big heart. He was very kind — to everyone. Another thing he would tell us again and again (and you can ask any one of us, we know this by heart): “When it comes to our personnel, you teach them well, you train them well, and you pay them well.” He treated everyone like family.

Cara: I cannot count all the amazing things that my father has done, but what makes me proudest is that he loved his family. He showed us how to be a family to each other. He taught us to be there for and with each other, to always be present for your siblings and your kids. Every Sunday remains sacred; we would always have lunch or dinner together, and this is where we shared our bond — our parents, us, our kids.

Mara: He never got mad at home. If you ask Mom, she can’t even recall a time that they fought. Even if we broke or lost something, he wouldn’t lose his cool because, to him, things are replaceable. One time, our family had a new camera for diving, and I forgot to put on the protective case before submerging it underwater. Of course it got broken. All he did was laugh and tell me, “Walang gamot yan!” I apologized and told him that I would pay for it, but he said it was okay and refused to let me pay; he didn’t want us to be bothered by a bad experience. He did, however, declare that I would never hear the end of it from him. True to his word, he never stopped teasing me, telling me, “Walang gamot yan!” or “Sige, basaain mo ulit yung camera!

At home, everything was a “Yes.” He had a two-door kitchen freezer full of steak in his bedroom. All steak, because for him, beef was life. He didn’t like the freezer’s stock levels going down, so it was always full. But even if he loved steak, he was always so generous with it with us. We’d always call him to ask for a slab of steak; I think he had the freezer because he loved the idea that we’d have to ask it from him!

“Even Mom and Dad would do it!” The Villavicencio kids recall how their adventurous parents would take them to different countries and try different extreme activities, from skydiving to riding snowmobiles. “Our trips were centered on food and fun,” says Mara. “They were never boring.”

Pia: Aside from our can-we-have-steak calls, he would talk to us about our posts on social media. Instead of liking and commenting, he would call us. He was a secret lurker, with accounts set up on Facebook and Instagram to follow — or spy on, as I liked to joke — just me and my siblings. I like to post where I like to eat, and I would always get calls from him, asking, “Saan yan? Masarap ba?” Other times he’d complain about my posts, saying “Kumain ako diyan, hindi naman masarap. Bakit ka kumain diyan?”

Cara: Looking back, I guess there were a lot of things he told us again and again, from trying everything to putting the customer first. Again, people may see it as makulit, but this was how he made an impact. This is why we’ll never forget all the things he taught us. Because my dad was makulit, Filipinos will always have the California maki and the all-you-can-eat buffet, and we hope that people will always remember him in some way as well.

Pia: At the end of the day, what he always told us was he wanted to know he taught us well. And he did.— Pia, Cara, Mara And Bokie Villavicencio as told to Monique Buensalido

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