Maranao Entrepreneur brings his international experience to Marawi

Restauranteur Omar Hassan Tomawis Cali
Restauranteur Omar Hassan Tomawis Cali

IN In Lanao del Sur’s capital, a new café/restaurant culture is emerging offering pastas, chicken wings and French fries. But a London-trained chef is doing something different.

At Altitude Café in Heaven Road, the beef can be cooked Moroccan or Mongolian while the chicken can be curried or lemony. Instead of bangsilog, brekkie is a plate of neatly stacked pancakes or waffles with blueberry topping. Snack with cookies and cream frappé, chewy chocolate chip cookie or brownie ala modeinstead of the usual milk tea with sinkers.

As Marawi rises from the ashes, well-travelled and enterprising Maranaos are investing in restaurants with cosmopolitan menus. Heaven Road, the hilltop restaurant strip along the highway to Mindanao State University, has been compared to Tagaytay as a dining destination with a view or the Baguio of Mindanao for the misty mornings.

Among the fast casual restaurants at Heaven Road, Altitude Café stands out for the quality of the food and professional operations. Restaurateur Omar Hassan Tomawis Cali, took a leap of faith. He says it’s a big risk for an investor after the city had just recovered from the ravages of the Marawi Siege and the pandemic.

While most Heaven Road serve pastas and Filipino foods, the 29-year-old chef patron provides diversity with Asian dishes uncommon in Marawi.

Altitude Café’s best seller is the chicken satay, skewered chicken marinated in his secret spices with peanut sauce. Then there’s the laksa noodle dish with sweet and sour notes. The tom yum, uses locally sourced herbs. Omar is able to source hard-to-find ingredients such as galangal from suppliers living in boondocks.

“Most of my food are heavily spiced but they are delicately balanced so that they don’toverpower the main ingredients,” he says.

Omar developed his palette from his sojourns, when his father, a petroleum and engineer, was posted in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Spending his teen years in an industrial area, Brunei, Omar became more conscious of how factories impacted the surrounding. This got him interested in pursuing environmental studies and getting a diploma in Fajar International College in Malaysia and his Bachelor's in Middlesex University London.

When the Marawi Siege protracted in 2017, Omar’s parents suggested that he studied abroadand wait for their home city to become stable. While majoring in Environmental Health and Safety at Middlesex College in London, he took three jobs in different restaurants to support himself. He started out as a dishwasher in a British pub and fusion restaurant, an Italian pizza parlor and a fish-and-chips restaurant, the latter of which was led by a French and a Chinese chef. The hardworking Omar was promoted to a prep cook, making salads, until he assisted the chefs.

“I got to work with three different chefs and three different cuisines,” he says.

Despite graduating the top of his class in Middlesex, he couldn’t find stable work as new visas became difficult due to Brexit. He then took odd jobs in other restaurants, an events planning company and newspaper distribution until his visa expired.

“I felt London was my home, but it was time to leave,” says Omar. “Still, living abroad madeyou appreciate the beauty of the Philippines.”

Fortunately he was hired in a construction company in Qatar as a financial controller. “My bosses were diverse from Arabs to South African. I got a good sense of how business worked and how money revolved around the business,” says Omar.

Despite his success, his visa could not be renewed due to pandemic restrictions. He returned to Marawi in 2021 when not much was happening since the locals had a wait-and-see attitude.

Hope came when Maranaws started putting up businesses including two cousins who opened restaurants.

However, Omar had to adjust to the Third World challenges. Marawi was getting back on its feet with new developments, yet it didn’t have the facilities required in business such as modern water supply and garbage collection and ample parking space.

"When you start a business, location is important. I waited until 2022 to find one,” he says.

Entrepreneurs saw the potential of putting up cafés in the hillside, now called Heaven Road. With a capital from his savings in Qatar, London and from his parents, Omar leased a site and developed the place. It took him seven months to construct Altitude Café, as he himself mixed cement and worked on the shell.

Altitude Café opened late last year. The design is more streamlined and unfussy compared with the other restaurants.

"I want to highlight the views of the hills and the sea,” he says.

Like other restaurateurs in Heaven Road, Omar buys water daily to supply the tank. His training in London taught him to pay attention to sewerage and garbage collection.

Altitude Café’s menu was inspired by his memories of Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore where the foods are a medley of Chinese, Malay and Indian flavors.

"I prefer the Malaysian flavor profiles while keeping in mind what the Marawi customer likes,” he says. Omar adds that the scenic beauty of the Marawi hillside and the contemporary Southeast Asian flavors lend a new experience.

"That’s why our slogan is ‘Elevate your taste," he says.

Customers have lauded his menu. “People compare us to places in Makati and abroad. One diner said our satay is better than this restaurant in MOA. I always ask feedback from the customers so we can keep improving.”

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