May 2016 anniversary
Cover story featuring Jordy Navarra

There’s a small coffee shop that serves as purgatory. Writer’s Block, only a few steps away and still within The Alley at Karrevin, has become Toyo Eatery’s unofficial waiting area: those awaiting judgment sip on a pre-dinner cocktail, biding time for friends, a seat, or news from the fold.

“It was totally packed,” one, who had arrived earlier for their 8:30PM seating, will say to her dining companion. “I couldn’t even wait at the bar.”

As if on cue, an acquaintance a few degrees apart will walk in, her meal just finished and her throat parched for some coffee, which Toyo doesn’t offer. They quickly press their cheeks together, before quietly reminding each other of their names. Without prompt, the acquaintance gushes, “I had the four course meal. The tocino bread was good. Briochey. The tomato macaron was really good.”

“Tomato macaron?”

“Like it was a savoury macaron, but you don’t bite it? But she had the full tasting menu,” acquaintance adds, as she gestures to her dining companion. “We loved the barbecue. The rice. Everything.”

“Rice?” The two seated gasp at each other and laugh. “I didn’t know it was that kind of Filipino restaurant!”

To be clear, Toyo Eatery is not any kind of Filipino restaurant. It may even be misleading to label it ‘Filipino.’

Toyo Eatery is part of a new generation of restaurants that are resisting a label, creating food more as an emotional undertaking than perfected repetition. But the question is inevitable for any restaurant: what cuisine? What food do you serve?

The answer is pure biography. In this case, Toyo comes straight from its chef, Jordy Navarra. Its food—produce, palate, profile—reflects his training, experience, heritage, memory, and aspirations, all neatly wrapped in two tasting menu of options of either four of six courses, a la carte optional.

When Jordy Navarra started out, it was simple: he loved food. On a whim, he wrote to tons of restaurants both locally and internationally. He didn’t hear from but a single one, which just so happened to be Heston Blumenthal’s legendary three-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck. Blumenthal’s gastronomical approach was the very one that inspired Navarra to move beyond an interest in eating and into creating, so “it was like playing basketball [as a hobby], then sending a letter to the NBA,” Navarra deadpans.

And his skill level at the time? “I think they just needed the extra help.”

His time at The Fat Duck opened up Navarra’s eyes to the layering intricacies of food. He lived the notoriously physically and psychologically taxing European kitchen life that has been immortalized in film and books, and understood: if you want to do something right, it has to be done well.

One of the first jobs Navarra had at The Fat Duck was to slice vanilla bean pods to look like a stem. He made a hundred a day, spending more than an hour’s work on this one task. The dish the stems were for? Blumenthal’s Black Forest Gateau, an infamously demanding dish that food sites have guesstimated to require around 100GBP of ingredients and hyperspecific kitchen gear such as whipping siphons, vacuum storage bags, and paint spray guns. The gateau is lined with cherries to garnish—and the vanilla bean stems stuck out on top of the cherries, as a finishing touch to the finishing touch.

“It’s not one recipe to make a dish, it’s like 5 recipes to make the garnishes to make the dish,” Navarra explains. “All these layers together, they add up. Seeing it made, understanding the process, and looking at it—it’s crazy, the amount of work.” Navarra’s idea for the concept that would later become Toyo was originally hatched within the walls of The Fat Duck.

After his time under Blumenthal, Navarra continued to pay his dues, this time under enfant terrible Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation in Hong Kong. The idea of working close to home both literally and figuratively (Chinese food of course a staple in the multi-culturally homogenous Manila food scene) appealed to him, and to this day, he has Leung’s ear. Their friendship has also resulted in collaboration: a one night-only “X-Treme Filipino” event in Manila.

Navarra’s trajectory has been undoubtedly blessed, but not so much unusual in the upper echelons of the food industry. Leong himself came out of nowhere, spending 20 years of his life as a practicing engineer, before the self-taught, self-made chef decided to open Bo Innovation in Hong Kong; he won his two Michelin stars the year after. Restaurant André’s own André Chiang’s moved from his native Taiwan to work for his very first kitchen, which happened to be under the Pourcel brothers Jacques and Laurent at Le Jardin de Sens. René Redzepi of Noma fame entered his first kitchen at the same time he did puberty. Each one challenged the traditional conventions of their native fare, and became culinary rockstars in the process.

While Navarra considers neither Blumenthal nor Leung to be his mentor, it was on the strength of his resume that Navarra rode the wave back to Manila: in 2014, the high-ceilinged ultra-glamorous Black Sheep opened to much fanfare.

It was at Black Sheep that Navarra created the Bahay Kubo—a salad containing literally every vegetable mentioned in the Tagalog folk song it’s named after. From singkamas all the way down to linga, the wit and taste of the 18-vegetable dish became Navarra’s signature.

Bahay Kubo is still on the Toyo Eatery menu, albeit under a different name: the much tamer-sounding Garden Vegetables. Navarra took that dish, along with the other hands working behind the scenes at Black Sheep, to Toyo. (The new Black Sheep, meanwhile, moved to the other side of Chino Roces Ave., a short drive away.) He took on some extra staff, most notably Noelle Magcale, whose front of house spunk doubles as a charming reminder: We don’t need to bullshit here. (Sub line in case I can’t swear: There is no need for pretenses here.)

Navarra hasn’t lost his sense of humour in the intensity of Michelin stars kitchens. Toyo may have the same tall walls and Scandinavian geometry, but it’s much warmer (and that much closer to Navarra’s own personality). He shares that Tisha de Borja of E. Murio, who designed the chairs at Toyo, has brought her five year old son for dinner at Toyo. The five year old, he reports, loves the Bahay Kubo. “The best compliment is a kid looking at something that looks like dirt and say it’s the best thing ever. The next day,” he smiles, “she sent us a photo of her son trying to serve her dirt with flowers in a bowl!”

To answer the long-standing question of cuisine: no, the food is definitely not traditional, but it doesn’t make Toyo any less authentic. Filipino food is, by nature of geography and history, varied—when has one adobo ever tasted like another?—and this is the foundation that Navarra plates his food on.

“In French home-style cooking, [they have] coq au vin or ratatouille, but then in the restaurants, there are other types of dishes, and they call that French too. ‘Filipino’ doesn’t have to be based on home-style food,” Navarra explains. “If you put ‘Bahay Kubo’ on the table, I’m sure that nobody’s going to say, ‘oh, it’s like pinakbet.’ They won’t, cause it’s not. But they’re also not gonna say, ‘oh, this is a foreign concept.’ It’s not. [We’re] coming up with these new, fun things but when you eat it, you know it’s Filipino.”

So Navarra takes specific cultural points of Filipino food, and leaves the rest of it behind. He looks at the way we eat barbecue and decides to put his on the stick—but nothing about the way it’s prepped, sautéed, or grilled resembles typical Filipino recipes. He himself can’t resist a damn good silog, but it’s chicharon and dried tuna roe that you’ll find cupping your free range egg. Even at Madrid Fusion Manila 2015, Navarra prepared a kinilaw of Bukidnon beef. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo, who spearheaded the event and makes the discovery and propagation of local produce her daily itinerary, points out that Navarra has been the only chef to use local meat instead of the typical raw seafood for his kinilaw. Since then, Romulo has sent him indigenous ingredients from all over the country—her most recent promises include goat from Tarlac and pili nut butter from Negros Occidental—all of which the team integrates seamlessly into his menu. They’re already talking about making the menu more seasonal, their fingers crossed for more Guimaras mangoes.

There’s no formula, really, to what Toyo does. “It’s not [simply] taking traditional recipes and replacing it,” Navarra says firmly. “[It’s] more of, this ingredient is grown here, it’s easily found, it’s quite nice, on a level of what other countries and cultures have… what can we do with it? What techniques do we apply in order for us to serve it in a menu like ours?’”

Navarra resistance to definition borders on the pilosopo—which of course only makes his approach all the more Filipino.

The Toyo team gathers outside their restaurant in plainclothes—their first time to sit down in hours—trickling out as their last customers of the night do.

Navarra remains inside, where a single diner has his attention; she is foreign, and has been asking questions after almost every course about what she is eating. As he shows her the open kitchen, a small group emerges from the second floor dining area; it’s the two girls who had been waiting in purgatory at the start of the night. They see Navarra in conversation, and stand a few feet away behind him. When Navarra glances in their direction, both parties step forward. “Thank you.” They shake hands, judgment passed.

Meanwhile, the kitchen crew is talking about where to go after tonight’s dinner service. (Midget boxing, they grin.) Their shift the next day starts in around 12 hours, but they’re going out anyway. Family is important here—to the team, to Navarra, to Toyo—in the same way that it is to, well, every Filipino. Aside from pending endeavours, it’s why Navarra came back, after all. They treasure their regulars, take care of their people, high five the people who have helped built this home. If anyone comes to Toyo hungry for any sort of tradition, they’ll still find their fill: everyone here is family.