From The Gelinaz to Asia’s 50 Best, the chef creates homegrown concepts that last the test of time.
Jordy Navarra didn’t start out planning to be a chef.
“I’ve always had an interest in food but I never really took myself seriously with regards to that interest until I sort of discovered it,” he says, “I thought people just ate to consume. That’s what Filipinos are like.”
When Navarra saw the other side, of chefs making dishes and being creative with what they plated, he realized its viability. “When I saw that side to it, I thought ‘Oh, so I never knew that you could be doing that with food.’ I wanted to learn, and that got me into cooking and restaurants.”
The mind behind Toyo Eatery trained locally and abroad. “It’s a hectic environment, especially in the beginning. Almost all things are hard,” he said. “You’re learning different styles.”
He shares that it was like learning from scratch, dealing with food he had never worked with before. “The food is different, the produce is different. When you get into the kitchen, even the dishwasher is more familiar with all of that, so you have to learn and keep up,” he says.
The most eye-opening thing for Navarra was when he realized that the amount of labor in the kitchen wasn’t equal to the amount of time it took to consume the meal.
“The amount of work you do, the amount of work that goes into making a meal because you’re prepping, and then afterward people will eat it in 15 minutes,” he says, “I realized, ‘Oh it’s that short lang pala. It’s really a labor of love.”
The concept behind Toyo Eatery took root during the days when Navarra trained abroad. While he honed his technique and learned how to make delicious food, it felt more like rote learning for him.
“I never had the intimate connection with those flavor profiles in those dishes because I didn’t grow up eating that,” he says. “I really missed the food that I liked to eat. They don’t serve rice there unless gawin nilang risotto.”
When he moved to Hong Kong, he found that he enjoyed the experience more, due to his familiarity with those flavors. “It was great because I learned about different products and different styles but at the end of the day, I was working with the flavors that I enjoyed to eat,” he shares. “That is the basis for what we do here, it’s food we’re familiar with, flavors we understand and then the produce that we have around us.
Each dish at Toyo Eatery started off as an idea, combined with a product Navarra and his fellow chefs wanted to highlight. The “Banana Ketchup” dish was created to highlight a familiar condiment. “We never really think about banana ketchup, so it was like, let’s bring it back to basics and think about ketchup and what it means to our culture,” he says.
Their most famed offering to the local dining scene is the “Bahay Kubo” a salad that makes use of all the vegetables in the nursery song.
“It’s something cultural that everyone could relate to, but not necessarily a traditional na dish,” says Navarra, “So, for us, it was like “it’s nice we can present our philosophy in one dish. This is an example of an idea that we like to work towards.”
In addition to Toyo, Navarra opened Panaderya Toyo, a bakery that focuses on Filipino-style breads made from sourdough. Located a few doors down from the main restaurant, it remains his only project beyond the main restaurants, and for now, he is content to keep it that way.
“I would never say never, in terms of expanding to a new kind of concept,” he says, “but I haven’t really thought about it.”
An avid traveler because of his love for food, Navarra says that in terms of food trends, the Philippines actually isn’t that far off behind.
“I feel like whatever is out there that’s not here is probably coming already,” he says.
He mentions that what we could do better is translating local concepts into something that someone else might want to bring to their country. “I’m always thinking, what can we develop back home that they would be interested in?” he shares.
To turn the Philippines into a culinary destination for world travelers, Navarra believes we should let go of the obsession with finding one particular food to market as the Filipino dish.
“For me personally, it’s always been a collection of things we serve that sort of defines the food and the style na Filipino,” he says. “You realize that the more you travel around the Philippines, the more flavor profiles you encounter. I don’t think it’s really about finding something specific to say that this is Filipino. It’s about embracing this meal from Bicol, and that meal from Sorsogon, everything from north to south as Filipino.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the restaurant industry, like all businesses and livelihoods around the world, was drastically affected.
“We can’t operate the way we have always been operating, which means no guests dining in at restaurant (although that has changed this week). Take-out has been our only way of staying open so we’ve focused our efforts on that,” Navarra says.
The chef is choosing to look at the bright side. “The new rules of reduced- capacity dining actually has gotten us excited to have guests back at the restaurant—with a few adjustments of course,” he says.
Having always been a dine-in type of establishment, Toyo has decided to adapt to a menu in the spirit of Pinoy take-out food. Panaderya Toyo has also started working on different bread and pastry varieties. “It’s also been fun working on new things there,” Navarra says.
The flexibility and commitment to quality has served Navarra, his team, and his loyal patrons well, even in the eyes of award-giving body Asia’s Best Restaurants. This year, Toyo Eatery was still deemed the country’s top restaurant and among the 50 best in Asia, a feat it has achieved for the third straight year.
The good chef
Although it’s too early to tell how dining will be affected in the long run, Navarra is hopeful after seeing places like Taiwan and Hong Kong opening up again with full restaurants while having social distancing measures in place.
“I’m hopeful that society learns from this pandemic and we find ways to make sure we are better prepared for situations like this,” he says. “Running a restaurant teaches you to never take things for granted and being hit with the pandemic is a very blunt reminder of that lesson for us and for society as a whole.”
If Navarra could cook for a collection of people he says he would cook for Jose Rizal (“he seems knowledgeable about food since he’s well-traveled.”) and Noma’s René Redzepi.
Last year’s Grand Gelinaz Shuffle (an international food event where chefs swap recipes) featured Toyo Eatery’s menu reinterpreted by Redzepi and using local Danish produce. “My wife flew over to taste the Noma version of Toyo food,” says Navarra. “Now I want him to come and taste Toyo food in Toyo.”
Toyo joined participated in the Gelinaz again this year, collaborating with the likes of Margarita Forés, Bruce Ricketts, and Jericson Co for the worldwide pop-up event last on August 29.
“To be honest, what we had planned months back was different from what took place. Because of the dining restrictions imposed by the extended community quarantine, we had to shift our approach less than a week before the day itself,” Navarra shares in an Instagram post.
“We were all so nervous on the days leading up to it, because we didn’t know what everyone would think. But we’re so grateful to all those that believed in our vision and cheered us on from the moment you drove into Karrivin!” he says, adding that it was so nice seeing a mix of new and familiar faces, albeit briefly.
Like all great chefs, Navarra believes there is always room for improvement. “I’d like to get better at working with fruit because I have this tendency to just focus on it as a fruit.” he says, “But I feel like some fruits have a lot of savory potential. I feel like I can work with fruit more.”
According to Navarra, the secret to making a dish taste good is simply good ingredients. “There’s no shortcut, there’s no real magic,” he says. “You have to start with the product.”
He believes that a good chef is one who is always resourceful with what they have around them, noting that it goes beyond cooking. “I feel like good chefs always have good teams and have this balance of pushing it from a product and food standpoint and also developing people and the crew,” he says.
This story was updated and originally came out in the November 2020 issue of Lifestyle Asia.
Banner Photo by Yuki Sarto