A taste of Manila by way of a Michelin-starred chef

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Gert De Mangeleer of the three Michelin-starred Belgian restaurant Hertog Jan created a dish called "A Walk Through the Gardens of Manila," which made use of over 30 different locally sourced produce for his collaboration dinner with Manila's Toyo Eater. Photo by TRISTAN DEHESA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A few weeks ago I found myself a drive away from the city, running on little sleep and walking the muddy paths of a vegetable farm. Ahead of me were Jordy Navarra and JP Cruz from Toyo Eatery, a year-old restaurant from Manila which has earned a reputation for rediscovering Filipino culinary techniques and flavors. A few strides on the pathway before them were the towering Gert De Mangeleer and his sous chef Jef Poppe of Hertog Jan, the Belgian three-Michelin star restaurant, currently ranked 61st on the World’s Best list.

This trip out of town marked Navarra and De Mangeleer’s second time to meet. Their initial meeting was the night before, where De Mangeleer and Poppe were guests at Navarra’s restaurant. Introductions were made as early as February through Cross Cultures, an event platform by writer Cheryl Tiu, and soon a pop-up between them was set in motion.

Hertog Jan x Toyo Toyo's Jordy Navarra with Gert De Mangeleer, who met each other just a few days prior; guests were given commemorative booklets that contained a recipe from each of the two chefs. Photo by TRISTAN DEHESA

Hertog Jan x Toyo Pen shell clams in fish sauce and cilantro. Photo by TRISTAN DEHESA

De Mangeleer and his team were in town for Madrid Fusión, an event that has brought an influx of acclaimed chefs from countries like the US, Hong Kong, Japan, Peru, and Spain since 2015. More than just a culinary congress, Madrid Fusion helped in making foreign cooks curious enough to try experimenting with our own local produce. As a result, it was inevitable that they would work with Philippine chefs that knew the country’s dining terroir. Hence collaborative dinners like this, where representatives from two different places would figure out a culinary consensus between them.

For Manila restaurants involved, it became an opportunity to prove they could keep up with the hustle. During these one-night pop-ups, the playing field would be leveled; there would be no stars to show off, or restaurant lists to Best.

On the day the two chefs met, the only solid bit agreed on was the date of the dinner they would both prepare. Everything else was up in the air. There were order lists on both ends, but no conjugal menu set in stone.

Hertog Jan x Toyo A black radish blossom, with slivers of talakitok between the folds, placed on a pool of fermented tomato juice. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Hertog Jan x Toyo Relyenong pusit by Toyo Eatery. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

While not an expert on how kitchens and chefs tick, I was almost sure that, with everything going on, putting this dinner together would be tricky. The hope was that these guys would come through and prove me wrong. There was a good part of three days to see if the universe could make that happen.

Four days before the dinner, their visit to the farm involved plucking random leaves and buds, snacking on them, and convincing each other they could find a way to make them all work in one dish. On the next day, heavy-duty suitcases were opened to reveal hidden French fowl. Then the day after that saw an afternoon of wine tasting, which ended with shots of Don Papa rum. On top of Toyo running their regular nightly service, most hours of the day were dedicated to preparing for the special dinner.

Come the evening that the week had led up to, I arrived early to see Navarra running down the steps with bike helmets in tow. “You need these,” he said, while handing the headgear over to De Mangeleer and Poppe. “So you two don’t hurt yourselves when you bump into the exhaust hoods anymore!” While putting the last few things in place, the staff meal of buckets of Jollibee Chickenjoy arrived. As drumsticks were passed from one hand to the next, so were the inside jokes that had been collected over their time together. When the first seating started, the assembly of each dish was prompt. By the final seating, each pass was harmonious.

Hertog Jan x Toyo Gert De Mangeleer and his sous chef Jef Poppe with Toyo Eatery's Jordy Navarra. Photo by TRISTAN DEHESA  

Hertog Jan x Toyo Gert De Mangeleer's "Guilty Pleasures," a grandiose tribute to his favorite candy bar — Snickers. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

At the beginning of the meal, the vibrancy of De Mangeleer’s preference was clear-cut. One of his starters was a plate with tomato dust-covered avocado morsels, buttery to the bite, as though a savory nod to Royce Nama chocolates. Navarra’s dishes, in the meantime, were distinguishable by their hushed yet full-flavored demeanor. Small squid heads, for instance, were stuffed with tapuey and coconut vinegar-seasoned short-grain rice, finished off with a glaze of concentrated squid jus, and a smattering of mustard flowers.

De Mangeleer’s vegetable dish, ironically named, “A Walk Through the Gardens of Manila,” was a medley of locally-sourced produce from their trip to the farm. Comprised of more than 30 elements, going through this odd yet fascinating plate was like picking at a forest. There were butter-drenched Malabar spinach tendrils that crept on fresh purslane and torched young corn, while radish sprouts and micro carrots were peppered by bright Szechuan buttons.

The smell of lightly burnt hay lingered above my head as I finished off the last of the garden. “There’s a hint of Buddhist temple in there,” joked the person next to me, unintentionally foreshadowing the forthcoming dish. French ducks flown in on the same flight as the Belgium contingent had been stuffed with hay, then aged for three weeks. A thick piece of its rosy flesh was laid on a puddle of jus made from beetroots, cherries, and licorice. The duck was dense yet tender, mimicking the feel of a fine filet mignon, but retaining that distinct taste of fowl at the tip of the tongue. It was the stuff of deep trance, practically enlightenment on a plate.

Hertog Jan x Toyo Grilled mackerel with guava and kamias sauce by Toyo Eatery. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Hertog Jan x Toyo Jordy Navarra and his Toyo Eatery team. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

Hertog Jan x Toyo Duck cooked in hay. French ducks flown in on the same flight as the Belgium contingent had been stuffed with hay, then aged for three weeks. Photo by GABBY CANTERO

There had reached a point in the evening, however — somewhere around the black radish-talakitok blossom and the inspiring pen shell scallops courses — where it proved a challenge to distinguish whose dish was whose.

That state of confusion became the marker of a well-thought-out dinner, born from the inventiveness of these like-minded chefs. The rise and fall of the flavors in each course were so well-timed, allowing the menu to prose on seamlessly — from the first bite of the amuse bouche down to the last crumb of the charred cassava cake.

That night there were no tall orders to clear up, and no fires — in all senses of the word — to put out. What astounded me most was Navarra, De Mangeleer, and this newfound synergy between them. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought fast friends had worked the pass. So, I’ll admit it, the universe proved me wrong. But that 14-course meal sure made defeat a hell of a lot more palatable.