Filipino restaurant Toyo Eatery named ‘One to watch’ by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants

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In Toyo Eatery, Chef Jordy Navarra puts a new spin on a local breakfast staple with the grilled belly and loin of bangus with Toyo Eatery silog. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Two years ago, on this month, Toyo Eatery welcomed their very first guests. Jordy Navarra, his wife May, and the rest of the crew probably never saw then, that an eventful second birthday was imminent.

As of March 2018, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants has announced Toyo Eatery as the recipient of the Miele One to Watch Award for 2018. Selected by the organizers of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, in collaboration with its regional experts, the Miele One To Watch Award is presented to a restaurant that is outside the Asia’s 50 Best list, but is identified as the rising star of the region.

In a statement, the awards organizers mentioned they were impressed by Toyo's taking inspiration "from everyday local ingredients and recipes and bringing them to the level of culinary excellence with passion, expertise and a progressive approach.”

“This same attitude involving constant improvement and innovation are part of Miele’s ‘Immer Besser’ brand philosophy,” says Mario Miranda, Regional Managing Director Asia at Miele. “We are honoured to present this year’s Miele One To Watch Award to Jordy Navarra and the team of Toyo Eatery.”

How far Toyo Eatery has come, in such a short span of time, has me waxing nostalgic about days when Jordy Navarra’s career was still in its infancy. I was on assignment in 2013, tasked to try a new restaurant that supposedly presented Filipino food under a different light. The chef at its helm was Navarra who, apart from just making a statement with his food, prosed on poetically about our cuisine’s overlooked potential. We’ve been friends ever since.

toyo garden vegetables.jpeg The garden vegetable salad is inspired by the vegetables mentioned in the folk song "Bahay Kubo." Photo by JL JAVIER

One warm evening in the middle of 2015, Jordy and I sat across each other slugging back beers for good reason. A few days prior, I had received a message from him saying he was leaving the restaurant he was working for. The owners wanted to take on another direction for it. In turn, I told him I was heading out the door at my job, which involved editing the food section of a magazine. Halfway to unemployment, we worked up a sweat behind bites of mee goreng and beef rendang, while flitting between discussions on our current state, and the looming future.

He was running a kitchen that toyed with the idea of rethinking local cuisine. Those that knew their way around the city’s restaurant scene knew of Jordy, but not many understood his cause. This was 2015, the year of craft coffee, American BBQ, and matcha-flavored anything. The one thing Jordy knew then, as clearly as he did when we first met two years prior, was that he had to work with Filipino food.

A full nine months since then, a message from Jordy came in saying it was finally here. Square One. The ticket to a new beginning, in the form of Toyo Eatery, a Filipino restaurant turned on its head, taking cues from distinctly local elements, but presenting them in unexplored ways. Coincidentally, though not surprising, most of the people that we worked with previously had followed him into this new venture with nary a question asked. Toyo created a more structured confidence in Jordy, and in the communal quest of his kitchen. “You’re only good as those around you,” he likes saying of this young team determined to heighten the understanding of Philippine cuisine.

jordy.jpg Since Toyo’s focus is on Philippine food, research and exploration beyond the restaurant are part and parcel of the job. This has led them up mountains, down streams, through rice paddies, and places in between. Photo by JL JAVIER

Through their creations, they challenged the idea of silog being a cheap breakfast staple, and gave ordinary garden vegetables in a folk song due credit. Dishes here sought not only to confront cuisine, but also to digest culture. It was clear they weren’t just out to make ripples. They were here to create waves.

Since Toyo’s focus is on Philippine food, research and exploration beyond the restaurant are part and parcel of the job. This has lead them up mountains, down streams, through rice paddies, and places in between. Learning and discovering never ceases, and traveling places keeps that ball rolling. Exploring the islands of the Philippines gives Jordy and his team a bigger grasp of the foundation of local flavors and techniques. It is also a way to listen to the stories of others.

cassava cake - kitchen.jpeg The cassava cake (left) is grilled prior to serving which gives it an interesting, unexpected texture. Photos by JL JAVIER

“The culinary world is filled with egos and emotions,” Jordy has shared. “Traveling is a nice way to stay grounded, and to remember how tiny you are in the world.”

Curiosity in the way this restaurant, and its people, works has led me to tail Jordy on some of his trips. We’ve talked to a fisherman up in Batanes who can expertly butcher a dorado, and we’ve spent time out on the rice field during a December harvest.

Sometime last year, on a 12-hour bus ride from Ilocos to Manila, with two other guys from his team, we touched on a topic that seemed to always sit lukewarm with him. Most articles written about Jordy set him up as the culinary wonderboy who has spent time in well-known kitchens. What those stories fail to mention is that the most valuable thing he took away from those kitchens wasn’t the skillset.

Toyo Food 08.jpg Relyenong pusit stuffed with rice made sour using tapuey rice wine, with mustard flowers on top. Photo courtesy of TOYO EATERY

“Traveling and working outside the Philippines has made me discover new things,” he says. “But it also reminded me how much I loved or hated what I left behind.” That slight disconnect with western fare propelled him to look into the food he grew up eating. Hence a restaurant completely of his own musing.

His efforts in and out of the kitchen earned him space at the 2017 Madrid Fusion Manila, as well as at the 2018 Madrid Fusion in Spain. In Madrid, I sat in the audience as witness to the first Filipino speaker to take on the main stage at the culinary conference. While under the spotlight, with hundreds watching, Jordy spoke of the wild and untamed flavors that are telling of the country’s terroir.

62D650D4-968A-4B14-9363-B6C91D3FEDC2.jpg Toyo Eatery's Jordy Navarra onstage at the 2018 Madrid Fusion where his talk focused on simple Filipino ingredients such as buro and bagoong. Photo courtesy of MICHELLE AYUYAO

Buro and bagoong were the focal points of his discussion; two simple ingredients Filipinos may take for granted, but key flavors that can educate others about local taste. At some point in his talk, Jordy invited people onstage to grab a spoon and try out a few things from the Philippines: there was buro, alamang, chocolate bonbons with patis, and even a swig of rice wine called tapuey. Some favored one more than the other, while some were stunned by the density of a component’s umami. The tapuey earned its own little following, as some expected it to taste like Japanese sake, but instead gave off hints of sherry.

The talk ended with a video recounting places he and his team had traveled to. In the audience watching as well was Margarita Fores — Asia’s Best Female Chef, 2016 — who was in tears while saying, “Look at how far we’ve come! I’m stunned.”

Photo-3.jpg Through Toyo Eatery's creations, they challenged the idea of silog being a cheap breakfast staple, and gave ordinary garden vegetables in a folk song due credit. Photo by JL JAVIER

Filipino food has been thought as the next big thing, time and again, without it going that much further. At its best, it is still often defined by its casual nature and simplicity. Home cooked meals or bust. But simple doesn’t have to equate to being menial. Simple can mean it is truest to form. Toyo Eatery has taken on the bold trial of reformulating the nation’s culinary understanding, by creating meals that are the purest presentation — and representation — of local flavors and elements. This is evident even in their most recent venture into understanding the local palate: a bakery called Panaderya Toyo, which is a raw and earnest ode to Philippine panaderias.

As the One to Watch in Asia, could Toyo possibly make Filipino food a globally recognized staple? It may be too early to tell. As it happens, at this moment, they are dining on dimsum and celebrating two milestones: this award, as well as their second anniversary. Toyo is a toddler right now, still finding their way in the world. Jordy constantly enforces that, “There is much to learn and more to do.” But the future is ripe with promise.


Toyo Eatery and Panaderya Toyo are both located at The Alley at Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City. Toyo Eatery is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Panderya Toyo is open from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.