Diner’s Diary

Top Manila chef’s mission to elevate Philippine food takes him to Macau

Chef Jordy Navarra’s world travels to educate diners about Philippine cuisine recently saw him at Italian restaurant 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana Macau for an exhibition of the two country’s cuisines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 7:50pm

Chefs Antimo Merone and Jordy Navarra act like old chums even though they only met in person a few days ago. Merone, the Italian chef de cuisine at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana Macau, and Navarra, the Filipino chef-owner of Toyo Eatery in Manila, were already talking about their next collaboration just hours before their “four hands” dinner at Merone’s restaurant was due to start.

At first the collaboration sounds strange – a Michelin-starred restaurant serving a mixture of refined, modern Italian dishes alongside experimental Philippine creations – but it is serving as an opportunity to elevate homey, hearty meals from the Philippines to fine-dining level.

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Navarra has been promoting his native cuisine – a mix of Spanish, indigenous and American ingredients and cooking styles – at his restaurant in Manila for two years now. Over the past year he has been travelling around, educating diners about Southeast Asian cuisine.

Now he is in Macau doing what Merone claims is probably the first ever collaboration between an Italian and a Filipino chef. So how did it happen?

“It was like a dating app – we got set up,” Merone jokes, and the two high-five each other, laughing. He explains that the matchmaker was Richard Stuart, assistant vice-president of international cuisine at the Galaxy Macau casino resort, where Merone’s restaurant is located. Stuart visited Toyo Eatery and after eating Navarra’s food, felt the two were similarly creative and suggested they do a four-hands event together.

The two chefs, both in their early- to mid-30s, jumped at the chance, which led to last Thursday night’s dinner, with each chef presenting their own dishes.

Navarra was the more experimental of the two, while Merone went with a balance of flavours that was spot on.

Navarra created a gourmet kinilaw, or Philippine ceviche, by marinating a French oyster in tabon tabon vinegar with gamet, a kind of Filipino lime that was quite tart but clean, and an unusual combination of burnt squash soup paired with sea urchin from Hokkaido that was hearty and worked beautifully with crispy sweet potato.

He also presented his signature “garden vegetables” dish from Toyo Eatery that was inspired by a children’s song and features 18 different vegetables prepared in numerous ways, mixed together and covered with a “soil” of aubergine and peanuts.

For dessert, there were variations of pineapple in a panna cotta topped with pineapple granita for a bit of crunch.

Merone started with Fassone veal mixed with Matsutake mushrooms sourced from Yunnan, followed by a home-made tagliatelle with aglio olio and an umami flavour from plankton sauce.

His Bresse chicken was roasted perfectly, juicy and tender with savoy cabbage and charred leek purée. A dessert with the theme of hazelnuts, from ice cream to meringue, completed the dinner.

Merone and Navarra enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in the kitchen that they both say is crucial for a successful collaboration.

“It’s nice to come here [Macau] and we’ve already decided we want to do another collaboration next year, probably February or March,” Navarra says. “It’s been fun for us, it’s been a collaborative year. It’s refreshing for us to learn and we see different styles of food and work with different chefs.”

Navarra’s next collaboration will be with chef Richie Lin of Mume in Taipei, Taiwan in late September, and later with Singaporean chef Jimmy Lin of JL Studio in Taichung, Taiwan.

Toyo Eatery is still open even with Navarra flying around. He says his core team has been with him for four to five years, even before he opened the restaurant. In January he opened Panaderya Toyo, or Toyo bakery, two doors down from the restaurant.

“We want to revive the concept of buying bread. We only make naturally leavened sourdough bread, and we’re the first in the Philippines to do this,” Navarra explains. “We wanted to update it to use the purest form of sourdough. Richard Manapat is the head baker and he is very particular about everything, which is what you want.”

In the meantime Navarra continues his quest to educate diners about Philippine cuisine, which he says is getting better.

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He was recently in Copenhagen in Denmark to attend celebrity chef Rene Redzepi’s MAD Symposium, an event aiming to get chefs thinking about sustainability in the restaurant industry. At the event Navarra met a Filipino-American bartender who asked him if he wanted Philippine food.

“I said ‘sure’ because I hadn’t had rice for a while,” he chuckles. “We went there and there were many Filipinos eating there. It was good.”