The Chef Who Introduced Spanish Food to China
The current fashion in the food industry is for out-of-the-way dives, secret bars, and restaurants with best-kept-secret aspirations sporting discreet signage. Tomatito in BGC seeks to buck the trend with its big block lettering over a red door that welcomes diners into a spacious and well-lit dining area.
This form of boldness is a trademark of its chef, Willy Trullas Moreno, a creative genius and a maverick in his own right—for who else would be brave enough to open a quirky-cool Spanish restaurant in the heart of Shanghai that serves tapas and paellas to yuppies and well-dressed aunties?
Tomatito in Bonifacio Global City, along with his other restaurants across Asia offer this brash, bold look at Spanish cuisine, far from the more formal setups we are familiar with in Manila. The restaurants’ refreshing personality, we soon realize, is a reflection of the chef himself. “El Willy”, as he is known by foodies in Shanghai, is a sight to behold in his colorful chef’s jacket—the standard white with patchwork cats on the shoulders—one of the many eye-catching ones in his collection, which he admits is quite extensive.
Those who were terrorized by their stern Spanish class profesor in college need not fear, Chef Willy is chatty, jovial, and quite happy to talk about his culinary journey that led him to China and beyond.
His credentials include working at some serious restaurants in his native Spain, as well as Georges Blanc in France and Aquavit in New York. Chef Willy first came to China in 2007, when he was invited by Torres Wines to be the chef in charge of organizing their events to promote the brand. “This is when I met my Japanese business partner. He already had a restaurant but it was not doing well. He invited me to collaborate with him, and we changed the name and the concept.” El Willy opened in 2008, and it was a critical success.
He admits that it was challenging to open up shop in Shanghai. “In China, people are very proud of their own cuisine, it is hard to get the people to try something new.” What he did in his first year was to travel and learn. “I hung out with chefs from different restaurants, watched the way that the Chinese feast and what they ate. What I found was that they dine based on the yin and yang. There is an appetizer, meat, and starch in the form of rice or noodle soup. Eating is also done family-style, with servings that are for sharing. Everything is portioned to be able to eat with a chopstick or spoon, so there is no need for a knife. When I learned all that, I tried to apply it to my Spanish menu which included flavors from the Chinese cuisine.”
He loves to try new things and to travel, he says. On his travels, he is also ever on the lookout for new opportunities. “I look at a location and think, this place doesn’t have Spanish food, or this place doesn’t have a cocktail bar. This is how I create stuff. I try to inspire myself with travel and new experiences, with books, and I balance it with what I think will be sustainable in that place.” It is a venture after all, he explains, “I cannot think of myself only and pout up something that only I want. I think of the customer and put myself in their shoes. I like to go deeply into what will work and what people will like, and then I try to introduce new elements.”
This formula for success seems to work very well, as he currently has several successful restaurants across Asia and his El Willy has landed the enviable position of being recognized by the Diners Club Academy, which is responsible for listing down the World’s Best 50 Restaurants.
"I cannot think of myself only and pout up something that only I want. I think of the customer and put myself in their shoes."
He was bought to Manila by his good friend Sergi Rostoll of Las Flores, Rambla, and Churreria La Lola, whom he met some nine or 10 odd years ago. He also visited the country for last year's Madrid Fusion. When they talked and he was able to see a little bit of Manila, the chef was convinced, "Let’s do it."
He describes Tomatino as a sexy tapas bar. “We are not a traditional tapas bar, we bring new elements and creativity into our cuisine. We play with different flavours and cooking styles, and we bring the sexiness with our eclecticism.” The concept runs along the lines of his cooking philosophy. “I love tapas, I love fun and the element of surprise, creativity and colorfulness. Always, food has to taste good, it doesn’t have to be beautiful but it has to taste good. Flavor is first, fanciness goes after.” Among his celebrated signature tapas creations is his Balik salmon -- a lip-smacking seafood dish where the salmon is lovingly bathed in truffle honey as it lounges over a pastry shell filled with sour cream.
There is a sense of good-natured dynamism when he speaks, more so when he moves about in the kitchen. As he talks about flavors, you also get a sense of his passion for offering good food. This fast-paced type of forward-thinking makes him exceptionally in tune with what is happening in this continent’s culinary scene. “Asia moves so fast! I come from Europe which is much slower (in the food industry) because it is mature already. There is stuff happening there, but not at the speed of Asia. Here it is amazing! I have been here for 10 years, my first time was in 2002, and to see how quickly it is progressing is just incredible.” This presents a challenge for restaurateurs like him, but he is prepared to take it on. “Because it moves so fast, people are always looking for something new. It is hard to find loyalty after one year, they move on. What you need to do is to offer a good product, be consistent, and keep improving.”
There will be a move towards proximity cooking, where chefs and cooks use more local ingredients.
This 2017, he sees a good food trend emerging in the Philippines. “There will be a move towards proximity cooking, where chefs and cooks use more local ingredients. This is good because it will improve farming and the availability of organic produce. There will be more local ingredients that will be grown naturally and these will be brought to the table.” He is an advocate of using local and fresh, he says, as it is also away to reduce carbon footprint aside from helping to lower food cost.
His future goal, he says, is to create more scalable restaurants such as Tomatito. This is to help spread his brand of cuisine to more diners, one that advocates a spirit of fun that is combined with high quality cuisine.
Even before opening day, there was already a buzz about this Spanish import that came by way of Shanghai. As the interview wraps up, he looks proudly and fondly around Tomatito, the sexy “little tomato,” and says “I think people should come here to have a different Spanish experience, where they can have fun and enjoy themselves, to have great food and have a great time.”
Tomatito Manila is at G/F BGC Corporate Center, 11th Avenue corner 30th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City.