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For Chef Jordy Navarra, It's All About Making Food Relatable to Diners

“The more you do it, the more you realize that there’s so much more there is to learn out there.”
IMAGE PJ CAÑA
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Chef Jordy Navarra’s wife Mai’s parents are from Bohol, so when there was an unexpected opportunity to come to the Visayan island to cook, the answer was an easy yes. The brains behind Toyo, arguably one of the best restaurants in the Philippines in case you haven’t been keeping updated with Manila’s culinary scene, was invited to prepare a special meal for the latest edition of Bohol Eats—or just BEATS, if you want to be hip about it—held at the posh Amorita Resort and Spa on Panglao Island. 

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“We haven’t gone anywhere since the pandemic,” Navarra said during a casual chat the evening before the big dinner. “It’s our first big trip, so for us, it was nice to be able to come here.”

Chef Jordy Navarra is the award-winning chef behind one of Manila's best restaurants, Toyo Eatery

Photo by PJ Cana.
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BEATS has become something of a modern culinary tradition in Bohol since its first edition in October 2020. It was a tense, uneasy time, with the specter of the pandemic casting a pall on in-person events. But Amorita wanted to get people excited about going out to dine outside again and, at the same time, getting prominent names in the culinary scene to take over the Amorita kitchen to serve a one-of-a-kind menu for one night. 

Eight editions and eight very distinguished chefs—including Robby Goco, Margarita Fores, and Josh Boutwood—later, it was Chef Jordy’s turn to step inside the Amorita kitchen and whip up something fantastic for the hardcore BEATS fans.

Despite being known for his inventive takes on classic Filipino cuisine, Navarra said that he still wasn’t quite sure yet what he would like to serve to the nearly 100 excited patrons who booked a table for the sold-out dinner. And this was the evening before the big event.

“We still haven’t finalized it,” he said. “Our approach is, we usually bring things from (the Toyo kitchen) and try it out to see what’s there. It’s a matter of mixing and matching to find out what would work.”

Navarra said he and his team were careful, though, of not doing too much that would alienate diners.

“Hindi naman namin pagti-tripan yung guests,” he says with a smile. “There’s a level of respect, and we already know what to use, and which things go together. But we do try to remain open.”

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That openness translates to using ingredients that they sourced from Bohol itself, including pork, peanut kisses (which is a staple pasalubong for anyone traveling to the island) and the so-called asin tibuok, which is made using an arcane, centuries-old process that’s in danger of slowly dying out in the island.

Chef Jordy using Bohol's asin tibuok in his special menu for Bohol Eats (BEATS)

Photo by PJ Cana.

Navarra said that, when it comes to developing a dish, it usually just starts with an idea that he wants to execute. It could be an ingredient, or a technique, or a flavor profile.

“But the main thing we ask ourselves is, ‘How does that relate to the person who eats?’ If we try something out, no matter how creative you want to be, if hindi niya ma-gets kahit nung kasama mo na nagluluto, it means maybe off yung context. So for us, big factor yung relatability. If hindi nila fully maintindihan, or masarap nga pero sabhin nila, 'Ano yun?' bale wala rin.”

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“Discovering new things,' he added, when asked what still excites him about cooking. “Learning more about different places, different people. The more you do it, the more you realize that there’s so much more there is to learn out there.”

A special menu

It had been raining in the afternoons all throughout that week, but the skies thankfully cleared late Saturday afternoon, making dinner al fresco at Saffron Restaurant possible. It began with pass-around amuse bouche: queso de bola, miniature adobo pandesal with chicken liver palaman, and octopus ceviche.

Ensalada of lechon kawali and burong mangga wrapped in a mustard leaf

Photo by PJ Cana.

The first course was a salad composed of a small piece of lechon kawali, with burong manga, onions and tomatoes wrapped in a mustard leaf. Next Chef Jordy served Kinilaw na Tanigue, which he said he brought in all the way from Zambales, with singkamas (turnip) aged three weeks to bring out its sweetness, and sprinkled with onions and chili.

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The soup dish was next, and it was a winner: Burnt Kalabasa (pumpkin) with kamote flower, and a surprise waiting underneath: fresh uni or sea urchin. The flavors were intense but comforting, as all good soups ought to be. The chef said the technique is similar to the way the Mexicans make their mole, and the soup mixture itself is constantly being updated, which means parts of it has been in existence since Toyo itself first opened.

Kinilaw na tanigue

Photo by PJ Cana.

For the main course, Chef Jordy and his team chose to serve fish. The dorado (or mahi-mahi) was cooked in butter and served with green rice from Nueva Ecija, and organic egg from Bohol, crab meat and pickled green papaya. There was also burong pajo, or a small fruit that looks like a tiny mango, which only blossoms for a few short weeks in Batangas; and chicharon also from Bohol.

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The fish was delicate but bursting with flavor, and all the other components provided great flavor contrasts that somehow worked well together. It was also fun to pick up tidbits of history and geography from a few dishes on the plate. 

Burnt kalabasa soup

Photo by PJ Cana.

Dorado (mahi-mahi) with burong pajo

Photo by PJ Cana.
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To cap off the meal, dessert was dark chocolate mousse sprinkled with peanut kisses, strawberry syrup, wild raspberries, and shaved asin tibuok served in bao or coconut shells.

At the end of the meal, thunderous applause greeted Navarra and his team, who all took a gracious bow. The dinner had been a success, but that had been a foregone conclusion as soon as it was announced that the culinary wizard behind Toyo would be whipping up his magic in this part of Bohol. Diners left with happy grins, but that only means the pressure is on for the next set of hands that will take over the Amorita kitchen for the next edition of BEATS.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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