Some collaborations are born out of serendipity. Some collaborations begin over a late night and several glasses of wine with an old friend. And then other collaborations are the result of stalking. Pure, unabashed social media stalking.
I have been following chef Jordy Navarra’s Toyo Eatery in Manila since it opened. One year ago, I made my first trip to Manila and fell in love with the city. Those several days were a revelation, with fantastic eggs at Wildflour and the renowned Silverlens gallery on our itinerary. There were just two things that I felt I had missed out on – one was Art Fair Philippines, which is staged in a car park but had closed several days before our trip. The second was Toyo, which one of my friends declared the best restaurant in all of Asia, but opened just after we were in Manila.
Trustworthy friends raved about chef Jordy’s inventive and soulful riff on Filipino cuisine. Based on their shining reviews and the moody photos that populated Instagram of his dishes and dining room, I put Toyo on my list for my next trip to Manila. I followed Toyo on Instagram, and pressed like on photos of the Vegetable Garden and their gorgeous rattan chairs by E. Murio like a loyal stalker.
When 2017 rolled around, I planned to go to Manila to finally see this art fair in a car park, and a couple of Filipino friends encouraged me to consider doing a pop-up during the fair. In my heart of hearts, if I was going to do one, I wanted to do it at Toyo. Even though I had never eaten there and had never met the chef. Sometimes you just know.
Well, it turns out one of my dear friends knows the chef and quickly made an email introduction and chef Jordy said he was happy to chat by phone. Since I hadn’t actually met the chef before, and I had never eaten at the restaurant, I felt shy about asking, “hey, wanna do a pop-up with me?” So I thought instead of being a crazy, presumptious stalker, I would just have a chat with him about his thoughts on pop-ups by foreign chefs in Manila. Would they be well-received? Would people be interested in Korean food? He called me, and after I awkwardly thanked him for taking the time to speak to me, chef Jordy said, immediately, it would be fun to do a pop-up together. OMG.
What followed was more fun and beautiful than I could have imagined. Toyo is tucked away in the Alley at Karravin, a newly developed, tree-lined gem in the hectic neighbourhood of Makati. It’s a cool oasis of culture and deliciousness that’s a Manila must-see.
Toyo’s space itself is just perfection. Spread over two floors, the concrete that dominates is warmed by contemporary rattan and wood and by the radiant welcome you receive when you arrive. Chef Jordy’s wife May takes care of the front of house and her laugh is infectious. She gracefully handed the bookings as they started to flow in. The pop-up started to fill up even before it was officially announced and before we even met, and she joked that she was worried that I would show up and feel like I made a mistake. On the contrary I never wanted to leave.
Chef Jordy and I collaborated on a 10-course tasting menu, an amalgamation of Korean and Filipino flavours and techniques. We made Korean pork trotters served on a bed of banana blossom salad and topped with sauteed dried anchovies. There were grilled chicken meatballs infused with the ginseng and jujube flavours of the Korean soup samgyetang accompanied by an array of garden vegetables, raw local fish on perilla leaves, seaweed dumplings in dashi, kalabaza porridge with mochi and Filipino sea urchin. The pastry team came up with a makkeoli meringue topped with yujacha (yuzu honey tea) and a mash-up of our favourite shaved ice desserts, halo-halo and bingsu, with ube and roasted soybean powder.
The Toyo team was incredibly patient as I kept asking them where I could find the honey, very generous with their time during an already packed week for them and seamless to work with. We were fully booked, had to execute a dozen dishes none of us had made before, and I was so impressed by how they rolled with it. I was touched and mostly mortified that they were up until 4am the night before our pop-up finalising the prep. Chef Jordy and May have enviably created such a close-knit team that they are willing to work that hard. Many of them have Toyo tattoos, and I feel like I want one now too. To be part of the Toyo family, with their dedication, talent and warmth, is extremely special, you can feel that instantly when May and Jordy hug you.
With everyone’s efforts, the evening was everything I could have ever hoped for. So many friends from Hong Kong and around the region were in town for the art fair, and I was overwhelmed by how many came to my pop-up to support Sook and Toyo. It is indescribable how wonderful it is to be in a foreign city, surrounded by friends who are your family, celebrating a perfect collaboration. I feel very grateful.
I owe this opportunity to J.J. Acuña for making the formal introduction to chef Jordy so I didn’t have to be a true stalker and contact him out of the blue. Thank you to Alexandra Seno for being my Manila pop-up cheerleader, Chi Hang Jims Lam, Sook’s right hand man, for the photographs from the evening while I was running around in the kitchen with the chefs (other photos are mine), and Philippines Tatler for covering the event. And huge thanks to Seddie Beltran, without which neither Sook nor I could survive, and her family for being Sook's Manila family. Thank you so much to Chef Jordy, May and team Toyo for having me and the Sook team for such a blissful few days. I can’t wait to be back in their dining room, and if I’m lucky, back in their kitchen. Maraming salamat.