I Am Generation T: Jordy Navarra
The chef and co-owner of Manila restaurant Toyo Eatery talks about the importance of putting the Philippines on the culinary map, the impact of Instagram on the industry and why sustainability matters
I am Generation T is a series of quick-fire Q&As with some of the extraordinary individuals on the Gen.T List.
Award winning chef Jordy Navarra found his passion for cooking by accident. “I basically sucked at everything else and then I just sort of fell into it,” he says. “I then developed an interest in it, discovered the world of restaurants and now it’s been 10 years.”
After training at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant The Fat Duck in the UK and Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, Navarra opened Toyo Eatery in the heart of Manila in 2016. Fast forward just three years and he has earned multiple accolades, notably being included in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 and receiving the Miele One to Watch Award in 2018.
What's the vision behind Toyo Eatery?
Toyo Eatery is a place where we can express where we’re from and who we are. We do our take on Filipino food and flavours, with condiments and ingredients that we grew up with and flavour profiles that we like to eat. So it’s nice and simple.
What’s your signature dish and why?
For me it’s the pork barbecue that we have at the restaurant. I loved to eat it growing up so when we made our version it’s simple, easy to eat and something that you want to have two to three times a week.
How do you make a dish multidimensional?
I don’t know if everything we do is multidimensional, but for us it’s always a collaborative thing. Having a lot of people invested in the idea of the dish and the dish itself, I feel, adds layers of complexity, because every person you ask has different things they look for, and the more we can work on it as a group, the more we can find different angles.
Who would your dream customer it be?
Well we were supposed to have David Beckham over, but we were closed that day, so maybe we could have one more shot.
What do you see as the next disruptor in your industry?
I think the industry is pretty dynamic right now. I feel like there are so many things happening in different parts of the world; you can see different chefs doing different things and still being successful. But I think sustainability is still a relevant discussion: thinking about where your food comes from and how you consume—not just food but all things.
A focus of April's Gen.T Asia Summit is "breaking barriers". What barriers have you had to overcome to get where you are today?
I feel like one of the barriers is that in the Philippines we are a bit insecure, as we’ve had years of colonialism and years of outside products and ideas coming in, so we’ve always been slightly insecure about what we have to share with the world. So the biggest barrier was getting people to pay for Filipino food in a restaurant.
The whole point was trying to put Filipino food and food by Filipinos in a different setting and share with the world that it’s possible to look at it this way also, not just as something you cook at home. I think we have been successful in some ways but I don’t think the job will ever be done. But it’s nice because that’s where things like lists and people enjoying their time coming into the restaurant comes in; you see people who understand and support the idea.
What’s your ultimate professional ambition?
I’d like to have a place where everything can come full circle—like a farm with a house, with everything in a closed system. For me, having a place like that where you can grow your food, feed people and stay in a beautiful location: that would be my ultimate ambition.
What quote do you live by?
I’ve never really thought about it but the first thing that comes to mind is that every day is a new day, so no matter how good or bad the day before was, you have another shot at the next day.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received was to not to think about it too much. I have a tendency to sometimes overthink things or look into things too much, when sometimes thinking about it too much just brings you back to where you started.
How has Instagram changed the way chefs create dishes? And has it changed for the better?
I don’t really think about how Instagramable the food is at our restaurant, but I feel like for the industry as a whole it changed a lot in the sense that Instagram is so fast—you have to develop things faster now because everyone can see instantly what's going on.
I think there are good and bad aspects to this: good in the sense that chefs are always developing new things so people are kept on their toes, but the bad thing is that sometimes when people are having a meal, they are just on their phone rather than enjoying the food and the people they are with.
What’s something interesting that most people don’t know about you?
I used to be in a band. I played the drums, but we stopped because we weren’t getting any better.
What’s a book that changed your life?
There’s a lot, actually. One would be Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies [by US public intellectual and popular science writer Jared Diamond], which helps us understand how different parts of the world develop differently. Another book I really like is Lolita [by Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov]—it's crazy and edgy. Reading that for the first time really changed my perspective on how books can be.
See also: I Am Generation T: Steven Kim
The secret to success is…
To not think about it.
Where would you like to be in a decade?
In a decade I don’t know really—maybe still doing the same thing but enjoying the other side of life too. Still doing what we’re doing in 10 years would actually be a great thing.
Are best restaurant lists helpful to the industry as they offer exposure, or harmful as they rank what is essentially an art and leave others out in the cold?
I think there are good things and bad things with any list. Generally it’s good because it can help people understand what you’re trying to do, but the bad part is that it’s just a snapshot or synopsis of the big picture. I feel like there’s a tendency for people to have a shallower perspective on a lot of different things, not just in food.
What would you like to be remembered for?
As a fun and nice guy that did something well.