Pre-pandemic, there was already a slowly growing interest in farming, a movement which has partly been driven by the restaurant industry. The rise of food as a status symbol and chefs as modern rock stars helped put the spotlight on crops-of-the-moment, as well as ingredient provenance.
Before the spread of COVID-19 brought the world to a temporary halt, this editor was fortunate to accompany Jordy Navarra, chef and owner of Toyo Eatery, on his visit to Teraoka Family Farm in Pampanga.
Toyo Eatery is one of Manila’s most renowned fine dining spots, and with good reason. Hailed as a Miele One to Watch in 2019 and one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants the year after, Toyo is known for its fresh, modern approach to Filipino food. Navarra, who trained in Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin starred The Fat Duck in the UK and two Michelin starred modern Cantonese restaurant Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, is known for his innovative use of local ingredients to create imaginative takes on Filipino dishes. Its sister restaurant Panaderia Toyo is likewise known for its dedication to Filipino bakery craftsmanship.
Previously featured on Agriculture.com.ph, Teraoka Family Farm made its mark growing certified organic and specialty produce for high-end restaurants. Because of the slowdown of the restaurant industry during the pandemic, the farm has expanded to delivering vegetables to private households as well. One of their advocacies is growing indigenous crops and promoting their use as ingredients. In the restaurant setting, this can mean creating recipes around these crops or using them as more sustainable substitutes for ingredients in foreign dishes.
“We try to focus on trying to promote either native produce or unique specialty produce to cater directly to chefs and restaurants,” says Raphael Dacones, Teraoka’s Chief Farming Officer.
Ingredients are key
Chefs worth their salt know that an excellent dish begins with the ingredients used to make it. Navarra understands this all too well. “Ingredients are super important for us as chefs because [its] basically the material that we work with… there’s a lot of importance that goes into growing and knowing where it comes from and I feel like in order to make good food, you need to start with good ingredients… [it’s] using the best things that we can get so that we could I guess have a good end product,” Navarra says.
Navarra has come to visit the farm he buys his produce from, and Dacones has taken the opportunity to show the chef some of the indigenous crops he’s been cultivating, just in case Navarra wants to use them in his highly acclaimed restaurant.
“This visit is to connect with Raf and see the whole process—the mindset, the philosophy, how they grow things,” Navarra says. “Since it’s Pangasinan and a lot of the farms that we work with are in the South, it’s interesting to come here and taste the crops fresh and see [how] it’s different from other farms.”
Dacones took the chef and his companions on a tour of the farm. “I really like the fact that Raf walked us around [and] showed us the whole process,” Navarra says. “It’s an insight [into the] mindset and principles of how they grow [their crops] and seeing that, for us, is the best part because we can understand why certain things will take time, why certain things are harder [to grow]… Because we have seen all that, it helps us understand the end product.”
Part of a chef’s training involves being familiar with the techniques and recipes of the cuisines they specialize in. There’s a huge emphasis on perfecting cooking techniques, which can vary according to cuisine. Good chefs realize, however, that a perfect technique can only get them so far. What really counts are the ingredients they use.
“In the beginning, we tend to focus on technique… then you realize that it doesn’t matter how good or how technical you are with food if you don’t understand where it comes from and how it’s grown. At the end of the day, it’ll always go back to what it tastes like and what the level of ingredients that you work with is,” Navarra says.
“It’s sort of like a full circle—you learn how to cook and then you realize that one of the most important parts of cooking are the actual ingredients, and that’s when you see the full potential of what you can do,” he adds. “That’s why I was saying that philosophically, it’s nice to see how Raf [Dacones] thinks about it because you can sort of understand and connect to that with regards to how you make things.”
He elaborates the similarities between the philosophies of a chef and farmer: “[They’re] reactive to the weather, reactive to the conditions of the soil, reactive to how it ferments or how it develops and then the same for us, the way we cook. Since we decided to work with local [ingredients] and farmers, we know that it’s not gonna give you a type of thing where you say, ‘I want the vegetable that’s six inches long with 250 grams each’ ‘cause it’s a natural thing [that can’t be dictated] and then we accept the idea that since we’re cooking, you take it, you taste it, and then you adjust on how you cook to come up with what you’re doing. It’s nice to see the farm perspective, [where] the conditions will sort of dictate how you treat your soil which in the end will dictate how the vegetables, the fruits, how all of it comes out and gets to us, and that dictates how we cook. So it’s a nice full circle thing, too.”
Dacones agrees, saying that it’s easier for both parties if chefs and farmers work together directly. “Even though [chefs are] very creative and they want to use all these types of produce, it all depends on the cost,” he says “So that’s our biggest roadblock… Chefs who have a free say on what they can use are so much easier to work with because you just give [the ingredients] to them and they can create something out of it.”
Living la vida local
Part of the farm tour included lunch composed of mostly Ilocano dishes featuring many vegetables both farmed and foraged in the area. These include nilaga with malunggay fruit, pinakbet with alukon (Allaeanthus glaber), and wild ampalaya and ensaladang gurgurmot (Gracillaria verrucosa), a local seaweed. “We try to serve [these] to chefs to give them an idea [that] hey, you can actually serve this. It’s so much easier for a farmer to grow them,” Dacones says. “We always turn to seasonality… to broaden the minds of these chefs to get them more creative in their dishes.
It’s now-hard-to-find ingredients like these that fuel Navarra’s imagination and spurs him to not just carefully choose the farmers he works with, but visit their farms as well. “We wanted Toyo to reflect who we are, where we come from, [and] what we eat, and I feel like for it to be a reflection of all of that and where you are, you need to work specifically with what’s around you.”
This includes taking Philippine culture into account, which is why Navarra uses ingredients like flour. Because even though the Philippines isn’t a wheat-growing country, it has a long and ingrained baking tradition. “Culturally taking into account [that we] have [things like] pandesal [that] Filipinos value, so there’s not a specific way of saying ‘only local.’ I think it’s relatability and relevance,” he adds.
Some of the chef’s favorite local ingredients to work with have to do with the country’s hero crop, rice. These include rice wine tapuy, rice snack budbud, and fermented rice dish tapay. “[These are things] we know exist in the Philippines culturally but it’s never been incorporated into [the mainstream] diet unless you specifically look for them… It’s something that we can explore because traditionally, people have been eating or drinking [them but] nobody has ever really bought [it to the mainstream] that so I think there’s an extra value in the fact that it’s alive even if it’s not [commercially available],” he says. “It makes it extra interesting for me because it means people want it to exist.”
Dacones hopes that chef-farmer partnerships continue not just because it’s good for local farmers, but because it has the potential to benefit the national cuisine as a whole, especially if chefs work with what’s local and seasonal. “I hope there are more farmer-chef collaborations. I want to encourage more chefs to visit farms and get to know their farmers because I think that’s the way for them to be more creative because working together would bring up more ideas and will uplift the culinary scene of the Philippines,” he says.
Unique and imagination-fueling ingredients aside, it’s working with someone trusted that’s important in such a collaboration. “I guess the main reason why [we] wanted to work with and meet more local producers is that we look for… people we can relate to. I think at the end of the day, you have a relationship and you want to be friends, and when you do things for your friends, it feels better than just a business transaction,” Navarra says. “It’s not like we’re in a business that makes us a lot of money—it’s not gonna make you super rich—so I think for me, one of the most important things is to enjoy the process, and enjoying the process entails working with people you like.”
And ideally, that’s what chefs and farmers should be: not just business partners, but friends.
Photos by Yvette Tan