True sustainability is about closing loops, not jumping through hoops, says the couple behind Asia's most sustainable restaurant
Set in south-central Manila, Toyo Eatery was announced as the winner of the Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023. Cheryl Tiu meets the owners to discuss how the strongest sustainability credentials often begin at home, through forging relationships and preserving local heritage
In the Philippines, a country with a cuisine heavily centred on meat, the decision to completely remove beef from a restaurant’s menu is a bold one. But it’s a move that Toyo Eatery, winner of this year’s Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award, committed to in 2022. “Compared to other livestock, raising cattle has a large impact on the environment,” explains chef and co-owner Jordy Navarra, who runs the restaurant with his wife and business partner, May. “It’s a major source of pollution in different ways, [causing] soil degradation, large grain consumption from crops grown for agricultural purposes and industrial pollution, to name a few. Agriculturally speaking, we aren’t exactly a large cattle-raising country. Of the beef we do produce, they are more often than not either stewed or dried and cured, like tapa.”
Toyo’s menu has always incorporated plenty of vegetables, since opening in 2016. One of its most famous and ingenious dishes is the Bahay Kubo, a salad with 18 vegetables, based on a local popular children’s folk song. “Because we are a nation that has a diverse library of seafood and produce, working with our fundamental flavours came naturally,” shares Jordy.
Heading for plant-based
In 2020, the restaurant launched a completely vegan tasting menu. “It felt natural, because Filipino cooking, especially rural cooking, is very heavy on vegetables,” Jordy explains. “From the Filipino perspective, there are fiestas where it's all about abundance – there’s always a lot of food. But for the rest of the year, home cooking is really vegetable-based with minimal protein. We were bound to work eventually on a menu that reflects that aspect of Filipino cuisine.”
On this menu, dishes might include: black rice turned into siomai (dumplings); laing (shredded taro leaves cooked in thick coconut milk) served on homemade rice noodles; and tortang talong (omelette) and pumpkin on a burnt eggplant chip, served with banana catsup. To date, they’ve noticed five to ten percent of their clientele opting for the plant-based tasting menu each day – usually due to dietary preferences, allergy restrictions or simply out of curiosity.