MANILA -- For chefs who are concerned with long-term sustainability, there are many ways of interpreting what it means to “go local.”
At the last day of Madrid Fusion Manila on Saturday, three renowned chefs -- Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery in Makati, Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer of Locavore in Ubud, Indonesia, and Josean Alija of Nerua Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain -- explored the idea of how going local is at the very heart and soul of their restaurants.
Fascinated with the Philippines' diverse gastronomic culture, Navarra chose to highlight local, seasonal ingredients, and to celebrate regionally specific food in his cooking. After finishing culinary school in Manila, he went abroad to train in internationally acclaimed restaurants like Fat Duck and Hibiscus in the UK, and Bo Innovation and Ryu Gin in Hong Kong.
“There, I became exposed to new flavors and techniques which I learned from world-class chefs,” said Navarra.
Eventually though, he felt he needed to return to the Philippines. “Rather than looking outward, I looked inward instead and found that it was more meaningful for me to come home, to do something that is close to me, to my upbringing in my own country,” he shared.
For Navarra, being sustainable means being directly involved with local communities of farmers and fishermen. “These master craftsmen and artisans inspire us, and take the lead in helping us to develop and evolve our food at the restaurant,” he explained.
To illustrate this, he made one of his signature dishes called Bahay Kubo. Inspired by the Filipino folk song, there are 18 vegetables in total on one plate.
In his travels here, he discovered a small community of fishermen in Batanes who catch only one kind of fish, the silver dorado, and can only do so twice a year. Navarra observed that they took great pride in learning and mastering the techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation: from the difficult process of catching the fish itself, to the way it is sliced, cooked, or preserved.
On stage, Navarra introduced the audience to Jun Fabre, a master fisherman from Batanes. With amazing deftness and precision, Fabre demonstrated how to traditionally brake down a dorado into segments.
“After they catch a dorado, they break it down right away, then equally distribute it among the members of the community. Of course, a part of it is always set aside for kinilaw,” said Navarra.
“We want to help represent the Filipino community,” said Navarra, “and we hope to do that by continuing to explore the many rich landscapes (and seascapes) of the Philippines, and applying what we’ve learned from them in our work.”
A more expansive definition of what is ‘local’
The two chefs from Indonesia also believe in this philosophy wholeheartedly. Their fantastic locally focused fine dining restaurant Locavore in Ubud has consistently made it to Asia’s Top 50 Best Restaurants list, skyrocketing from No. 49 last year to No. 22 this year (the highest ever climb in the list’s history!).
Influenced by their respective European and Indonesian culinary backgrounds, Jakarta-born Ray Adriansyah and Dutch-born Eelke Plasmeijer work together to create impressive menus that center on what is local and sustainable in their beloved Bali.
Their slogan, “Go Local or Go Home” succinctly expresses what they are trying to do. At the outset, they aimed to use local produce sourced nearby as much as possible to support the local community in Bali. “Up to 90% of the ingredients we use are from Bali,” said Adriansyah.
However, in recent years, they’ve been moving towards using authentic Indonesian ingredients sourced not just from Bali, but also from other islands like Java, Lombok, and Sumatra.
“Although it’s been very challenging to get that kind of produce into Ubud, we like doing this because it makes for a much more interesting story of our dishes for our guests,” Plasmeijer explained. For instance, they stopped using wagyu beef, and opted for local Indonesian beef.
Like Navarra, it became apparent to them that they needed to help teach small farmers to be able to farm more sustainably. “It became more important to be close to the suppliers and farmers, so we had to win their trust,” they affirm.
Their dishes are conceptual yet still sensual and relatable. One of their signature dishes is a risotto dish called Sawah, or “ricefields.” “It’s everything that lives and grows in the ricefield in a bowl,” they explained. Made with bakui, a rice varietal that is indigenous to Bali, and is only harvested once a year because it grows so slowly, this dish contains snails, duck’s eggyolk, frog’s legs floss, pako (fern tips) and santan flowers.
Another dish that they cooked onstage was Tempe from Central Java. “Very much the backbone of Indonesian cuisine, tempe or fermented soybean cuts across all social classes there,” said Adriansyah. They wanted to present it in the simplest yet most delicious way possible – they braised the tempe in a flavorful broth, with kecap manis, tomato sauce, taucho (another kind of fermented soybean product), then plated with glazed bellpepper, garlic chips soaked in milk (to get rid of the overpowering garlic flavor), and picked jicama on top for freshness.
The Locavore chefs have several projects in the works, such as an online database called “Localpedia,” wherein they will identify and classify all produce that is indigenous to Indonesia. In line with their ethos of going local, they are also set to open their own dedicated butcher shop specializing in local meat sourced from all over Indonesia in Ubud.
The essentials of essence
Known as the “master of minimailist cuisine,” chef Josean Alija of one Michelin starred Nerua Guggenheim in Bilbao takes truly local and seasonal ingredients and creates impeccable minimalist masterpieces with them. In this way, he pushes the boundaries of modern Spanish cuisine by balancing innovation with tradition. His take on food is more philosophical, in that he wants to focus on distilling the true essence of new and interesting ingredients, so that they shine through in his creations.
“At the end of the day, we (chefs) are here to give joy and pleasure to our customers in their discovery of such essences,” said Alija.
Like Navarra, Adriansyah, and Plasmeijer, Alija knows that it all must begin with how and where he sources his ingredients from. “We live in a privileged environment where we can get 90% of what we need nearby our restaurant,” he explained.
In Bilbao, they have to work with the seasons as well (winter, spring, summer, fall). Alija exemplfied this by explaining one of the dishes in Nerua, Squid, onion, and pea juice, using baby squid caught at the peak of its flavor in the summer. “Usually caught by retired fishermen, we receive the baby squids directly from the boat,” he said.
Upon the invitation of chef Chele Gonzalez of Vask, Alija actually visited the Philippines a few months ago, and briefly became acquainted with our local flavor profiles. Inspired by our local ingredients, he made a Langoustine Curry by distilling the very flavor essence of the langoustine, turning it into jelly form, simmering it in clarified broth, then enriching it with coconut cream.
Community is key
For all these chefs, another vital element of sustainability and going local is making sure that their team is as invested as they are in the food they produce.
“It’s important to work with people who have the same values as we do,” said Alija.
Adriansyah and Plasmeijer also make it a point to employ young, promising Indonesians to work in their restaurant: “Our entire staff has been with us from the very beginning, for over three and a half years,” they said.
After all, as Navarra affirmed, “we’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves us with.”