True sustainability is about closing loops, not jumping through hoops, says the couple behind Asia’s most sustainable restaurant

Cheryl Tiu - 09/05/2023

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.
Toyo's take on the dim sum classic, siomai, beloved by the Phillippines sees the dumplings filled with black rice

The mandates for the ingredient-sourcing process – as well as the restaurant’s furnishings, and even cleaning supplies – are that they must be local, organic and traceable. As Fair Trade certification isn’t yet widely accessible in the Philippines, Toyo opts instead to work directly with suppliers, producers and organisations that have fair and transparent agreements, as much as possible.

Heritage ingredients have also been incorporated into the menus, as they carry with them both cultural and sustainable practices. “Working with traditional artisans allows us to tell their stories, highlighting the country’s vast and diverse heritage and the sustainable practices that come with it.” The eye-catching asin tibuok, a solid dome of salt – one of the oldest and rarest salts in the world – is grated on top of a dessert of homemade leche flan ice cream. Mountain Violet heirloom rice, a deep-mauve-coloured rice planted only once or twice a year, is turned into a purple rice sourdough at their bakery, Panaderya Toyo.

Zero-waste by 2025

Toyo’s physical space also recently underwent a renovation to provide more infrastructure for R&D, prep work, recycling and composting. “When we opened, sustainability wasn’t really one of the things we focused on but it slowly became part of our philosophy,” Jordy says. “It started with the realisation that being able to get the best ingredients often means being sustainable as well. We realised this with our fish, where sustainable practices resulted in higher-quality ingredients. We try to tap into our producers’ expertise, asking them to grow things they know would be best for the season, the condition of their soil and not focus too much on the demands of the market.”
The restaurant aims to eliminate all waste in their kitchen by 2025 via an extensive sustainability programme, including the creation of a regenerative compost ecosystem 

In fact, Toyo has a goal of being zero-waste by the end of 2025. “To achieve our zero-food-waste goal, we do have a few plans guiding us – the first of which is to continue monitoring our food waste and adjust the menu where we can,” says May. “Second is to continue our partnership with a local urban farm that processes our fermented bokashi waste into compost. Lastly, to start setting up our own compost system. For non-food waste, we will continue reassessing our supply chain to look for greener alternatives; set up a material recovery programme with our neighbouring establishments in the commercial compound we’re in; and work with the local government units and local non-government organisations to make the system efficient.”

Furthermore, the restaurant has also acquired a forest and a farm in Lucban in the province of Quezon, which Jordy and May hope to further utilise in closing the loop. “It’s an area we hope to preserve to offset our carbon footprint but also a place where we can grow produce using the results of our composting in Toyo Eatery,” says May. “We’re still in the planning phase but we’re very excited to see how we can further our sustainability efforts.”

Winning the Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award 2023 was an unexpected surprise for the team. “It is a tremendous honour for us,” says Jordy. “There’s still a long way to go, but this recognition is a symbol that we’re on the right track. It’s a proud moment for all of us at Toyo Eatery – and we only hope to further ourselves in the coming years.”

Want to be more sustainable at home? May Navarra shares some tips:
1)     Don’t be scared to start small, because every little thing adds up
2)     Check your fridge and pantry and evaluate the necessity of ingredients that you have. Can certain things be purchased from the local market vs a supermarket? Are there ways to minimise single-use packaging? Are you cooking too much or just enough to ensure leftovers don’t get thrown out?
3)     Sustainability looks different to everyone and thinking about long-term effects doesn’t come easily to everyone. It’s okay to start with yourself first and see what changes can become a habit. Let that seed grow and bigger changes will follow

The list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2023, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced on 28th March 2023 at an awards ceremony in Singapore. To stay up to date with the latest news, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube