If there’s anyone who could embody the playful energy of “sexy” tapas bar Tomatito, it has to be Iván Fernández. Bringing in extensive experience from stints in Spain and as sous chef at El Willy and Tomatito in Shanghai, Fernández’s mission in his Manila culinary venture is to continuously craft Spanish dishes that suit the Filipino palate while ensuring a memorable dining experience.
Tomatito is the nickname of iconic Spanish flamenco guitarist Jose Fernández Torres as well as the Spanish word that translates to “little tomato.” With its traditional Andalusian tapas bar concept, complete with fine wine, great music, and 80s-themed interiors, Tomatito has become an avenue for Fernández’s creativity in the kitchen, especially when it comes to tapas—arguably one of the most important representations of Spanish gastronomy.
A little bit of everything
Fernández worked for three years in Tomatito Shanghai before coming to the Philippines. This means having to get accustomed to the Chinese palate (his first introduction to Asian cuisine), which is an entirely different set of flavor profile from Filipinos. So how then was he able to adapt to the Filipino palate?
“Coming from a Tomatito [in Shanghai], I knew the style. But obviously, a different country means different customers,” says the 31-year-old chef who originally hails from Madrid.
He arrived in Manila in July 2019, which means he had barely three months to prepare and launch Tomatito’s new menu. Upon arrival, he realized how Filipinos are more into stronger flavors—saltier, spicier, sweeter, more savory, and with splashes of bitterness and acidity—compared with the Chinese market where he always had to be cautious about flavors.
“Everything here is sweet. Yesterday, I had coffee, and the guy didn’t even ask me if I want sugar. It was like sugar with a little bit of coffee,” he laughs.
For him, the Filipino version of a Spanish dish is all about balance. Due to the influence of the US, Japan, and Spain, Filipinos have a nicer touch to the palate. If a dish is not well-rounded with the right combination of flavors, diners will find it dull and boring. “Where I come from, sweet is for dessert and savory is for the main and starter. But here, I know it’s not restricted. I can play well with the flavors,” he says.
One of Tomatito’s dessert offerings is lemon cream, which is made with fresh lemon custard, fruits, and basil sorbet. Some customers find the dessert good but tends to lean more on the acidity of the lemon. Despite the extremity of flavors here, Fernández still wants to give the dishes his own touch, intending to keep them true to their Spanish roots.
“Obviously we cannot please everybody. There are items that people prefer over others. But overall the feedback has been really good. I try to come out of the kitchen as much as possible to talk to the customers and ask them how they’re doing.”
“If you’re going to spend 12 hours in a restaurant and you have to spend 12 hours scared, what’s the point? It’s not healthy. It’s tense, you get home, you’re more tired because you are tense the whole day.”
Tomatito’s kitchen staff also work with Fernández in an open kitchen. The chef himself first worked in an open kitchen when he was in China, describing it as a long kitchen divided into sections such as seafood, meat, and paella where people take photos of him and the staff.
“I got so used to it to the point that I don’t mind it and I think it’s actually nicer because I can see the reaction of my customers. I also have a clear view of how and in what pace they’re eating so I know when to send dishes to the table. They can also see that we’re transparent, that we’re not doing anything weird, and that pretty much everything that comes out of the kitchen is made there. It’s transparent for both sides,” he says.
The Filipino kitchen inside a Spanish restaurant
“I love them. Coming to work every day and waking up knowing that I’ll come to work with them, I really like it,” Fernández says about his all-Filipino staff. If there’s anything admirable about Tomatito’s new head chef, it has to be the kind of environment he creates with his staff. There are two shifts inside the Tomatito kitchen: The morning staff are focused on producing while the evening staff are centered on cooking and serving.
Fernández wants a relaxed working environment and so he likes to have a good laugh in the kitchen with his staff. He’d always crack jokes and he isn’t the type to shout around and give orders. Treating his staff as family is key to their good working dynamics and, in turn, this translates to the kind of service Tomatito provides its customers.
And all of these are for a good reason: It’s the way Fernández wants to be treated. He has worked in various restaurants in Spain and while he considers some as a nice place to work in, some unfortunately didn’t work so well.
“When you go in and you’re super scared of your head chef, you pretty much try to hide and you’re terrified to make a mistake—there’s no joy. If you’re going to spend 12 hours in a restaurant and you have to spend 12 hours scared, what’s the point? It’s not healthy. It’s tense, you get home, you’re more tired because you are tense the whole day,” he explains.
Obviously, there will be moments when things won’t go the way he expects it—and it’s something he never blames his staff for. “Well, it’s a restaurant. It’s a living being. Lots of customers inside, problems can appear, in the kitchen or outside. So when things get tense, you have to get serious. You have to cut the jokes, go straight to work, and focus. But, I love them all and we have a really good relationship.”
There are also instances when these relationships stand out for different reasons. When Fernández had trouble with local suppliers not being as reliable or as consistent as those in Shanghai, he relies on his sous chef and kitchen manager. Another mark of Fernández’s admirable leadership is his receptivity to practically everything. He recalls his encounter with local produce such as sigarilyas (a vegetable that he has never seen in his life) and the naturally sweet mangoes—even going so far as incorporating calamansi and local chilis into his dishes.
“Well, it’s a restaurant. It’s a living being. Lots of customers inside, problems can appear, in the kitchen or outside. So when things get tense you have to get serious. You have to cut the jokes, go straight to work, and focus.”
“That’s where my staff plays a really important part on the menu because I can have an idea but maybe people here don’t like it as much so I always go to them first. I’ll always have them try things out first and tell me what they think about it from a Filipino’s perspective. There are always changes to make so I’m really glad and I feel very lucky that I have people in the kitchen that interact with me and are not afraid to say if something is bad or if people aren’t going to like it.”
What makes tapas “sexy”
Fernández himself asked the same question when he joined Tomatito: What is sexy tapas? “That’s something that I also asked when I had an interview with my boss. He said, ‘We do sexy tapas here.’ And I’m like what the hell is that? I know tapas. I’m Spanish. But I don’t know sexy tapas. Do you go in the kitchen naked with an apron?” he says.
“The chef here has more freedom to create and to make mistakes because it’s cheaper, like a real Spanish tapas place. That’s the inspiration that I’ve got, the place that I’ve worked in my life that inspired me the most because it’s good ingredients, fresh, colorful, and fun—pretty much anything that I would eat in Spain. But, I always try to come up with a twist to make it better, more interesting, colorful, and expressive.”
At the moment, he is working on specials for the coming months, including special Spanish festive dishes for the season and intending to go with the flow of what 2020 has in store for a “sexier” Tomatito.
“That’s what it means to be sexy to me; it’s not so much that people have to be good looking or have to be wearing anything nice. It’s just in what we do. The flavors are sexy because it’s surprising and different. If I made tapas or food the same way I would make in Spain or at home with my mom, most people would come here saying ‘nah.’ Not because it’s not good but because we’re a restaurant trying to serve something a little different,” says Fernández.
What businesses can learn from Fernández is how to create their own definition of “sexy”—one where there’s an equilibrium between a free and creative kitchen culture that paves the way for healthy working relationships, and a flavorful dining experience that stays true to its identity while not dismissing the idea of change.