At Gallery, Chele Gonzalez's Modern Cuisine Leads Us Back to Old-Fashioned Sincerity
Gallery by Chele operates on a slight tone of irony. It is, perhaps, one of the last bastions of fine-dining in the city yet it will make you want to lick up the plate for every last drop. It seems more polite to do so actually, if only to acknowledge the exertions that were made to create the dish. The chefs work like fine artists but they are also trained in dealing with compost.
Luis “Chele” Gonzalez was a business graduate-turned-club owner and DJ-turned-chef from Torrelavega, Spain. His proclivity for cooking brought him to many of the world’s best kitchens: Arzak, Mugaritz, El Celler de Can Roca, El Bulli, and more. Three-week holidays initiated him to Asia until one day, he decided to make that vacation permanent. He set off with his remarkable resume and a single backpack. He only knew one person in the Philippines.
When Gallery Vask took off in November 2013, the plates represented everything that was happening at that time in Spain, the mecca of contemporary dining, at least if the World’s 50 Best organization was concerned: modern, molecular, exploratory, show-stopping. Jaws dropped because not only did everything taste incredible, it was nothing Manila had seen locally.
More than the sum of its parts, Gallery by Chele has an exceptional team.
It would be a year later, when former Mugaritz chef Julieta Caruso visited the Philippines, where Chele would carve his own path. He wanted to show her the best of his new home and in doing so, he himself discovered his own niche in cooking. He visited the Aetas, traveled through the Cordilleras, he worked on heirloom rice. Seeing where the food came from was a lightbulb going off in his head: it was no longer enough to just use the ingredients. There is a story that must be conveyed: how it was prepared, the tradition behind it, the people. His immersions showed Chele that food is more than just something to eat. He realized that the timeline of a dish stretched far beyond the kitchen—it was derived from anthropology. Cooking end-to-end allowed him to give his cuisine an identity beyond sustenance.
This is the plotline that Chele would ultimately pursue, one that revolved around preservation and conservation. As he and his team dove into a deeper exploration of regional cuisine and its methodology and history, Gallery Vask would shut down and transform itself as Gallery Chele.
Co-owner and executive sous chef Carlos Villaflor, F&B manager Anne Bestoso, assistant manager and sommelier Allan Roque, and, of course, the eponymous chef Chele Gonzalez
Chele the chef is easy enough to write about. He’s an affable Spaniard whose accolades, including Gallery Vask’s two-time inclusion on the 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list, speak for themselves. But his restaurant flaunts a different kind of literature where every character and element has its own story arc.
There is no cuisine at Gallery. It is Filipino, but only partly. It’s also Spanish on one side, and in some ways, a capsule history of the chefs. They would call it “essentialist,” a sort of bringing back to the core of cuisine, using heritage techniques. One dish, which hearkens to sinigang, is made entirely of unwanted leftovers. Another dish is pulpo inasal. The kitchen has free reign to cross-reference inspirations. In the hands of a more enfeebled kitchen, it would appear to be a mess. Gallery is many things, yet it doesn’t feel like a hodgepodge. In fact, every dish speaks far more eloquently than any word on the menu. Whether you get a la carte or any of five- to nine-tasting sets, the restaurant's message is bracingly clear: this is a journey.
A Gallery signature: the meringue-de sal with chicken, soy, and mousse
Tomato and basil mochi (made in-house) with kesong puti that's bursting with tinapa flavor
Fired! Pulpo is served on a placemat featuring an illustration by Garapa (which you can take home if you don't mess it up). The comic strip narrates how the dish was made and, after you've eaten it, the server comes back to check if you've deciphered the drawings correctly.