Food

At Gallery, Chele Gonzalez's Modern Cuisine Leads Us Back to Old-Fashioned Sincerity

Chef Chele Gonzalez and his team show that what you see on the plate isn't the end to your meal.
IMAGE Gallery by Chele
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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.

Photo by Gallery by Chele.
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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.

Photo by courtesy of Gallery by Chele.
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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.

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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 

Photo by courtesy of Gallery by Chele.

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.

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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

Photo by courtesy of Gallery by Chele.
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Tortang Takoyaki

Photo by courtesy of Gallery by Chele.

Tomato and basil mochi (made in-house) with kesong puti that's bursting with tinapa flavor 

Photo by courtesy of Gallery by Chele.
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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.

Photo by Gallery by Chele.
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Pearls. This one comes with scallops, radish, lime, and cashew milk instead of coconut. The green drops are mustard chlorophyll.

Photo by of Gallery by Chele.

Zero, the name comes from the fact that nothing is wasted on this dish. It uses parts of the vegetable and animal that are barely used.

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Photo by Gallery by Chele.

There is a format to understanding Gallery’s methods. In most other places, the meal is usually the conclusion, but here, it’s only one stage of the cycle. In its efforts to become more self-sustaining, Gallery has developed the Greenhouse, which, in essence, is an urban garden of endemic herbs, forgotten plants, and vegetables most commonly used in the restaurant. 

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“We are building a multi-crop, eco-system that thoughtfully considers how one crop can support or be supported by the cultivation of another. The Greenhouse is also about creating a permaculture that is healthier and more sustainable. Doing this allows our garden to provide us with the freshest and most unique herbs and vegetables, making our menu more interesting and delicious,” says Carlos Villaflor, Chele’s culinary partner in a press release.

Photo by Gallery by Chele.
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Presa Iberica, which is pork shoulder with cabbage and five spices. It's one of the dishes that you'll want to mop up.

The smokiest bibingka you'll ever see.

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Pure: mousse, cacao, kombucha

The kitchen’s biodegradable waste is used to fertilize vertical ecosystems where a variety of plants and organisms are carefully arranged to be symbiotic. The garden is only halfway done. The herbs are just starting to flourish and the netted canopy is only temporary until the trees grow. Some of the chefs and kitchen staff studied horticulture to maintain the urban garden that took the place of what used to be The Deck.

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And what they can’t grow, they make—at Stvdio Lab, where things bubble, age, and ferment. In the tiny little space beside the main dining room, the kitchen team makes their own soy sauce, nata de coco, vinegar, kombucha, among others. One device keeps cheeses and meats that are aging to perfection as well as the restaurant’s own in-house bottarga.

There is a bit of folksiness in Gallery, but there’s some mad science, too. And a little theatricality (the pulpo comes with a quiz and the palate cleanser is a performance of shaving ice). Amid all the invention and reinvention that Gonzalez, Villaflor, and the team has taken Manila dining, after the loops and swerves our palates go through after dishes like Zero and Sour Ribs, it's clear that we're going toward a path of more honest food.

Gallery by Chele is at 5/F Clipp Centre Building, 39th Street Corner 11th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City; +63917-546-1673. There are options for five courses (P2,500) and nine courses (P3,300). Wine is a must and can be paired with each dish for an additional P1,500 to P2,300. Cocktails are P1,000 to P1,600.

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About The Author
Sasha Lim Uy
Managing Editor, EsquireMag.ph
Sasha eats to live and lives to eat. For five years, she handled SPOT.ph's food section and edited the last two installments of its Top 10 Food books. She also recently participated at the Madrid Fusion Manila as curator.
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