If you want to try the nine-course tasting menu at Gallery by Chele, be warned that you won’t just be having an excellent meal to fill you up, but rather be prepared for a lot more—yes, a meal, but also a journey, an education, an experience. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, as the Spanish-born Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez, the chef behind Gallery by Chele, has gained a reputation for venturing outside the kitchen for knowledge and inspiration. Together with his culinary team, they aren’t just cooks, but also explorers in search of long lost ingredients to rediscover and both old and new techniques to experiment with, in close communion with what’s happening in the outside world.
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The tasting menu that I recently experienced at Gallery by Chele—and most likely, any future tasting menus to come out of that kitchen—was a revelation, not just because the food was really good (that is, after all, a matter of taste and individual preference), but rather because what’s happening on the plate is as “culinarily relevant” and forward thinking as anything else you’ll eat in the country.
Chele Gonzalez is no stranger to this kind of multi-layered, research-intensive menu creation. He first opened his tasting menu-only Gallery Vask in November 2013, and proceeded to establish and refine his ambitious, quasi-anthropological approach to cooking. That approach led to Gallery Vask ranking number 39 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016, moving up to number 35 the following year.
For various reasons, Gonzalez shut down Gallery Vask in late 2017, only to reopen as the reincarnated Gallery by Chele in January 2018, with Carlos Villaflor as partner and executive sous chef. Unlike the old Vask, the new restaurant offers both an à la carte and tasting menu in the same venue, with an expanded bar program. What’s new this time is the R&D area, called Stvdio Lab, and just launched in October 2019, the Greenhouse.
All these areas form part of what makes Gallery by Chele tick. Its latest tasting menu allows diners to explore the restaurant’s many facets, and ultimately ponder issues like sustainability, food traditions, even nutrition, through a journey that encompasses so much more than the nine courses listed on the menu card. The printed flyer that accompanies the menu reads like a mission statement of sorts: “Our love of the natural world shapes our values, frames our philosophies and influences our creative process.”
The first part of the tasting menu, titled “Prologue,” is meant to illustrate three themes: seasonality, innovation, and comfort. Starting at the bar, we were served a simple cocktail and some snacks, to whet the appetite for what was to come. From there, a chef guided us to the restaurant’s deck, recently launched as the Greenhouse, which is essentially a sustainable urban garden featuring endemic herbs, forgotten plants and vegetables to be used in the kitchen. Biodegradable kitchen waste is turned into compost to feed the garden which in turn grows produce to supply the kitchen.
The Greenhouse is a step towards the goal of becoming a zero-waste restaurant, a case study of a small restaurant that can thrive while following sustainability principles. “We hope this will inspire people to be more aware and be more involved,” says Gonzalez.
After the Greenhouse, we were led to the Stvdio Lab that serves as the R&D arm of the restaurant. The space is small and inviting—with a large dining table, working kitchen, shelves lined with cookbooks, and one entire wall serving as a whiteboard. Most interesting were vats of kombucha, tea fermenting with various flavorings like banana, kaffir, lemongrass, cacao, lining the shelves. There was also a chiller with meats dry aging. One of the chefs also showed us moldy non-dairy cheeses slowly aging.
We were served a refreshing glass of kombucha, bread, and cashew cheese, as we pondered how the Stvdio Lab melds these age-old practices like curing and fermenting with science and technology to produce food products that would be welcome in the 21st century. The bread and non-dairy cheese were delicious, by the way.
From the Stvdio Lab, we were finally guided to our table in the main dining area for the “journey” or dinner proper to start. As we took to our seats, we were served a series of snacks, as well as a pouch of chicharon with a selection of local vinegars served on a tray. From pinakurat to cashew vinegar, these seemingly run-of-the-mill suka, when part of a high concept tasting menu, allowed us to appreciate more fully their unique taste profiles. What is ordinary and familiar can also be special and interesting when presented in a different context.
The nine courses themselves were a combination of some of Gallery by Chele’s familiar dishes—Pearls, Abalone, Sour Ribs 2.0—with a few surprises along the way. The Zero is a tuna dish that uses the usually discarded parts of the tomato, exemplifying the restaurant’s aspirations towards a zero-waste kitchen.
Fired! Pulpo is a playful riff on an octopus dish pretending to be a chicken dish, by way of the chicken jus and chicken skin that give the pulpo its chicken-intense characteristics.
Throughout the meal, Gonzalez played with sour, a taste that Filipinos understand well, in a variety of ways, using souring agents like fruits, vinegars, and other fermented products to stimulate the palate. It’s a taste profile that is very much in line with global food trends, as chefs around the world have been finding new ways of unleashing the power of fermentation in terms of flavor and nutrition.
The final two courses were two desserts, the coconut-laced Pandan and cacao-intense Pure, that celebrate traditional Filipino sweets like nata de coco, dulce de leche, latik, cacao in modern renditions.
But for the meal’s “Epilogue,” Gonzalez chose to end with “tradition”—quite simply his own version of bibingka, gently warmed on a tableside burner. For this finale, after a journey that went from sustainability to innovation, we found ourselves back to what we knew, what was comforting and familiar in our food.
Gallery by Chele is just as modern a restaurant as you’ll find anywhere in the world. But it also aims to carve out a space for traditional food practices and ingredients to stay relevant in the 21st century. So, what does the future of food look like according to Gallery by Chele? Plant a garden, eat your greens, add some sourness, and end with a bite of bibingka.
5/F Clipp Center, 11th Avenue corner 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, www.gallerybychele.com