It used to be that Chele Gonzales would take his yearly vacations and limit it to a week in Europe, maybe in Italy or Berlin, but this year he gave himself a whole six months staying nowhere else but back in his coastal hometown of Cantabria in Northern Spain. The length of stay and choice of destination, says the acclaimed Spanish chef, was because of family and other personal reasons.
It was an extended holiday that turned out quite memorable. He was there from summer to winter for the first time in a long period, and was able to reunite with his 89-year old mother “who enjoys food as I do.” It was a trip so special it moved the chef to create an entire tasting menu inspired by the experience of reacquainting himself with the cuisine of his youth, or what he’s known all these years as comfort food. He discovered that his perspective on it has completely changed, having grown older and spending so much time away. On one hand he missed Asian food, “but (I) was just as excited,” he says, “to rediscover each and every special dish from that part of the world.”
Where Chele was born, people surfed and fished and watched the ocean—and one can almost smell the sea wind and hear the crashing of waves in the medley of flavors the chef composed in his ten-course menu called “Re-encounters.” The food is inspired by his hometown, yes, but interpreted with the techniques and principles that Gallery by Chele is built from: a celebration of the best ingredients in his new home, the Philippines, as well as his advocacy on sustainability.
To go through the entire dinner is like going on a journey, and not only because you eat at three different areas in the Gallery, starting at the bar where most meals at the restaurant begin, but because of the photographs—in the form of a souvenir postcard, a laminated charger, a candle light filter—that arrive with select bites and dishes. Snaps of a seascape, a mountain range, and his family that Chele took himself with his camera phone.
The early bites, preceded by a refreshing sangria type cocktail with Coke, engage one with its variety of light flavors, textures and consistencies, pulled together by refined composition. Standouts were the shrimps on a fritter bed and Chele’s version of the gazpacho. But the real highlights of the evening are the Salsa Verde, which is a White snapper with sayote and a parsley-infused green sauce, and the Montañes, or white beans and stewed meats wrapped in kale.
Cocido de Montañes, from which this last dish takes its roots from, is a rich mountain stew favored during the winter season in Cantabria. The original version also has cabbage, chorizo, chicken, pork and blood sausages. It’s a dish Chele’s mother used to cook when he was a little boy. He calls it “a true representation of my land.”
The dessert equivalent of this would likely be the Cantabria cake, a butter sponge confection whose status in the chef’s hometown is easily iconic. It is usually served at breakfast or as a post-dinner treat, with coffee or hot chocolate. Chele serves it at the Gallery with a burnt milk ice cream—which is evocative of the Spanish coastal area’s great dairy culture.
While all these sound like delightful ‘pasalubong’ from Chele’s half a year in the land of his birth, the menu might as well serve as an invitation for his Filipino fans to visit that part of the world. And why not? By the end of a long night of dining and wining (each of the main dishes and desserts arrive with a suggested wine from the house sommelier), one would surely be full and drunk with thoughts of Cantabria’s verdant mountains set against blue waters—which makes the landscape a bountiful resource for the freshest seafood, meat, milk and quite possibly everything that’s good in the world.
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