Food

Vask's Chele Gonzalez is a Fine-Dining Willy Wonka at the New Stvdio Lab

After Vask made it to the list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, Chef Chele Gonzalez shows that he's still the mad genius of Philippine food.
IMAGE courtesy of Stvdio Lab
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Any dish by Chef Chele Gonzalez deserves a moment. You look at it, turn your plate around to view it from all angles, you inhale, you observe, you admire, you take it in like the miniature artwork that it really is. Then, you eatone big fleeting bite that will probably be ingrained in your memory for years to come. Tortillas flavored with ube, tuna cheeks disguised as beef, upo seeds being things you don't disregard. It is at this point you wonder whether the chef and his team are just so efficient at making their ingredients play their roles or they're just so good at creating new ones.

Stvdio Lab is a place where food is fabricated to things you never thought were possible, where Chele puts on the thinking cap and pushes ingredients and combinations past their definitions. It is the backroom brought into the limelight. 

Chef Chele Gonzalez in his element IMAGE: courtesy of Stvdio Lab
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Chef Carlos Villaflor is the 26-year-old culinary prodigy who works as the group's executive sous chef. IMAGE: courtesy of Stvdio Lab

Run by the same team behind Gallery by Chele, Stvdio Lab is neatly described as "a crossroad were research and hospitality meet," but Carlos Villaflor, Chef Chele's 26-year-old executive sous chef, has a more definitive if not accurate shorthand for this boardroom-slash-kitchen: He calls it "magical."

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It is, in a way. In today's restaurant milieu where volume and visibility are usually prioritized, a wild 10-seater intimate project like Stvdio Lab can only be a reality for the crazy few who have the guts to chase after their dreams.

"We moved here eight years ago and we dreamed of opening our own restaurant," says Cyril Addison, who, with his wife Pierre, helped bring this reality together. "Five years ago, we met Chele at Vask." Their newly formed ADVICHE—that's Addison, Villaflor, and Chele—consultancy group came about when Vask shut down early in 2018 for renovations. Stvdio Lab is the mission control of all their ideas. 

Gesturing at the small studio, Cyril adds, "This is a one-stop food and restaurant solution that aims to help others renovate and reconceptualize their restaurants." 

Stvdio Lab finds itself a cross between a condo and a boardroom. IMAGE: courtesy of Stvdio Lab
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Stvdio Lab's bespoke 10-seater table is open once a week and anyone who books a seat is a witness to over 70 years of restaurant experience. The multicourse, interactive dinner continues the group's advocacy of putting local ingredients and food technology to the forefront, serving Gallery crowdpleasers as well the kitchen's culinary novelties. "There are things you'll try in this room that you might never see again," says Chef Chele mysteriously. 

As exciting as it is to watch (and taste) how these geniuses work, a seat at Stvdio Lab promises so much more than a memorable P3,200 dining experience. It is a ticket to view how food continues to evolvethanks to people like chefs Chele and Carlos and Cyril and Pierre.

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The meal begins with a simple introduction and, as is customary in a setting like this, a chef quickly runs through the components. It's all very gratifying to meet the people behind the dish, but how each ingredient speaks of their flavor more eloquently than any menu could reveals the quality of talent in the kitchen. We welcome the conversation, though, especially when you have something like the aforementioned tuna disguised as meat on your repertoire. 

Black crisp, uni mousse, corn celery

The meal supposedly comprises 10 courses, but the kitchen is generous with their starters, including this one, which already has a place in the Gallery. IMAGE: courtesy of Stvdio Lab
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Raw

Here, cashew milk is poured over fresh tuna tartare and mustasa chlorophyll. The pickled radish gives each bite a sharp brightness.

Heritage

Stvdio Lab cooks the banana heart like an artichoke and creates flavors akin to kare-kare, with the ribbon of jamon Iberico giving a salty contrast. IMAGE: courtesy of Stvdio Lab
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Ulang

One of the unanimous favorites is the river prawn with a classic bearnaise. The upo seeds underneath gives the heavy cream a touch of freshness.

"Snap"

Like all the other courses, this snapper is presented in a smaller portion, but it's not difficult to imagine it as a main dish. It's briny flavor is complemented by the deep flavor of the cacao nib-topped eggplant puree on the side.
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Umami

The mushroom flavor will knock out your taste buds. Texture plays the key role here, with the abalone and pork knuckle giving off various levels of tenderness.

Cap

This is a pretty classic combination done with a little twist. The steak is wagyu from Snake River Farms and instead of a spinach side salad, they created a laing-inspired spinach cream. Rabanos adds some extra zing.
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Aged

Tuna cheeks dressed in beef fat can trick your senses, but its incredible soft texture can go a long way.

Trade

Here's another showcase of textures: chewy tendon and crunchy broccoli stalks
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Tart

The kitchen creates a fragrant sampaguita ice cream. Eat it all together with the bright calamansi curd to cut the floral notes.

Treasures 

Fermented banana, coffee cream, and chocolate. All individually bold in flavor, but work together so beautifully.
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We end the meal with petit fours, a miniature piaya, and a well-deserved round of applause for the chefs. You leave knowing that your standards have just been elevated a notch higher and you leave wondering which ones might make an appearance at the Gallery and which ones will be back on the drawing board (literally, one of the walls of Stvdio Lab), but those are some of the hard decisions you make in pursuit of perfection.

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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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