A Sour Dinner Reminds Us Why Modern Gastronomy is Important
It is a holiday, and the streets that lead to Gallery by Chele are uncharacteristically empty. Finding parking, too, is surprisingly uneventful and simple, something you do not normally associate with busy BGC. There is an eerie quality to the quiet streets,
Chef Chele Gonzalez’s Stvdio Lab is packed when we arrived, and the kitchen is a silent flurry of activity as the amuse bouche (or “bites,” as they like to call them here) are being prepared by Gonzalez and his team. These will be served with a cocktail utilizing the kamias fruit, prepared by the aggressively talented Rico Deang of The Peninsula Manila. The theme is “souring agents,” and both kitchen and bar show up armed to the teeth.
“I was in Tagaytay when they sent me Chele’s menu,” Deang explains, “so I was able to check out the fruit stands for ingredients.” Deang might seem like a newbie in the local scene, but this is because he was busy making a name for himself in Singapore the last six years, curating the cocktails at Wolfgang Puck’s Cut in Marina Bay Sands. The legendary Austrian chef must have been happy with Deang’s skills since he tasked him with opening a few more bars around the world. After a stint at trendy Artemis Bar, Deang headed home and found yet another ritzy gig at The Pen as its beverage manager.
Soon, Deang will no longer need such a lengthy introduction like the talented Spaniard in the kitchen. Gonzalez, resting comfortably on numerous consultancy projects for five-star resorts, is still best known for the wizardry he performs within the test kitchen of Gallery by Chele. His style is very distinct, and those who dine regularly at his restaurant would recognize his signature touch in his modern and refined interpretations of Filipino flavors and cooking techniques.
While watching Gonzalez put together three different dishes that comprise his amuse bouche for the evening, a guest raises an interesting point: “It is not easy to have to do this night after night after night.” When the natural propensity for cooks is to provide nourishment and food is inherently a source of comfort, chefs like Gonzalez have opted to go the opposite way.
His style takes you out of your comfort zone, immersing you in his personal encounters with new flavors and cooking styles discovered during his regular travels around the country. While many chefs of his caliber have succumbed to the trend toward more relaxed dining, finding ease and consistency in the “elevated” versions of everyday dishes, Gonzalez sticks to his guns and does what he does best.
As it goes during dinners such as this, the chef gives an elaborate introduction to each dish, explaining everything from conceptualization to fruition. Gonzalez is quite the master at this, introducing, in his rapid legato, the featured ingredients and how his adventures led to the perfect execution of all eight courses. While a journalist’s tendency is to attempt to capture every story and every tasting note verbatim, the experience is lost once you unhinge yourself from the whole
How else would you fully appreciate the delicate and nuanced kinilaw that has been flavored and “cooked” in pineapple vinegar made in-house? The vinegar is mixed with velvety coconut milk to make a shallow pool for the fresh tuna and the caviar-like pakô. Deang paired it with a spritely nod to the early millennium tambay’s drink of choice, gin pomelo. But, his version utilizes fresh fruit from Davao and top-shelf Martin Miller gin served frothy in a classic Champagne coupe.
As Gonzalez bastes a redolent and hunky portion of
Married life seems to have softened Gonzalez and it is evident in his food. Less science and wizardry and more restraint. But what slowed him down has made him only sharper. Smarter. The bright pink center of the Iberico glistens like a gash on the plate, accompanied simply by a blanched banana heart and a thick glop of what could be simplistically described as
When working with food, chefs and restauranteurs stress the need for consistency, which ultimately means redundancy. This works because it is safe and reliable, and when we come to a restaurant to eat our favorite cheeseburger or our go-to bowl of pasta, we find comfort and joy in the familiar. However, what virtuosos like Gonzalez and Deang do is the complete opposite. They want you to be jolted out of the relaxed state you have grown accustomed to and be amazed. It is a glimpse into a world that is like ours, only better, prettier, tastier. It is a world that inspires, and sometimes, we all need that.