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Journeying with Chele from Cantabria to San Sebastian

By THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 17, 2022 5:00 am Updated Mar 16, 2022 11:12 pm

While many of us were lucky enough to spend lockdown with our families at home, chef Chele Gonzalez’s family is half a world away, in Cantabria, on the northern coast of Spain.

After 11 years of living in the Philippines, Chele was hungry for the company of his family and the flavors of home, so the Gallery by Chele chef took his Filipino wife, Teri Echiverri, and spent six months with his family last year, revisiting the region that molded him into the chef he is today.

Chef Chele Gonzalez with his family: (from left) wife Teri Echiverri, mom Teri, sister Amparo, and brother-in-law Chema

“My mama is now 89 years old, nearly 90,” Chele shares. “I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to spend this much time with her again. She was the woman who inspired my love of food.”

A lot of people going to Spain, they ask me, ‘Oh, give me tips on where you go,’ so (on the map) I put some of my favorite places for tapas in San Sebastian, Bilbao, and also in my region.

Reinvigorated by his family, his heritage, his gastronomically rich region (Cantabria is two hours west of San Sebastian and an hour from Bilbao), and by the comfort food he’d eaten there for most of his life, Chele created Re-Encounters, his new 10-course tasting menu at Gallery by Chele.

Chele’s home is near Suances beach in Cantabria, Spain: “That is where I usually go at night when it’s sunset,” he says.

Now, I’ve had many degustation menus in my life, but none have felt more like a journey than this. As soon as Scott and I sat at our outdoor table, we were presented with the most beautiful “placemats” I’d ever seen: a laminated photo of a beach at sunset, misty cliffs overlooking calm waves.

“The beach is Suances,” Chele tells us. “That is where I usually go at night when it’s sunset, so that photo was taken with my phone.”

Chele’s home is nearby, and the region is famous for having both mountains and sea. “So they say some of the best seafood in the world is there.”

Gambas al ajillo, Chele’s version of ukoy

You’re also given a map of the northern region of Spain where Chele grew up: He was born in Torrelavega, studied in Santander, got his culinary degree at Artxanda, Bilbao, worked at the one-Michelin-star restaurant Nerua in the Guggenheim Bilbao, as well as the two-Michelin-star Mugaritz and three-Michelin-star Arzak in San Sebastian.

Re-Encounters’ gustatory journey through these places starts at the bar, where you are served Calimocho, a sangria-like cocktail of red wine and Coca-Cola, with bites of crunchy-creamy tarta patata; bocadillo, a mini-sandwich with flavors of the sea; Chele’s version of ukoy with shrimp; lobster and lechon croquetas, and a pulpo (octopus) flan that was so smoky and good.

After the bar bites, Chele asked us, “Want to come with me to San Sebastian?”

Crab cakes are one of the small bites that transport you to San Sebastian.

We didn’t fly but walked there, to the private dining area of Gallery by Chele, where on the wall he’s enlarged a photo of the San Sebastian street leading to the cathedral, and we enjoyed crab cake, salmon, and pastrami pintxos.

“I always go to the pintxos bars there,” Chele says. “A lot of people going to Spain, they ask me, ‘Oh, give me tips on where you go,’ so (on the map) I put some of my favorite places for tapas in San Sebastian, Bilbao, and also in my region, but most of them in the Basque country.”

After the brief stop in San Sebastian, the 10-course culinary journey with wine pairing began in earnest. I loved “Raw,” tuna carpaccio with a refreshing watermelon-strawberry gazpacho and pansit-pansitan Chele grows in his restaurant’s organic garden. A sparkling Torello Brut cava tamped down the heat of its peppers.

Raw: Tuna carpaccio with Piparras peppers and a watermelon-strawberry gazpacho

For Pil Pil, Chele used bangus belly instead of the bacalao that the Spanish eat. “Bangus has no collagen because it’s a freshwater fish, so we extract the collagen through a very technical process” that makes Pil Pil’s sauce very creamy and unctuous. Artazuri Garnacha rosé swept away the brininess of the fish.

A childhood staple elevated to gourmet heaven: Gallery by Chele’s Huevos con Jamon, an organic egg topped with crispy Iberico ham and local peas

The third dish, Huevos con Jamon, was enjoyed by Scott, since I’m pescatarian. He declared it amazing: a bowl containing a soft, luscious poached egg resting on a bed of olive oil and local peas, a decadent spread of crispy jamon slices on top, then a kick of shaved black truffle over all of this. Scott wanted to lick the plate. It paired quite well with a wine that would tempt Poe lovers: the Emilio Lustau Amontillado Sherry, with woody, almond notes somewhere between creamy sweet and bracingly puckish.

Hybrid was a squid dish blanketed in a rich ebony sauce made of its own ink. Another memorable touch of this journey is Chele’s sharing recipe cards of his Calamares En Su Tinta and Adobong Pusit, illustrating our shared past and how it informs his modern cuisine.

Hybrid: Squid with ginger and homemade vinegar in a sauce of its own ink

Our sommelier, Judd Anthony Labarda, explained the unique pairing of the squid with a Rioja red, Erre Punto Tinto 2020. “It’s a carbonic red, which is macerated gently—pressure breaks the skin of the grapes,” he told us. “The softer wine doesn’t overpower the squid.”

Salsa Verde was another seafood dish paired with a red: Viña Zorzal Graciano. White snapper filets with sayote and Sorsogon mussels were coated in a perfectly seasoned green sauce made out of parsley. I wished I could eat fish like that every day.

Salsa verde: White snapper with sayote and parsley sauce

Scott then had the main course Montañes, an iconic, traditional Spanish dish of white beans, stew meats, and kale that Chele’s mom cooked for him when he was a little boy. “In Spain, you eat the Montañes when it’s cold, it’s morning, it’s delicious with different meats,” he says. “But I wanted to present something for the Philippine (climate).” He deconstructed the dish, pouring the meat broth over a mound of cooked kale sitting on a white bean emulsion. Unlike a stew where flavors are commingled, the smoky emulsion and hearty stew meats come alive separately. “It is still the essentials, the simplicity of the dish,” he says. “I tried to make it very light, elegant.”

Chele as a boy with his mom, Maria Teresa: “(My mama) was the woman who inspired my love of food.”

Another entrée carnivorous Pinoys will surely love is Txuleta, a double-grilled, delicious Bolzico steak served with stuffed, baked potato skin and confit bell pepper; it was paired with an Alto Moncayo/Veraton Garnacha that was ripe and smooth, washing over the palate with lush undercurrents.

Chele told us that whenever inspiration hits, even in the shower, he quickly notes it down on his phone “or else I will forget and it will be gone forever.” He showed us his notes and they are extremely neat and well organized—a peek into the creative process of this brilliant chef.

A trio of desserts began with Sobao, a Cantabrian butter cake, and forest berry jam paired with El Sequé Monastrell, a port-like wine. Burnt-milk ice cream added smokiness to the dish, which is so refined you just can’t stop eating it.

Then comes Chele’s signature Burnt Basque cheesecake topped with Chantilly cream and made aromatic with grated truffle—always a favorite.

The final dish is Memory, a triumvirate of sago con leche, Quesada, and corte de flan accompanied by a photo carousel of Chele with his smiling family. As we savored this last part of our journey, we realized that Re-Encounters is possibly Chele’s most personal menu yet, and elevates his continuing explorations of cuisine that fuses his Spanish heritage and culinary expertise with Filipino ingredients using modern techniques.

It’s worth noting that Gallery by Chele is turning 10 next year, and you don’t get to be an institution like that without an incredible amount of hard work, creativity, consistency, and reinvention. For us, it’s like having our very own Michelin-starred restaurant in the heart of BGC.

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Re-Encounters will be available from March until June 2022. Guests can choose between a 10-course tasting menu for P4,400 plus 10% service charge or a six-course tasting menu for P3,4oo+SC. Wine, cocktail, and non-alcoholic beverage pairing options are available.

Gallery by Chele is located on the 5/F of the Clipp Center, 11th Avenue corner 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, tel. 09175461673, or visit gallerybychele.com.