Interview with Chef Chele

Barbara: Hello! Good Morning everyone! Thank you very much Chef Chele for being with us today at the Member’s Corner. You don’t need any presentation because I am sure all the members and all the friends of La Camara know you already. Chef Chele has been working in the best restaurants all over the world. In Spain, several Michelin stars like Arzak, Andra madi, Azurmendi and now, he has his own restaurant that is one of the best 50 restaurants in Asia. So, please Chele introduce yourself and your restaurant.

Chef Chele: Ok, so my name is Jose Luis Gonzalez but since I was a kid, everybody called me “Chele Gonzalez.” So, I arrived in the Philippines around 10 years ago. First, I was working for hotels. First, it was Shangri-La and Sofitel. Until I open my own restaurant in 2013 that is Vask and Gallery Vask what evolved in right now as Gallery by Chele. Aside from that I have a consultancy company called Adviche. We do a lot of F&B, you know, from very simple things like a kiosk to big corporations and hotels. We do anything related to F&B world and we always give advice in anything that’s innovated, in anything that’s about business and anything that is related in sustainability and local producers. That is one of our most important part and we have been doing a lot of partnership in the Philippines. That is a little bit of who we are at this moment.

Barbara: Yeah, that makes the difference really. How did you arrive to the Philippines? How did you make the decision to come to this country?

Chef Chele: I am from Cantabria, from Torrelavega and then, I studied culinary in Bilbao. Most of my life I have been living in the North Spain. I studied Marketing and Business 4 years in Oviedo, in Asturias. Then, I open my business at 22 years old. I had a bar for drinks and music. And then, I studied Culinary in Bilbao. After, I moved to San Sebastian to work in Arzak y mugaritz, then, in one of these ten years, I was 1 year in Cataluña, El Bulli and Celler de can roca. And then, come back again to Bilbao to the Basque Country to work in Nerua Guggenheim. That was my last time of life in Spain was actually in the Basque country. Amazing Experience there! And then, I used to come to Asia for vacation every year. I loved it since the first time I come! Something stole my heart.

When I resign after working so many years in fine dining and some very very intense gastronomy, I needed a change. I wanted to work at hotels to also get that experience and then I put everything I had. I had a vacation organized. I put my chef jackets and I told my friends “I’m not coming back. I will look for a job here in Asia.” And they said “Are you crazy?” “You don’t know anybody?” “No no. I don’t know anybody. I just want to see.” I have an offer in Australia but I just wanted to be in Asia. Our trip was between Thailand and Philippines. At the same time, I was in vacation, I gave my resume. I went to the hotels, I go to the Executive Chefs and I had different offers actually between Thailand and the Philippines. But I don’t know why it was the inside voice, maybe the cultural aspect that we have together between Filipinos and Spanish that I just felt comfortable here and I gave a chance in the Sofitel and I never left again. That was almost 10 years ago.

Barbara: 10 years ago? WOW! What a wonderful decision. How has the Philippines changed during these 10 years? The consumer? Also the country? What do you think?

Chef Chele: There are things that I think they haven’t changed so much and I think that is something amazing about the Philippines and the Filipinos – those strong family values. Those in other countries over the years have changed in the modern world. Here they remain intact. Many people say “Many over the years, when the Philippines modernize, it might change as they change in the other countries. But here, I think it’s intact. Those values for Filipinos are the most important things.

Of course, Manila has been more modern. In the food side, there has been a huge change. When I arrived here, it was difficult for me to find places I like to eat, and now, from casual comfort food, you have amazing Chinese food, Korean food, Japanese food, Spanish food – how many good Spanish restaurants there are here. I think right now, you know, the landscape here is really good as good as any other city in the world. There has been the biggest revolution. Before it was only the hotel restaurants, right now, there’s just so many.

Barbara: What has been your most difficult challenge since you arrived?

Chef Chele: I think difficult think for me is to understand that you are in a different country with a different culture. And you know, coming from some of the best restaurants in the world where everything was so military disciplined. Many places I have been working, it was not allowed any mistake. I even talk sometimes with my bosses. You know, when someone commits mistakes because they don’t put the heart. I do understand but we are humans and sometimes as humans, a person can make mistakes but no, not here. I came from places, where discipline is at the highest level, like military - very military.

So coming to the Philippines, you need to adjust. The culture is more relax, somehow. You need to be a leader in different ways. Here you cannot be pushy military because probably more than they follow you, they will get scared at you and that’s not the right thing to do it. You need to understand that you need to adjust to where you are. Try to change the way you see according to the culture. The one who needs to adjust is yourself. Even, sometimes you don’t understand exactly several things. Sometimes I felt so frustrated and I wanted to go home because of what happened. But after 10 years, I think the best way to connect with Filipinos is by heart. When you’re good at them, they’ll be good with you. There are better days than the others. Sometimes we all make mistakes. You need to be a good leader and try to guide them the best way you can.

Barbara: Exactly, completely agree with you! They are very Latin. Of all these years, what are you most proud of?

Chef Chele: When you decide to have a restaurant like Gallery and when you decide to be innovating all the time and be at the top of the game, every day is a challenge. Sometimes you target a lot of your objective, your dreams but if the next day, you don’t keep pushing, everything that you get, you can lose it. Our restaurant is not normal restaurant. Many years, we become the best restaurant in the country; we became one of the best restaurants in Asia, awarded also by some global awards – that means a big responsibility. It is beautiful sometimes; on the other side it is difficult because you need to maintain yourself and the weight that you have on your back is very very heavy. For me, if I look back on the past, it’s only to learn and to become better. I only look in the future and I only look on how to change better so you cannot relate with you colleagues you need to look in the future and say “there’s something else I can do.”

Barbara: Great! Very resilient! In relation with this current pandemic that the world is facing, how has your restaurant been affected and what actions do you propose to better the situation? I know you have a lot of ideas and you are doing many different things

Chef Chele: I think it’s a very challenging situation. I’m still confused like everybody else. The good thing before we closed the restaurant, we were in a very good shape. The business was very solid, it was good. In 2018, we decided to change a little bit from Vask and Gallery Vask to Gallery by Chele. Trying to connect with the local market and we were able to do it. We were offering an experience, we also offer a la carte. We offer a lot of flexibility. One thing we have learned is to be flexible. When you impose to a client, this is what it is and if you don’t want it then the hospitality sense is lost. Saying that we were strong, financially, we were ok before. It was a point where 50% of our clients are foreigners, people who were on vacation or business: a lot of people from Singapore, from Japan, a lot of market from Japan, a lot of market from Hong Kong but before we close, we were offering to have “open space” close to the bar, it was more for a la carte and then, we have a dining room that was only for tasting menu. The word of mouth was so good. People were showing good time that it was spreading. We had a very well connection with the local market. Even the pandemic started in Gallery, we ourselves were still very strong because of this connection with the local market. Then, we were ok when we closed, I think nobody expected that I would take so long. We were able to maintain and support our team. We are still paying partial of the salaries.

But there was a time that we have seen that the dining is going to take long, when we see that “Ok, we need to start with the deliveries.” Delivery is not a business, only a partial way to maintain, to pay bills and to have a skeletal so everybody gets salaries but this is not the future.

We believe, the future of the dining, I think right now, Europe is trying to push to reactive the economies. Let see! When the Philippines see that is happening and it’s safe, probably, the confidence of the consumer will grow. But I think to go to the restaurants these days it will be very exclusive. And people will not risk going to a restaurant when they can have a delivery at home.

I think private rooms for people who want to be isolated would be working well. But to go out is because you want an experience and you want it to be exclusive that you don’t have at home. There may be sometime a very few ways to entertain yourselves. I don’t think people will also take the risk to go to the island. I think people will travel around Manila where they can get a car and go to Batangas, Tagaytay or go to places that they can travel by car. And as animals that we are socialized, we need to socialize as part of our lives. We used to right now because if not we will die. Now we are using whatsapp, we are not to be connected with each other. The future have a very safe place and then you offer an experience, I think, Gallery in that sense, we will open when we already a plan where you already have set up the place more than 2 meters between tables – almost 3 meters – we can offer an experience to have a private room. We are going for the delivery menu that is for Spanish cuisine my family recipes, my mom’s recipes, my Basque country’s recipes when I was there, our cheesecake bars, cheesecake is a kill. The delivery menu is Spanish. Delivery will be for us for a long time. They will be a sell point. We need the dine-in, the private room and then we need the delivery. I think with all together we might keep the business alive. That is the key right now – to keep the business alive.

Barbara: Exactly! The last question, could you please tell us an anecdote that you will never forget from the Philippines.

Chef Chele: I have many but at the end of the day, what I will keep over the years is the restaurant team became our family. Most of the people who is working in the restaurant with us – I have in front of me, Vilma, who have been here before opening, already 9 years and Anne worked for us for 2 years, then came back, right now is almost 5 years. The most important thing I think for me is I become part of my Filipino family. That makes my heart full every day.

Barbara: Thank you Chele for this wonderful interview that has allowed us to get to know you and gallery better and engage more also with your project of sustainability that is important for the future of our planet.

Chef Chele: We didn’t talk about it. I want to make a recap of how I see the future. The Future of any business can be F&B world is being sustainable. I believe that this virus is natural but is a very simple question: to balance the nature, the nature is very knowledgeable and trying to balance things up. So if this is an attack to the humans and it’s a warning to say “guys, you know, we need to balance things up. You are not the owners of this world and the plastic (the other day I was watching a documentary where they said that if we keep pollution this much plastic, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. The plastic is something done by humans and is not degradable. They have a huge problem there.) Now, they are still learning process to become the plastic sustainable process or the things that we can reduce. But honestly it’s like, the big corporations there are the ones. I was talking with Jose Alija from restaurant Nerua and say “look, there are restaurants like you and there are restaurants like us and we want to be sustainable. Then you go to a supermarket, the things they are delivering in the supermarket are using plastic containers.” It is really the big players. They need to do their own. And also we need to learn to have a sustainable economy until we learn that maybe a company doesn’t need to grow every year 5% or 10%. Maybe you know, ok this is a sustainable business, we don’t need to grow. With this we have money. Until we do not change the mentality “I want more more more” “to be successful in life, I need to have more numbers in my account” because the big players they don’t understand that for them to get more money and more power, they still need to live to the rules of the romans and Greek barrier. And I hope we change those rules and understand that more money in our pocket doesn’t mean better future!

Barbara: I agree completely with you.

Chef Chele: So, let see!

Barbara: Thank you very much Chele!

Chef Chele: Thank you, Bye!

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