PEOPLE IN THE INDUSTRY
CHEF CHELE GONZALEZ reflects on the state of the F&B industry, the world, and the greater role we have to play to truly come out in a better state from this pandemic.
Chele Gonzalez on his circuitous path to Manila; Andrej Wisniewski of the Raintree Hospitality Group on how the food business plans to rebound after a fraught year of change
Never one to lack heart or energy in anything he says or does, we sat down with Chef Chele Gonzalez in his home turf at Gallery by Chele in BGC to chat on his perspectives on personal journeys, inspirations, and the greater responsibility that befalls all of us when it comes to surviving this pandemic. Ever the chatty man, Chele cuts no corners in admitting that the situation taken a great toll. On a personal capacity, being cooped up for a long time does not bode well for one’s mental state. “I remember during the pandemic, you know, I'm a very creative person enclosed in a small condo.” A sentiment that many of us can relate to, he continues that the longer he stayed inside the more it challenged his mental health. “I was filled with anxiety and that was unhealthy for me. For a creative person, you know, do you do just sit down?” But even with the mental weight, he was able to find ways to pull himself out of it such as providing food for frontliners early on in the pandemic after which he focused on recalibrating his business to not only provide food for loyal patrons but to sustain the livelihood of those who worked for him. “So that was the main purpose. Always, I think you need to have a purpose,” he imparts.
A fact that might be not be known to some is that Chele didn’t initially aim for culinary life. A lot of twists and sudden adventures led him to where he is now, as is befitting of his spontaneous nature. He shares that he originally studied marketing, and after graduating he opened an underground electric club where he partied frequently. Soon, he felt that his passion wasn’t in the nightlife. Pursuing a career as a chef dawned on him after being inspired by prominent Spanish chefs at the time such as the likes of Ferran Adrià. His free-spiritedness soon landed him a post in the Philippines to which he has stayed ever since. Through all of this, one thing that has stayed consistent with him is his zest for life. This is apparent in our conversation where he sprinkles nuggets of wisdom here and there. When asked about his most recent challenge as a chef he answers with, “I think every day is a challenge. When you have a challenge and you get through that, another one will come. I always see them as opportunities, as an excuse to become better, [to be] happier.”
Chef Chele is known for leading the local movement of promoting the use of local produce, galvanizing the idea that local ingredients are of quality and are worth gastronomic recognition. But the deeper reason for his advocacy has less to do with affirming quality but more on sustainability. “I think a lot of small efforts of many people become a big effort. So, my goal really for restaurants is to try to take these values to work with local ingredients sustainably, check on what is out there, drive that energy so we can inspire other people—that will be our legacy,” he shares, motivated by continuously collaborating with local farmers. He adds that finding rare and interesting ingredients is just a byproduct of his main cause of working with sustainable sources. “[When] I engage with farmers or with people involved in natural sustainability, you find more things.” He goes on to share that he is currently working on recipes using local pears, developing a curry incorporating the fruit with fresh mussels. “It's a very light, subtle sweetness, but [the pear] also provides texture because the mussels are creamy, and then the curry is creamy, so when you bite the pear there's a crunch.”
THE GREATER CHALLENGE AHEAD
When I queried him on the biggest lesson he learned over lockdown, Chef Chele answers solemnly, “Over the pandemic, the most important thing I have learned is we are very vulnerable. We are not dealing with mother nature and with other animals in a coexisting way. We’re just becoming very selfish.” Chele believes that the pandemic has shown all the flawed systems of society and that the disregard for ecological stability can only lead to one solution. “It showed me one way to look at the future for the good of all of us. To be more concerned about the environment, if we don't take action now, and we don't learn how to find a more sustainable way of living, we will face many [more] of these kinds of problems.” He is more driven in his advocacy as he expresses that this isn’t just an F&B industry concern but a human concern. “I hope this pandemic will teach us that we need to change our mentality and actions, and the way we are living and in my case it’s an advocacy for nature, sustainability, and food … [because] the way you eat [greatly affects] the environment.” He ends with the sentiment that as much as we need to heal now economically, once we’re back on our feet, systematic changes must be made for us to truly heal.
“Overthe pandemic, the most important thing I have learned is we are very vulnerable. We are not dealing with mother nature and with other animals in a coexisting way.”