The Life of Chele Gonzalez: How a Former DJ from Spain Made a Filipino Restaurant the 39th Best in AsiaMarch 3, 2016
When Chef Chele Gonzalez tells the story of how he ended up wanting to cook, how he earned his stripes in the world’s best restaurants, how he eventually found his way to the Philippines, he talks about a series of mad decisions.
And they are. They’re risky and sudden and don’t always seem to make sense given the circumstances. But they’ve also paid off each time, so there must be some kind of method to the madness.
Chele plays it down, pegs them as moments of impulse, and possible insanity. “I’m a little bit crazy,” he says, rapping his knuckles against the side of his head. But anyone can make a crazy decision. Few have the vision to see them through. And even fewer have the will to put in the work.
Just a few days after earning a spot on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, chef Chele Gonzalez looks back on how he got to where he is today. The story of Vask is naturally intertwined with the story of Chele; his journey from a rainy, coastal town in Spain to the warm, sunny isles of the Philippines is at the heart of this restaurant that masterfully celebrates the cuisines of both his old home and his new one.
Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez was born and raised in Torrelavega in the north of Spain. He came from a family of teachers, and his mother insisted that he earn himself a college degree. Early on, Chele already had his doubts about university but, like many of us, he went and did it anyway to appease his parents.
“I took up marketing and business because I thought it would be a bit more creative. But my school was more focused on business than marketing,” he says.
“I studied so hard for the exams because I didn’t remember anything from my lessons. That’s when I realized it wasn’t my passion.”
Something else caught his fancy. An avid music fan, Chele began organizing parties with his best friend and spinning as a DJ. They earned thousands of dollars from the gigs, which Chele spent buying records.
When he graduated, he was fairly certain he wasn’t going into marketing. He decided to open a swanky night club in downtown Santander instead, running it with much success for more than three years. By the end, though, Chele felt like something was amiss. It was good fun and good money, but it was also too much drinking and too much partying.
“Sometimes, I just wanted to be by myself, but I had to go down and meet the guests because if you don’t go, then the people don’t go,” he says. “I had to go and drink, pretend to be happy, happy, happy. But by my last year at the club, I was becoming unhappy with how my life was going.”
He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but this still wasn’t quite what he was looking for. So, he decided to sell the club and go back to the drawing board.
Around this time, the Spanish culinary scene was booming, with Michelin stars falling all over the country from the industry heavens. Modern gastronomy was also on the rise. Chele began spending his money from the club, not just on collecting records but also on trying out these new restaurants. He’d always loved cooking even when he was very young.
“I can still remember that day. I can still feel it,” he recalls. “It was summertime and my siblings came home. I sat them down and told them, ‘I want to be a chef.’ At that time, I was a very crazy party boy. So they just looked at me and said, ‘Okay, what’s next? Is this another one of the crazy things in your life?’”
Even when he insisted, his family and friends were unsure. Working in the kitchen meant long hours, little pay, and much sacrifice. But Chele says, “I was 25 years old, I had the money, I could pay for my own studies. I told them, ‘It’s my own decision. This is what I want.’”
The moment he entered culinary school, Chele says it was suddenly so clear to him that this was the path he was meant to take. His last few months in the club were dark—he knew he wanted to quit, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it because he took out a loan from the bank. “I hated it so much, and it was making me a little bit depressed,” he confesses. But he gained a new lease on life as a chef, “I feel safe in the kitchen. It’s my escape. I haven’t felt depressed since then because I know whatever happens, I can always come here and fix things.”
Chele completed his degree and set off on his culinary career with renewed fervor. He began in Andra Mari, a restaurant in the Basque region with one Michelin star. It was there he started getting noticed by his colleagues. Soon, Chele had an offer to work in Azurmendi, one of the world’s top 20 restaurants, helmed by famed Basque chef Eneko Atxa.
However, there was one more offer by another culinary icon: Arzak. Chele says, “My school said, ‘Every year, Arzak asks us to send people to do an internship there. We’ve never sent anyone, but we think you are ready to go.’” The catch: it would only be an internship. They emphasized, there would be no pay, no housing, only food.
“My school said, ‘Can you commit to that?’” He shrugs, “And I said yes.”
Chele ended up turning down Azurmendi, wanting to improve his craft first before taking on a paid post. That being said, the trade-off was not an easy one to make. Chele was a brilliant novice, but a novice nonetheless, and he was moving from a short stint in a one-Michelin-star restaurant, into a restaurant boasting of three.
“My first three months were like hell,” Chele says. “They pushed me hard. It’s pressure until the limit: ‘What happened to you? You should stop cooking. You’re terrible!’ And you just say, ‘Yes, chef. Yes, chef.’”
“It was hard,” he says. He corrects himself, “It was really, really hard.”
Arzak, however, is also where he grew, and he found himself cementing his place in Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak Espina’s kitchen. Azurmendi called again with a job offer and, again, Chele turned them down. He spent nearly three years taking internships and living off his savings, as he moved on to Mugaritz, El Celler de Can Roca and El Bulli. These restaurants were some of the best, if not the best, in the world—but surely it was a huge financial sacrifice to work for them with no pay?
Chele asks back, “What is more important, to learn or to earn money? The money will come, but first, you have to build yourself as a chef.”
Chele worked as a chef de partie, learning every station of the kitchen: starters, meats, fish, and desserts. “I wanted to run each station so I could understand how to clean, prep, and cook every item properly. How can I be a sous chef and teach someone about beef when I’ve never worked with meat before? Now, I can work anywhere you put me in the kitchen.”
He continues, “Sometimes I see people, in one and a half years, they become sous chefs. You have to go step by step. I always tell my team, ‘Don’t go too fast.’”
Chele found his way to Nerua, a restaurant set in the the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Here, he’s graduated from working as chef de partie, to becoming the head chef of events and catering, as well the as sous chef for the fine dining and gastronomy.
Every year, he gets three weeks off, and he always comes to Asia for his holidays: Thailand, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. He says the region has always fascinated him. The food, the culture, the people are so different from what he’s been exposed to around Europe.
He had planned to return to Asia, with a vacation all set in stone. Then, he tells his friends a few weeks before, “I will go, but I am not coming back.” Cue the common refrain: “What? You’re crazy!”
Chele explains: “I’ve spent the last 10 years working in top restaurants. No Sundays off, working 16–17 hours a day. I was getting burnt out. I needed time for my family, friends, and myself.”
With just his savings and his backpack, he headed to Thailand and then the Philippines. He had no plans, he stresses. He had some friends in Thailand, one in the Philippines, but after they left, he was all alone.
“I started again from zero,” Chele says. “I went to hotels and left my CV to each one, hoping they would call me back.”
He admits it was difficult and, oftentimes, lonely. But he also talks about it with pride. “I feel that was my strongest point. I am who I am because I can start my life from nothing and build a new Chele. A lot of people, they have problems because they cannot leave the past in the past.”
After food tastings in St. Regis in Thailand, and ResortsWorld, Barcino and Sofitel in the Philippines, Chele ended up working in Sofitel. It was short-lived though, after Typhoon Pedring wrecked the hotel and its restaurants.
This was when architect and artist Carlo Calma approached him with a new project: fine dining and art—similar to what Nerua was to the Guggenheim, except this time, the restaurant would be within the art gallery, and with every new menu, a new exhibit.
And so, Vask was born. Tapas are served up in the Vask Dining Room, while the degustation is hosted in Gallery Vask. All around, art installations by various local and international artists. And on the menu, a combination of traditional ingredients and modern techniques, a blend of Spanish and Filipino cuisine. Whether it be shrimp balls, a quail egg dumpling swimming in balut juice, or coconut sorbet, the food is in equal parts new and familiar.
Chele doesn’t think there’s a difference between owning a restaurant and working in someone else’s. (“I always work like the place is mine. I don’t know how to do it another way.”) But he definitely relishes this opportunity to express himself and his personality in his food.
He says the most important thing he learned in his career is how the chef and the person are one and the same. “When I was in Mugaritz, I learned that my values as a person become my values as a chef. When I go home, I am still a chef. When I go to work and I put on my jacket, I am still Chele.” And in Vask, he comes into his own.
Only three years since Vask opened its doors in Manila, the restaurant has already raked in numerous awards. Through Vask, Chele’s case to further the Filipino culinary scene, has also gotten him as far as Harvard University, where he designed a six-course meal to accompany talks on fusion approaches to food and research. And as of just a few nights ago, he has also landed the 39th spot on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
But Chele doesn’t dwell too much on the accolades: “You can have awards but you can never think you are better than everybody else. A chef never stops to learn.”