The early morning sunlight streams in at irregular angles, struggling to get between the bamboo slats and through the corrugated metal roofing sheets that make up Entoy’s Bakasihan, a semi-alfresco eatery in the quiet coastal town of Cordova, on Cebu’s Mactan Island. Across from me, hovering over his bowl of cloudy nilarang, a Cebuano soup soured with tomatoes and iba (tree sorrel), is Spanish chef Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez, the man behind Manila’s Gallery Vask (now re-opened as Gallery by Chele), where his degustation menus are served amid a revolving backdrop of art. The setup is not unlike Corey Lee’s gastronomic curation at In Situ in San Francisco’s MoMA or the Josean Alija-helmed Nerua at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where Chele once worked as a sous chef. Gallery Vask is so far the only Philippine restaurant that’s made it to the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list two years in a row — in 2016 and 2017. In November last year, Chele opened a second restaurant called Enye in one of Mactan’s upscale resorts, just a few kilometers from Entoy’s.
Entoy’s teeters on stilts over the water’s edge and patches of mangrove, looking like a temporary affair with weathered wooden tables and red plastic chairs. But the eatery is a 20-year-old dining institution. It’s known for the town’s delicacy: bakasi. The species of spotted moray eel, which grows to a length of 12 inches, is caught daily among the reef flats and traditionally served in soup or deep fried to a crisp and had with vinegar.
It’s also the scene of Chele’s latest culinary research project. This morning, the Spanish chef is a student of the local cooks who have sustained the traditions of Cebuano cuisine, marked by a simplicity in method and a straightforwardness in ingredients. Most Cebuano dishes are either grilled with just a sprinkling of salt and pepper or offered in a clear soup flavored with leeks, ginger and tomatoes. It’s not for lack of imagination, but rather a result of fortuitous geography.
Because Cebu island is long and narrow, both produce from the mountains and the bounty of the sea can always go from farm or fishnet to table within minutes, and it’s always fresh. That said, although this happy circumstance renders the masking of food with layers of fl avors and culinary techniques unnecessary, the local cuisine is not without method.
Today it’s all about the eel, and Chele inspects them in the soup, squints, then directs a series of questions at the weekday cook, 35-year-old Mirasol Tura: “But how long do you cook it? At what point do you throw the eels in? When do you put in the fermented black beans?”
After he lists down the ingredients for the soup, he asks Mirasol, who has manned the kitchen of Entoy’s for six years, to take him through the process again. As if to explain himself to me, he says, “It is important for me to know how it is traditionally cooked, served and eaten. First, see how it is eaten traditionally by Cebuanos, so you understand the ingredient. Second, you taste it; see the product alive!”
He now turns his attention to a fellow diner and asks him for a demonstration on how to correctly finish off a bakasi. The man obliges, catching the tail end of a whole eel from the nilarang with his left forefinger and thumb and the head with his right. Swiftly, his mouth runs over the eel from tail to head, nibbling the flesh off the bones in a clean sweep with teeth and tongue, first on the eel’s left, then on its right. Chele dutifully follows suit. In a few seconds, both of them are brandishing the clean bones triumphantly.
. . .
It’s been a long road to Cebu for Chele, who traces his life as a chef all the way back to his partyphile past as a club DJ in Santander, along the north coast of Spain. He describes his life in the electronic underground as “dark”, and although it had become stifling, it had an upside. “I used to go to a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants because I had a lot of money,” he says. He eventually sold the club he co-owned with his best friend and found better footing inside a kitchen. “The sun rose, and we were able to make money to pay for my culinary studies. And a new chapter in my life came.” He dropped the title of DJ and became Chef Chele, and by all accounts took well to the level of discipline working in the kitchen demanded. “I became more serious. And I became happy.”
It was the beginning of a stellar run in the kitchens of the best restaurants in Europe: Andra Mari, Mugaritz, El Cellar de Can Roca, Arzak and El Bulli in Catalonia. The latter, under his watchful eye, became a record-holding, five-time number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list between 2002 and 2009. El Bulli was unseated by Noma in 2010, the year Chele transferred to the restaurant in Denmark. But Chele felt burned out and, before he crashed, turned a vacation in the Philippines into a more permanent arrangement. “I started from zero again, I was sending out my résumé to hotels.” After a brief stint at the Sofi tel Manila, he partnered with architect Carlo Calma for Vask.
Five years ago, Chele began traveling the Philippines, tasting flavors around the country to better inform his acclaimed degustation menus incorporating local tuna, suka pinakurat (spiced vinegar) from Iligan, Kitayama wagyu from Bukidnon and fillet of tawilis, a species of fish found only in Taal Lake, as a boquerones en vinagre (Spanish-style appetizer) amuse-bouche. “Although I have been to the Visayas, I have never explored Cebu until now.”
. . .
Back at Enye, with his bakasi in a plastic bag, Chele draws out the menu and action plan on the blank side of the restaurant’s paper placemats — 12-inch eel, four ways. “Since Enye is a Spanish restaurant, I have to connect with Spanish cuisine. In this case I want to make a connection between two cultures through baby eels. In Spain, we call them angulas. It is one of our most expensive ingredients. We only have it one or two months a year, December and January. Maybe for a small plate like that in Spain, it would cost P20,000.”
The angulas are cooked traditionally in a cazuela, or terracotta cooking pot, that lend them the unique earthy flavor of his childhood. The first dish, bakasi al ajillo, has the eels cooking in the cazuela with garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The second dish is chicharrón — he takes the skin off the biggest eel, fries it, sprinkles it with paprika, and serves it with vinagre de Jerez (sherry wine vinegar). For the third dish, he whips up a Spanish stew called caldereta. “The Spanish eat potatoes the way Filipinos eat rice,” Chele explains. “So the base is the potato, then you have the ulam (main dish), which is any other flavor.” Joining the potatoes in the stew is seafood broth, garlic, parsley, paprika, prawns and bakasi. “At the end when the potato is soft, that is the time we add in the prawns and the eel, which is cooked in advance for around 20 minutes,” Chele says. “Exactly the time the native Cebuanos cook it.”
The last dish is also a familiar one. “In Spain, adobo is a technique for marinating,” Chele says. He adds oregano, cumin, paprika, garlic and extra virgin olive oil to a mortero (mortar) to make a paste and coats the eel with it. He then fries it with a bit of fl our. The result? An adobo that is closer to the traditional Bisaya take on this regionally diverse dish — in Cebu, adobo is dry like the Spanish version and takes its flavor from its marinade of pepper, soy sauce, and vinegar.
“During the time I have been traveling and living in the Philippines, I’ve come to understand that we have many treasures we often take for granted because we see it every day,” Chele says, reflecting on his visit to Entoy’s and on Mirasol’s disbelief that someone would take a keen interest in a dish she has been serving for more than a decade. Sometimes it takes an outsider to lend a renewed appreciation for the same dish. Someone’s humble fare in Cebu at P30 a bowl could be a rich person’s repast at P20,000 a plate in Spain.
Chele’s use of “we” is telling of his complete “Filipinization”, as food writer Margaux Salcedo puts it. This makes his culinary stories from forays into the sources of ingredients even more relevant and necessary (his Instagram account chronicles his travels to Palawan, discovering banana hearts, using heirloom rice and peeling indigenous root crops with the Tagbanua). More than the delicious narrative — these discoveries often turn up as dishes at his restaurants — he raises questions and starts discussions about our appreciation for our daily fare. “And today was just first contact. As a chef it is a complicated ingredient to work with because the eels are like snakes — they have so many bones and to make those bones not uncomfortable when you eat, well, there is a lot of technique involved.”
He is relentless in getting it just right. After all, he says, “Food is culture. It represents our country, our life, our family. Our memories. Every time something good happens, we celebrate it with food.” And every now and then, the reverse happens — a great meal of delicious food and interesting stories becomes a celebration in itself.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smile magazine.