Chele Gonzalez is staring at a giant spoon on a rooftop. Eight foot long, this cutlery colossus is lying on top of an equally gargantuan fork. Splayed on top of each other, the result is a surrealist see-saw worthy of Gulliver, which diners can play on while perched on a terrace overlooking the forest of skyscrapers that dominates the cloudy Manila skyline.
With thick-rimmed glasses, a hyperactive demeanour and a face redolent of a young Woody Allen, Chele scampers back into the open-plan kitchen of his penthouse art space and restaurant Gallery Vask. Here, as the watery late afternoon sky gives way to another neon-saturated, bellicose night in the fulcrum of the new Philippines dining scene, his kitchen staff glide around the kitchen as if on roller skates, creating the restaurant’s signature Spanish-Filipino fusion dishes.
These take the form of breathlessly inventive yet calmly composed dishes, including ‘beer urchin’ (a concoction of foie gras powder that’s buried underneath paper-thin slices of onion chips and Parmesan and ‘sizzling’ (Wagyu steak, jamon iberico, chilli, onion and calamansi).
The bijou portions, served up in 10 or 14-course menus, reflect not only Gonzalez’s past glories in the kitchen of the late El Bulli, but also his commitment to bringing Filipino ingredients to the tapas tradition he grew up on, in the northerega.
Manila, with a history unique in Asia of having been colonised by both Spanish and American invaders, has become Chele’s home. He is part of a new vanguard of chefs who are beginning to change the reputation of a national cuisine which has been maligned for decades.
“When foreigners think of Filipino cuisine, if they know anything at all, they only seem to know about the ‘ewww’ factor,” says food writer, historian and chef Amy Besa, whose family home in the district of Malate is a perfectly preserved time capsule of 1950s furnishings, creaking wooden floors, sepia-tinted family photos and a vintage piano.
Returning from the US after 40 years she’s causing waves among local foodies by turning her home into the second branch (the first is in New York) of the Purple Yam, focusing on restoring and reviving traditional Filipino dishes and techniques.
“There are certainly dishes in Filipino cuisine that newcomers might find difficult at first,” she tells me over a dinner of locally raised organic chicken, braised in mango vinegar and turmeric oil. “But that’s only a tiny part of the story of our cuisine.”
A quick internet search validates Amy’s view. There are numerous ‘extreme eating’ pieces focusing on the sharp end of the Filipino culinary spectrum, such as ‘balut’ – a duck embryo boiled and eaten from the shell that is a commonly seen nocturnal street food.
Yet the reputation of French cuisine doesn’t seem to suffer because some outsiders find the locals’ fondness for horse meat a little unsavoury. So why has Filipino food never had the kind of global appeal that Thai, Korean, Malaysian or Vietnamese food has enjoyed?
“It’s a little frustrating,” says Bruce Lim, a former kickboxer raised in California who moved back to the Philippines to open his city centre restaurant, a sultry and masculine space named the Chef’s Table.
“Peruvian food has become huge in Europe recently. But there’s hardly any Peruvians living there. Yet the Filipino diaspora is truly enormous. It just doesn’t seem that many of them are opening restaurants.”
Lim’s passion for local ingredients – abundant locally caught fish, spanking-fresh poultry and rainbow-hued vegetables and spices, sourced through word-of-mouth contact with suppliers across the vast archipelago that makes up the Philippines – has been echoed again and again by chefs in the vanguard of the Manila gourmet scene. Chefs going local include J. Gamboa at the Milky Way Café which specialises in ‘Halo Halo’, the quintessential Filipino dessert made with coconut shavings and yam ice cream, and Myrna Segismundo, who last year became the first Filipino chef to perform a cookery demonstration at Madrid Fusion – the world’s most prestigious culinary symposium.
Visiting these chefs’ restaurants involved a fast-paced drive around the urban hubbub of Manila, an ostensibly concrete, grey city which hides its charms at first. However, the cobbled Spanish-colonial old town and the wide, tree-lined boulevards hugging the harbour and the South China Sea create valuable breathing space for a city which seems to be permanently hungry.
mid the muted décor, high ceilings and informal decadence of her Rockwell Club restaurant, she laughs when I ask her about cooking dinner for Pope Francis last year – “he was scraping his spoon around the flambé mango with mantecado ice cream he liked it so much!” – and we discuss the very essence of Filipino food.
“The central dish to Filipino cuisine is ‘adobo’,” she tells me. “But it’s more of a technique than an actual dish, as there are just so many variations.”
At its most basic, adobo comprises chicken or pork which is either stewed, “Nobody can agree on what makes the perfect adobo,” she tells me. “But if you really want to define Filipino food, the essence of it is about the sourness. Filipino food is rarely spicy like othnd relishes with our food, which we call ‘sawsawan’, which comes from a huge wealth of different locat Filipino cuisine, while lacking in exposure, undoubtedly has the quality and flexibility to be enjoyed far beyond Manila. And some internationally renowned chefs isited the Philippines to satisfy his own curiosity about this beguiling cuisine:
“It’s a little sour, a little sweet, a little salty and a little bitter. It seems simple yet so complex in taste. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.”