Apart from his stint at stellar elBulli, Anda Mari, and Mugaritz, very little has been written about VASK Modern Tapas & Gastronomic Cuisine's owner Chef Jose Luis 'Chele' Gonzalez's story. In this interview, we probe deeper into Chele's cooking philosophy and culinary beginnings.
Did you always love to cook? When did you realize that you wanted to take cooking seriously?
Of course! But more than that, I love to eat. When I go to a restaurant, I don't just eat. I research. I experience the dishes.
I think it (passion for cooking) was always inside of me. I took up Business Management and Marketing at the university. I also studied a bit of Psychology. But I wasn't happy deep inside. I felt that I have passion (for cooking). After I put my business, I enrolled (in a cooking school). I actually started late in the kitchen, like twenty-something. I had to mature first before I knew better what I wanted in life.
In most of the local write-ups, you're always described as the chef who worked at the world's best kitchens– most notably Ferran Adrià 's Michelin 3-star restaurant elBulli. What was it like working there?
elBulli changed my life. It gave me a lot of opportunities. Also, it was a very hard experience. It taught me a lot, but it was a very hard experience.
And before elBulli, you've also worked at Chef Andoni Aduriz' Mugaritz…
Yes. I dined at Mugaritz and then I fell in love. The experience changed my mind about food. I immediately decided that I want to work there. When I got in, I found the kitchen fantastic! A lot of love, a lot of passion. It is so unique.
Wow. Your eyes are twinkling. It's very evident how much you love Mugaritz! Any particular dish that hooked you?
Just in general. Mugaritz remains to be my favorite restaurant. It's in my heart.
You've worked at the world's best kitchens and gained experiences other chefs can only dream of. What lured you away from Europe and brought you here to the Philippines?
I decided to come to Asia because Spain's economy isn't doing well. For most of my career, I've been working for fine dining so I thought I'd take a job at a 5-star hotel in Asia. The growth is in here. I had offers from Asian countries like Indonesia and Thailand. I decided to go to the Philippines because of the similarities in culture. The Spanish culture is very much like the Filipino culture. I feel comfortable here. I can have a normal life. I would describe Filipinos as a mixture of Asian, Spanish, and American.
Then after working for a couple of hotels here, you put up VASK…
Yes. A dream of a chef is to have his own restaurant. My Filipino partners offered the opportunity. The idea is: if we want to make money, we'll do a casual restaurant because not too many people can afford fine dining. People can eat here everyday.
So we have a main dining room, a fine dining area (soon to open), then a deck. In the main dining, we serve dishes from Basque country.
How would you describe the flavor profile of Basque cuisine?
There's a lot of seafood because we have the ocean. We have a lot of meats there also. Here, half of the menu is traditional. The other half is modern– where I can be more creative. This is pretty much like what's happening in the Tapas restaurants in Spain. We are putting tapas up in a higher level.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you come up with your modern tapas dishes?
I just have a lot of passion and love. I'm always trying to find perfection. I have to offer imported products but I need to make it affordable. I just do the right technique, (ensure) high quality, and make it fun.
I call it conceptual cooking. I create concept on a plate. A mix of Asian, European, whatever is available. I create your own world. That's conceptual food.
Chef Luis whipped up this Smoked Foie Gras With Banana in Multiple Textures with an Espresso sauce during a recent event
How are you finding the market so far? Is there a big difference between the palates of Filipino diners and Spanish diners?
Oh yeah. I'd say the Filipino market is quite difficult. We are a casual restaurant and yet many think that we are expensive and fine dining. Come on. This is not expensive like a hotel outlet. This is our challenge.
Is there a particular Filipino food that impressed you?
Taho– the soy that you have with the caramel and sago. I also like Tinola soup because there are a lot of aromas in that one. I like aromatic food.
And the food that you miss the most is…
Many. Baby lamb, fresh vegetables, seafood. There are nice seafood here and also nice vegetables. But the logistics is complicated. They are not accessible.
Any tip for aspiring chef-restaurateurs like you?
Work hard and believe in yourself. But first you have to know. You should have a good teacher who will teach you, like a father who will give you lessons. In the last ten years, I only cried twice and it was in the kitchen. It is tough and you have to be strong. That's how you'll become mature as a chef.
Chef Gonzalez is often busy commanding the kitchen of VASK Modern Tapas & Gastronomic Cuisine. His restaurant is located at the 5th Floor, Clipp Center, 11th Avenue Corner, 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For reservations, you may call +63917 587-2400. VASK is open dinner time only, with two seating batches: 6:30PM and 8:00PM.