SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The first quarter of 2017 is barely over but Spanish chef Jose Luis "Chele" Gonzalez is on a roll. The 41-year-old just got married, his modern Spanish restaurant Gallery Vask in Manila came in 35th on the Asia's Best 50 Restaurant list, and he recently concluded a very successful four-hands dinner with chef Julien Royer at Odette.
Not bad for someone who, when he first told his family that he wanted to be a chef, was greeted with disbelief. "They thought I was crazy," Chef Gonzalez, who was born and raised in Torrelavega in the north of Spain recalls. "They discouraged me, because of the long hours in the kitchen and the little pay."
He came from a family of teachers, and his parents insisted that he earn himself a college degree. So the dutiful son took up a marketing and business course at university, but didn't enjoy it. Instead, he found more success running a nightclub, making "lots of money", but he couldn't see himself doing it for life.
This is an adaptation of a recipe that is 500 years old. This recipe is Spanish with a Moorish touch and was created before the discovery of America changed gastronomy forever. The dish can be enjoyed two ways: first on its own, and second, mixed with the majada, which is made of almond and raisins.
Makes 1 portion
40g Emperor or Maya Maya fish
30g spiced broth
25g shallot shells
15g almond majada
For the spice broth:
600g onions, julienned
300g Emperor fish bones
300g Emperor fish trimmings
1 litre water
60g olive oil
150g white wine
75g lemon juice
6g coarse black pepper
For the shallot shells:
200g baby shallots
30g olive oil
For the almond majada:
25g extra virgin olive oil
1. For the spice broth: Sweat the onions in a pot with the olive oil at low heat for 40 minutes to an hour.
2. Add the cinnamon, black pepper and saffron, then keep cooking for another 30 to 40 minutes.
3. Add the bones and fish trimmings, then cook for 10 minutes at low heat, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the white wine, reduce, then add the lemon juice and cook for a few more minutes.
5. Add the water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes and infuse for an hour.
6. Strain and clarify.
7. For the shallot shells: Peel the shallots and place them with olive oil and salt in a vacuum bag and seal.
8. Steam in the oven at 95 deg. C for 15 minutes.
9. Rest the shallots, then cut in half, separate the layers and pick the best ones.
10. Sear on plancha until golden brown.
11. For the almond majada: Toast almonds.
12. Finely chop raisins.
13. Blend together into a paste.
14. To plate: Sear the fish until skin is crispy.
15. Finish cooking fish in salamander until it reaches 49 deg. C.
16. Place fish on plate with five pieces of shallot shells around it.
17. On the side, place a quenelle of the almond majada.
18. Pour broth into a jar and serve over fish at the table.
The money he made from running the nightclub allowed him to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants, and "my passion in food grew bigger", he says.
He went off to get a culinary degree from Arxanda, Bilbao, before working at some of the world's most respected places such as Restaurant Arzak, the now-defunct elBulli, El Cellar de Can Roca, Nerua-Guggenheim and Mugaritz.
But after spending a decade at these top Spanish restaurants, chef Gonzalez was burnt out, even though he was still passionate about cooking.
As was his habit, he would take three weeks off in a year and head to Asia for his holidays.
Six years ago, however, he decided to take the plunge and stay in Asia.
"I was all alone, starting over, and I was scared," says Chef Gonzalez, who packed two chef jackets, a list of recipes and his CV for this life-changing holiday.
He found work at the Sofitel in the Philippines, but that was short-lived when a typhoon wrecked the hotel and its restaurants. He later worked at another hotel, but soon realised that catering to 500 guests at each service, was not for him.
His next break came when Filipino architect and artist Juan Carlo Calma approached him to start a new project that would combine fine dining and art - similar to what Nerua was to the Guggenheim, except that this time, the restaurant would be within an art gallery.
Tapas is served in the Vask Dining Room, while Gallery Vask is for fine dining. The restaurant has proven to be a hit since it opened four years ago. Among its accolades include a Restaurant of the Year award from Esquire magazine in 2013. Last year, it was ranked 39th in the Asia's Best 50 Restaurants list and society magazine Philippine Tatler named it one of its top 20 best restaurants.
"Getting awards is more of a recognition of the hard work that my team puts in, rather than for me," he says.
The cuisine at the 20-seater Gallery Vask, is a showcase of chef Gonzalez's techniques, his knowledge of Filipino ingredients and its culture.
While he used to import ingredients from overseas, now 95 per cent of what he uses is sourced in the Philippines. "Some things, such as US beef, have to be imported," he says.
He makes it a point to travel around the country to meet local growers, producers, breeders and communities, creating a menu that is a blend of Spanish and Filipino cuisine. His goal is to help diners enjoy native products, support local farmers and explore Philippine flavours.
The restaurant offers two menus: Lakbay, a 12-course menu that features the chef's signature dishes, including Beer Urchin, made from sea urchin, beer, clams, foie gras powder and orange.
Alamat, the bigger menu, changes every three or four months, and features dishes such as the Tiradito - yellow fin tuna and pickled seaweed served like a ceviche.
One dish he will never take off the menu is Sour Ribs - made with wagyu, Soyamansi sauce, onions with garlic casein and talinum, a type of plant. "The Filipinos really love their beef," he says.
One item that he always tries to include in every dish is broth, a personal favourite which he says is the "soul of a dish".
Asked if his family still thinks his being a chef is a crazy idea, he says: "No, they are now very proud of me."