Vask: An education in passion and Spanish cuisine with Chef Chele

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“I hate it. I think it’s one of the most common names in the world,” he said, pertaining to his birth name, Jose, then continued with a smile. “I don’t want to be common. I want to be unique.”

To be fair, regardless of what he’s called, Chef Chele as he’s known these days, certainly isn’t in any danger of being considered just one of the herd. He’s among the most highly regarded chefs in Asia, and it’s not difficult to grasp how he cemented his reputation. He lives and breathes his profession.

As we soaked in the spectacular art interspersed throughout the Vask Tapas Room, he could be seen buzzing around, catering to the million and one things that required his attention. It was the midpoint of his day. And while others might suffer from a dip in energy at this point of the afternoon, he seemed to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. When he finally got the chance to sit down, he brought with him a cheerfulness and candidness that was refreshing.

“When you spend time doing what you like, you’re not working, you’re having fun,” he said. We wasted no time jumping into an hour-long conversation, an exchange that touched on the state of Spanish cuisine in the Philippines, the explosion of the food and beverage industry in the country, the dangerous bubble it’s nearing, and the colorful journey that turned a successful but unfulfilled DJ and club owner into a happy man completely consumed by his passion for food.

His story begins in the Basque country, in the north of Spain, a region famous for its exceptional cuisine. Growing up, however, a culinary career couldn’t have been further from the realm of possibility. “I was super skinny before,” he said laughing, gesturing to his now full physique. “I used to fight with my mom because I wouldn’t eat.”

Combining tracks and sounds, rather than ingredients, was what occupied his time. The creation of audible pleasures, instead of gastronomic delights. As a young adult, Chele was a successful DJ, and an owner of one of the most popular clubs in his area. He often partied with celebrities, rubbed elbows with influencers and welcomed countless sunrises. He lived the good life — or so it seemed.

“I was lost,” he admitted. All the partying was taking its toll. The need to always project happiness and fun was getting exhausting. So, he began looking for his exit strategy. It wasn’t easy. Unlike an employee who could simply quit his job, he was tied down until he could find a reasonable offer for his property. His own paradise had him trapped, he recalled, “I started suffering from depression. It was a very difficult time.”

It was during these moments that he started developing his interest in the culinary world. “I visited a different region, and was exposed to different gastronomy. That got my attention,” he said. When he returned home, he started utilizing his financial capacity from his club to stoke his newfound interest. He started frequenting the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants, refining his palate and broadening his knowledge. By the time the right offer for his club finally arrived, he knew what he needed to do. At 24 years of age, he decided to abandon his prominent status in the nightlife scene and dive head first into a whole new world.

Although the road ahead was to be filled with high-pressured long hours in culinary school, this chef believes he chose the right path. “It was the best decision I made in my life,” he recalled. “It gave me discipline. It gave me energy. It put my life in order. And since then, I can say I’m a happy person.” After supporting himself through his culinary education, he spent the next decade learning under some of the most revered chefs in his region, honing his craft and expanding his expertise. That road led him to the Philippines, where he is the man behind the dishes of one of the rare authentic Spanish restaurants in the country.

“Spanish cuisine has been here so long that it has been adjusted to the Filipino palate,” he said, pointing to Spain’s over 300 years of colonization of the Philippines. “There are some places that call themselves Spanish restaurants that I cannot call Spanish restaurants. Because, when I put their food in my mouth, there is something else that isn’t Spanish. You can call it mestizo, Spanish-Filipinized food, or quite simply, Filipino food, because that’s what it is at the end of the day,” he explained matter-of-factly.

“We need to change how authentic Spanish food is perceived. It’s been limited to special occasions,” he continued, pointing to the fact that most, if not all, Spanish restaurants in the country are of the fine dining variety. The price of the ingredients to pull off the dishes doesn’t help, but Chef Chele is determined to facilitate a change in how the cuisine is experienced. “Our food here in Vask Tapas Room is my mom’s food, my lola’s food, the food I crave on my day off. Traditional Spanish recipes combined with a contemporary approach.”

Right away he makes his point clear with the arrival of the Lengua Poppers, an off-the-menu item that looked like a standard deep-fried snack available around the various bars and restaurants in Metro Manila. But once the surface is broken, an explosion of béchamel makes an introduction, alongside the softest lengua I’d yet experienced. Simply having one wasn’t enough. In fact, the entire basket disappeared rather quickly. “It’s homey, not fancy,” Chele pointed out, smiling as he enjoyed a few pieces of his own creation. He was spot on. It seemed like a dish one could enjoy while watching a movie, or while taking a stroll.

Just as I was wrapping my head around the profound simplicity to the beginning of our meal, another off-the-menu item arrived — the Cannelloni. “Every Saturday my mom would make this,” he explained. It looked like a simple lasagna, but once again, beneath the surface was quite the combination. Again, there was lengua. But this time, there was also mushroom, parmesan cheese, and interestingly, orange — the subtle zest of which really added an intriguing dimension.

Once we had a few slices, Chef Chele brought out some truffle oil to add to the equation. He was eager to get my immediate feedback. This was when it became clear that even after almost two decades into his profession, he was quite clearly the opposite of being jaded. This was his domain, and he was in his element, taking every opportunity to experiment on how to better execute his craft.

Next came Assorted Pintxos, small pieces of bread with various toppings — a famous Basque snack which was first introduced in the Philippines in this particular restaurant. The Jamon Parmesan, coupled with their signature sangria was, to me, the clear standout.

Having showcased a few of his simpler dishes, he took an opportunity to display the deepness of his creativity with a modern rendition of the centuries-old Pulpo a la Gallega. Boiled, smoked and grilled octopus, with potato foam and toasted paprika — all smoked in oakwood in front of us, right before we dug in. It was quite the novel experience, and one that truly gave an orientation to the dynamic effect, and distinct flavor of a proper smoking. To top off the spectacular meal, the softest and most delectably tasty Tenderloin in my 29 years on this earth, coupled with beetroot — simplicity executed to an extraordinary level. Paired with their selection of Shiraz, it was absolute perfection.

“I spend time thinking about food, more than spending time with my wife, with my family. Food is the most important,” he admits. It’s that type of commitment to his passion that almost guarantees Vask Tapas Room’s continued success in a bizarre time in the Philippines’ food and beverage industry. With the country in the midst of an economic boom, there are commercial areas popping up everywhere in the rapidly transforming cultural hubs, with the majority of the spaces catering to the massive influx of new dining concepts. And while Metro Manila, on any given day, attracts roughly 18 million people into its confines, only a small fraction of that number can afford the prices that majority of the new restaurants are offering — creating a trend of unsustainable growth, and hyper-competitiveness among establishments.

“People think that to have a restaurant is a huge business. You attract artists, influencers, celebrities, it’s trendy. A lot of people not involved in the F&B industry are impressed, and that is dangerous,” the chef explained.

Chef Chele pointed out that at least 70 percent of all restaurants are bound to fail, and how there needs to be a delicate mix of competent management, a talented chef and a smooth system in order to succeed. But while he sees an inevitable bursting of the bubble, he’s quick to point out the benefit of the current culinary explosion in the country. “The food is much better now. And Filipino food is getting a lot of attention for the first time. But it’s just a baby at the moment. It’s important to stay grounded,” he cautions. “We have a beautiful baby right now. It depends [on] how we feed the baby, how we take care of the baby that will decide how it grows up.”

Although it’s the authentic Spanish cuisine of Vask Tapas Room that he showcased on the day, Chef Chele is also playing a key role in uplifting Filipino cuisine through his other restaurant down the hall, Gallery Vask — recently named the 35th best restaurant in Asia — a concept that showcases anthropological cuisine through fresh and indigenous products.

“If before I was spending time in the kitchen cutting onions, now it’s more intellectual,” he reveals, explaining how his passion has evolved in recent years. “I really get deeper into how food affects us, and how important food really is. It connects to us on so many levels: traditions, culture, identity, memories, happiness, family, health. That connection is what I want to know more about.”

And while the success of both of Vask’s restaurants provides a strong platform to weather what Chef Chele sees as an inevitable storm down the road, he accepts there are no guarantees in his line of business — only that he’s sure he’s where he wants to be.

“There are difficult moments, there are sad moments in life, there are frustrating moments — there are a lot of frustrating moments in a restaurant — but at the end of the day, this is where I want to spend my time. That’s it.”

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