How eating can save the world

Published March 9, 2021, 3:48 PM

by AA Patawaran

Spanish chef Chele Gonzalez introduces Deli by Chele that, more than a product, is passion, an advocacy, and an act of great thoughtfulness

SPREAD THE LOVE Chef Chele and his charcuterie board

Just before the pandemic or maybe long before, I used to follow Chele Gonzalez, chef and partner at Gallery by Chele, on Instagram on his many trips across the Philippines on a personal tour of the things and techniques and traditions that would inform the way we eat as a people.

On these trips, the Spanish chef wasn’t exactly a chef on tour, on the lookout for new materials or ingredients or know-how or even suppliers. He was a discoverer, an explorer, maybe a Philippinist the way the Czech scholar Ferdinand Blumentritt was, who founded the Philippinist movement as a result of his friendship with Jose Rizal, but mostly as a friend of the Filipinos—he is married to one, Teri Echiverri—and someone interested in immersing himself deep in the routes and roots of being a Filipino through authentic experience and firsthand knowledge.

BAKED RICE, BAKED NICE Burnt bibingka cheesecake

Even as a vicarious companion to his explorations, I find great joy and inspiration not only in his findings but also in his enthusiasm, whether eating live sea urchins off the shell while at sea on a fisherman’s boat in Siquijor or meeting the cacao farmers in Toril, Davao del Sur or trying out the nylon clams in Capiz or even just waxing poetic over seasonal produce like atis, purple mangosteen, and santol at Legaspi Sunday Market in Makati City. In fact, I’ve had the privilege to see that enthusiasm up close, watching him dance happily on the roadside in Iloilo (It was high noon and I stayed in the car hiding from the harsh sun) while buying some bibingka cooked right there on a hut down the street.

So I was not surprised, despite the great interruption caused by COVID-19, when Chele only recently launched Deli by Chele. It is consistent with his character. In the curated box in which his new labor of love is delivered, there is a printed note and it says, “In your hands are carefully crafted products from responsibly sourced ingredients and local produce. We have put much love in reimagining and innovating timeless artisanal techniques to bring flavors from around the world that are good both for you and our environment.”

SAY SOFT FILIPINO CHEESE! Aged and smoked quesong puti

It is Chele through and through, capturing the essence of the chef as a main ingredient or a finer point to his every venture. “Over the years we have been immersed in the potential of what can be done with local produce,” he says. “These discoveries have inspired us to be more environmentally aware and to strive for more sustainable practices. Understanding how much food is related to greater global issues, we believe going local is one of the ways to move toward a better future. Going local is not only our passion and playground but also our advocacy.”

Standard Chele who, based on my interactions with him, even on the phone over COVID-19 developments when we couldn’t believe it was really happening, faces problems head on, never denying them, but always trying to be above them, to do something positive about them.

Deli by Chele is only one of the product lines that should come out of Stvdio Lab, a research and development arm Chele has set up with his team in pursuit of expanding their role as responsible citizens of a world that needs a lot more caring as well as the role of food and consumption in a world fast running out of resources.

EFFERVESCENT DRINK Red dragonfruit kombucha

“Before the pandemic we would joke that we should open a small deli with all the products we are developing at Stvdio Lab. The pandemic gave us the time and reason to re-examine this idea seriously,” says Chele. “We realized that we could create an online concept innovating artisanal techniques, bringing flavors from here and around the world to customers’ homes. We realized that we had something very special to share.”

Over the years we have been immersed in the potential of what can be done with local produce. These discoveries have inspired us to be more environmentally aware and to strive for more sustainable practices.

—Chele Gonzalez

Even though research and development are a passion for Chele, as much as food is, the deli project has been a leap of faith or at least a big hop out of his comfort zone, taking him from restaurant operations to product development and production or, if we must use an idiom related to his craft, out of the frying pan and into the fire. At the very least, the move has required much time and effort, and a keen interest one cannot fake or even a process one cannot just go through the motions of just to come up with something.

FAMILY IN THE KITCHEN Deli by Chele team

“In creating any of our products, we start by searching for high quality, sustainable, and organic produce,” explains Carlos Villaflor, executive sous-chef at Gallery by Chele. “Next is the painstaking process of recipe development. It is an involved exercise in trial and error, mixing and matching until we get the perfectly balanced note.”

That all these are happening during a cataclysmic event, the still ongoing pandemic, makes it even more of a feat. Food hygiene is an extra challenge that has become more essential to any food venture, especially for Deli by Chele, whose products are all-natural, no artificial preservatives included. Food safety protocols in terms of sanitation, pasteurization, and sterilization are as essential an ingredient to every piece of ube sourdough, every wedge of smoked and aged quesong puti, every scoop of duck liver pâté, every jar of pickled hibiscus, every slice of Spanish bacon or Guanciale, every chunk of the bestselling New York style brisket pastrami. They’re also fun, like Chele—try the Piñacolada jam or any of the kombuchas and seafood and vegetable preserves!

“Each box we deliver to our customers tells a story,” says Villaflor. “It is the story of us as a business making thoughtful decisions. From big things like working with local, sustainable ingredients to finer details like using biodegradable packaging, we make choices that not only make for the most delicious products but also leave a lasting impression on the world we all live in.”