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Helping Others is the Best Way to Help Yourself

By DOM GALEON

Video by JULES VIVAS

Portraits by NOEL PABALATE

There he was at his restaurant in Uptown Bonifacio, looking as vibrant as ever even through the screen of my smartphone, with that permanent smile on his face. Although his eyes looked tired, Chele Gonzalez did not look the least bit hopeless.

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Chef Chele Gonzalez

This interview over Zoom, which was the first one I’d done since being stuck working from home, turned out to be not like an interview at all. It was more like a chat, a catching up with perhaps the most bubbly chef I know in the Philippines today. But you could tell that Chele has been doing a lot since the pandemic started and everything halted.

Chele admits that he was, of course, worried about his family in Spain. “There were a lot of things going on in Spain,” he says. “I was worried about my family, and some people from my family got sick as well. My mom is also 70 years old, my brother-in-law got sick so my sister couldn’t see her. It was very stressful. I mean, you cannot stay at home watching Netflix like nothing was happening, right?”

So the first thing Chele did was to find a way to take care of others. “Helping other people who have less, that is really, really important for me, for the restaurant, for our philosophy,” he says.

Here are some snippets from our conversation.

How has all of this changed your experience as a chef and a restaurateur?

It had been several steps, you know. I think in this world, everything goes too fast. I thought, when we started with the lockdown, that finally we were going to stop a little bit in this crazy fast world. But it wasn’t the case. Things are faster right now. From one week to the other, you know, things can even change a lot. Our global way to live has changed a lot.

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But, at the beginning, I had the example of what was going on in Spain. One day before the government announced that we were going to have to close the restaurants and everything basically, outside of the groceries and pharmacies, we had already made a decision. Why? Because I was seeing so many cases in Europe, in Spain, and I didn’t feel safe to come to work. So I told my partners, ‘Look, I cannot ask my team to go to work if I know I won’t be able to be there.’ So let’s close to see, to observe, and just to be safe because we don’t know what is going on, because it was very uncertain at the beginning. Nobody knows what was going on.

So, at the beginning, you can say I was even happy to stop, you know. Traveling every month—maybe sometimes travel two or three times a month, going out of the country or taking care of my consultations in Cebu or Boracay, so I was happy to say, ‘Okay, let’s stop, let’s rest physically and mentally.’

So what did you do during those times?

I was very active. It was tough not being able to do anything. I couldn’t go to have a walk or whatever. What helped me a lot was doing social and solidarity cooking. When you help other people who need help—in this case when you help frontliners—there is a voice inside you that makes you feel better. Sometimes helping other people is the best way to help yourself. That was our biggest step to being active again—I was passive for a month. Doing what I call social cooking was our first step to becoming active again.

But how was that? It must’ve taken a toll on your operations.

Financially, before the pandemic, we were okay. We were doing well. Of course, when you support your team—we were paying salaries even with the pandemic—then the bank account starts to go down. But we wanted to continue with our social work and also with supporting our employees. We started trying to be familiar with doing deliveries.

That’s something new for Gallery by Chele, right?

Well, yes. It took us quite some time to find the right concept. Most people want good food, so we went to study the possibility of ready-to-cook or for people who want to have dinner like we would serve it in the restaurant. Then we put our energy into making sure we deliver that same experience, from the delivery to the packaging, and to be sustainable and not use plastic—or to minimize it because we still use it for a few things, like a vacuum box to make sure they get the same quality we have in the restaurant. Quality, for me, is very important. And then we said, okay, we are not going to stop our special cooking. We’ll keep doing that, maybe 400 or 500 meals a week, because there’s gonna be a lot of people who would still need that.

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Gallery by Chele AT HOME sustainable packaging

And this is how you came up with Gallery by Chele | AT HOME. Can you tell us about this a bit more?

Well, it’s not only us who started a delivery service. We offer two kinds, our signature Spanish dishes and our a la carte meals. Basically, we prepare both for you, but you get one option to have everything cooked and ready, or you can cook the others at home. But we prepare all of it, just like in normal restaurant operations, and that is called service time. Everything is ready to go basically—all the garnish, all the vegetables, even the proteins—you just need to punch here, put it in the oven, and it is ready. You can just cook and feel like a master chef. We try to deliver almost the same quality we offer in-house.

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Black bombs

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Pulpo Gallega

Do you think you will keep this delivery service available, say, for the next couple of months?

Well, we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. I think we know that the younger people are not too much affected by this virus. So probably the younger ones, they will be the ones who go out. The more senior, I think, won’t be allowed to go for quite some time. They will say, okay, if I can get the same food delivered at home, I will get it at home. Maybe I will go out once in a while, but I want to be in a place that assures safety, where I know I’m not going to get sick.

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Chori burger

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Special bibingka

Are you preparing to open the restaurant soon?

Yes. We have been working, for the past two months, on ways to make sure that the restaurant will be a safe space. We have developed very strictly policies on how we will operate the restaurant moving forward.

You can check out what’s available under Gallery by Chele|AT HOME by visiting its website gallerybychele-athome.com. Operating hours is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays to Sundays only. Cut off time for taking orders is 5 p.m. Pick up can be arranged via various food delivery services like Grab or Lalamove until 6 p.m. only.


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/06/10/helping-others-is-the-best-way-to-help-yourself/)

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