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MANILA, Philippines – When two renowned chefs come together to collaborate on a joint menu, nope, that’s not what you’d typically call “fusion.” Rather, that’s what you’d call “harmony,” Chef Chele of Gallery by Chele and Chef Han Li Guang (LG) of Singapore’s Restaurant Labyrinth want to clarify.
Two esteemed chefs with their own respective cuisines and expertises, working together in the same kitchen for an eight-course dinner menu? Many might think this is a difficult and almost impossible task (and possibly, even a recipe for disaster) – however, Chef Chele and Chef LG proved otherwise. The two renowned culinary figures seamlessly did so for the official launch of 2022’s Singapore Food Festival at BGC’s Gallery By Chele in late August.
Together they brainstormed to create a menu of eight flavorful courses that both merged and highlighted Chef Chele’s and Chef LG’s Spanish-Filipino and Singaporean culinary influences, respectively. The tantalizing tandem was reflective in the evening’s most unique dishes, like the Laksa Inasal, which transformed Chef LG’s authentic laksa into a thick, creamy, spicy-savory sauce base, served below a fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth cut of perfectly-cooked octopus (a Chef Chele signature), cooked inasal-style, which gave the pulpo a smoky, grilled aftertaste, like a Pinoy chicken inasal.
How did they do it? The key in collaboration dishes, according to Chef LG, is the trust between both chefs and a set of shared core values. With these, an innate respect for each other’s cuisines and local ingredients comes naturally, which helps to produce a well-rounded, novel blend of two cultures that just makes sense on a plate.
Two chefs, one kitchen
Spanish Chef Chele, who made his name and claim to fame in the Philippines through Spanish-Filipino fine dining gem Gallery by Chele, said that at the core of the Laksa Inasal was a sense of respect.
“When you collaborate when you develop a dish, you always show respect and make sure that whatever you put on the plate has sense and is executed to the level that you know the traditional form is like. Treat it as an inspiration and with respect,” Chef Chele told Rappler in an interivew. The laksa was paid homage to by still keeping its seafood aspect, just with the substitution of octopus.
“Chef LG and myself, we have something in common. We have always promoted local from since eight years ago, so I think that was part of our core values since the beginning,” Chef Chele said, who prides himself in also representing the Filipino land in many of his restaurant’s dishes.
At the dinner, there was also a Hainanese Pork Satay appetizer being served, as an ode to the Singaporean street food staple while highlighting Pinoy flavors and ingredients too, like a sweet-savory BBQ marinade and the use of juicy pork cheeks as the meat, dipped into an authentic smooth pineapple-peanut sauce. Like “harmony,” the dish combines familiar dishes and tastes, but just executed differently.
“When it comes to Chef Chele’s and my style, I think it goes beyond just the philosophy of sourcing local. In Singapore, it’s so much harder, right?” Chef LG said. The Philippines is a plethora of indigenous produce; Chef LG said that we have the upper hand here, with our many farmers and foragers in the jungles, unlike in Singapore, where the government bans foraging. The Singapore government aren’t so keen on “old-school farms” either, Chef LG said, but would rather prioritize high-tech farming, even if the quality may not be as good. Luckily, it was easier to source local here in the Philippines.
Another thing Chef LG decided early on in his career is that money isn’t everything. “What Chele and myself share is when we first opened our restaurants – it was never really about the money. I was just bleeding money until who knows? I’m not saying that money is not important, it just was not the priority when I opened my restaurant. It was really to do something different, even almost nine years after,” Chef LG said.
“I think we’re both playing the long game where we didn’t look at money as the main factor in pushing or creating a restaurant. We’re looking at building something that is beyond just a restaurant as well. It’s for the community to promote something we are passionate about. And I think that’s why we’ve been around for quite a while,” Chef LG added.
Chef LG also said that he and Chef Chele share a sustainable philosophy of evolving from a “technique-based cuisine” to something more personal and close to heart.
“Techniques are important, right? But for myself, I realized over the years that a meal is not about a parade of techniques. A meal is about delicious food. It’s about highlighting the culture of Singapore, being a Singapore representative, championing local produce, and championing local flavors in the fine dining scene,” Chef LG said.
Techniques exist beneath all these. “Over the years, we had to learn how to reel in the techniques in favor of cooking just great food. It’s something that me and Chef Chele realized over the last few years. Now we couldn’t be happier cooking for customers.”
No, it’s not ‘fusion’
Other notably flavorful and favorite dishes on the collaboration menu were Octopus Sisig Tacos (sisig–style octopus bits with lime mayo, pickled shallots, and squid ink tacos); crisp Salted Egg Fish Skin with Suahe (shrimp) & Curry Leaves; and Iberico Char Siu (cuts-like-butter grilled Iberico pork, char siu style, sweet potato puree, smoked pork jus, kailan leaves).
There was also a filling Pastrami Fried Rice; and the hearty Bak Kut Teh, a Singaporean soup with different depths of flavors from pork shabu-shabu, manjimup black truffle, black garlic, bak kut teh dashi broth, and a 63-degree egg, all layered into one comforting soup bowl.
Even the dessert was a clever fusion of Singapore’s cereal prawns and the Philippine mango – the Cereal Prawn and Manila Mango treat had fresh, ripe mango, coconut panna cotta, lime chantilly, pandan ice cream, and a generous topping of crunchy cereal prawn crumbs that added a sweet and spicy punch to the refreshing base.
None of this is “fusion” though, remember – Chef Chele said that they make sure to keep all elements of the representative dish present, but just played with the elements with more finesse and different execution. The night’s Oyster Omelette was an example – it was in its purest form, but with three types of oysters in the middle: fried, grilled, and raw.
A favorite collab dish of Chef Chele was the Iberico Char Siu, inspired by the sweet Singaporean noodle dish. “So what I decided to do was incorporate sweet potato and some vegetables,” he said. “We’re inspired with our own perspective on fine dining – where execution matters, and where everything has attention to detail.”
Chef LG said that the success of the collaboration menu was a demonstration of the “fusion of two different chef’s styles,” but not necessarily a fusion of cuisines.
“Ultimately, it’s a harmony or union of flavors that come together, from each other. What makes it successful is because Chele and myself have eaten in each other’s restaurants many times. His octopus I’ve tried many times before, and I know his style. He knows my style,” Chef LG said.
“As much as we evolve and improve over the years, I base my palette or how I would put my dishes together on how we like to eat and how we taste as well. Understanding both of our flavor palettes and styles made it easy to conceptualize the flavors,” he added.
At the root of it all, it’s about friendship. “When first wondering what flavors could be right in our heads, it’s quite easy to second guess what Chele is going to do and what flavors he’s gonna bring to the table,” Chef LG said. A successful dish is based on their understanding of one another.
“I believe that it’s not really a fusion but really it’s an understanding – a deep and mutual respect and understanding of each other’s cuisine and cooking – that enabled us to come together and create successful dishes in this collab.”
Young chefs, listen up
For young chefs still looking to find their footing in both the local or international culinary scene, Chef LG said that is important to be first taught the basics, which is French cooking. After which, feel free to explore your own cuisine and others’.
“For Singapore at least, all our students are taught French cooking in schools. All culinary schools are all French techniques – French style, French sauces, so the students are actually brought up to learn how to cook French. They are comfortable before they even learn how to cook their own cuisine,” he said. But what about budding chefs who want to already try their hand at different cuisines?
“My advice would be to learn how to cook your own food as a local. You have to learn and appreciate your own food and how it’s being cooked, even if it’s bought from the outside. You need to know how to cook your own food first before exploring other forms of cuisine,” Chef LG said.
“I’m not saying that everyone in Singapore has cooked Singaporean cuisine as a chef. Everyone’s free to cook what they like and what they believe in. I think the underlining fact is that cooking is always equated to understanding one’s dish and roots as well. You belong to your country and if you don’t know how to cook your own cuisine as a chef, it’s quite embarrassing,” he added. But go ahead and open a French restaurant, Chef LG said. “Whatever makes you happy!”
Chef Chele’s general advice to culinary students who are working 100-300 hours a week is to always remember what is important. “One of the most important things is really at the beginning – sacrifice. Also be passionate about what you do and know that in cooking, there’s a lot of responsibility.”
He also hopes that the government would impose to have Filipino cuisine part of the culinary curriculum, as he has seen that most students are just trained in French.
“I think it’s very important to give that strong culture and literacy for the future generations. I think sometimes young chefs work too fast. You need time, you need to really be exposed to our endemic produce here, its seasonality, and ingredients in different parts of the Philippines,” Chef Chele said.
“My advice for the young generation is that to play the game to the high-level, that takes time. We’ll all fail at some point as chefs. We’ll fail in the business part. When you open a restaurant on your own, you will suffer the consequences and learn what it’s like to run a business,” he added, and that’s all part of the journey. What matters is your perseverance to push on and determination to succeed, as well as the genuine connections you make in the kitchen with chefs and in the dining area with customers. – Rappler.com