Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit to Barcelona, where Sebastian Mazzola is making his name at 41°. Enjoy!
Buenos Aires to Barcelona: Sebastian Mazzola
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner, Clay Oven Irvine
Albert Adria and Sebastian Mazzola are the creative forces behind 41° in Barcelona, one of the world's most exciting and talked about restaurant at this time. Located adjacent to Tickets until it moves to its larger location, 41° is an ultra-hip contemporary restaurant with 16 of the most sought-out seats anywhere. Albert Adria's creative stamp is all over the 51 courses and the dozen or so cocktails that are part of the 41° experience. He introduced me to Sebastian, his chef who heads the kitchen and comes up with new creative concepts that (in Albert's words) blow your mind.
Sebastian is a young Argentinean chef who brings it all together at 41°. Extremely skilled and innovative and not in the least impacted by his success, Sebastian is a very likeable and passionate chef. From shopping personally every morning to presenting the finished products every evening, it is a high stress-inducing role, but he takes it in stride. He has done stages and worked at most exclusive restaurants in Denmark, Peru, and Spain. He is a very compassionate and likeable young man and who I enjoy keeping in contact with.
Last month he arrived in Lima, Peru to help out his friend who is working on opening a restaurant as an homage to his brother Ivan Kisic, a reputed Peruvian chef who died in a tragic car accident. Knowing Franco Kisic, who helped put together the concept for Pakta and was going to manage it as well, I know how the whole Tickets and 41° family is saddened by these events. The menu takes you on a whimsical journey through continents, ideas and sensory experiences. Having met the whole team, I can say they are having fun doing this and this fun is communicated to the diners as well. Spain leads the world in the kind of cuisine offered at 41°. I think in a few years, Sebastian will be ranked along as one of the most creative chefs in the world who are constantly pushing the boundaries of food.
I asked Sebastian a few questions:
At what age did you enter the professional kitchen?
I started culinary school as soon as I graduated from high school. The decision was a result of my dream to travel around the world. At that time I really wanted to study art but it was going to take too long and travel abroad would be difficult. I always loved to cook and be around the kitchen, so I decided to give the profession a try and discovered that was my true passion.
Who do you credit for your interest in food?
My two grandmothers (one Italian and the other Spanish) always cooked a lot of traditional recipes, and I learnt a lot from them. When I was very young, we lived in a small town with a big park. Every Sunday, we would cook in the big clay oven there (you know we have some at our restaurant too). I have very good memories of those times.
What kind of professional training did you get?
I went to culinary school in Buenos Aires where I was fortunate in my teachers who were, and are, some of the biggest chefs in Argentina. They were people who loved this profession like I do now, and made me realize how beautiful it is. In the first few years of my professional career, I worked all over the Americas,:in Buenos Aires, Peru, Mexico, Argentinean Patagonia and Florida. The good thing about relating travel and cooking is that you learn about the different philosophies people have about what it means to be a cook or chef.
When did you come to Europe?
In 2007, I got a chance to travel to Europe and do a whole season stage at El Bulli which was at that time the best restaurant in the world. And after working there with Ferran Adria, I understood why. The commitment to work and the effort to make things different, but always with perfection. I also learned that the limits to creativity exist only in your mind. During my time there, I got a chance to work and live with a group of chefs that today are probably the best in the world.
After El Bulli what came next?
I took over the kitchen if a restaurant near the Boqueria market in Barcelona and that gave me a chance to learn more about the different seasons and the products in Spain. It was a bistro-like operation that I already had experience in, so I decided to try something different. I moved to the kitchen of a tapas restaurant. It was a very interesting opportunity to be able to experiment with concepts while creating food.
How are tapas different?
It is different from creating a multicourse meal where you can choose how many courses you want to serve an individual. When you plan a meal around tapas, you have to be mindful that the food is easy to serve and share because the beauty of tapas is that they are best shared. Many different plates can go to the table at the same time. It was a great experience.
After almost three years in Barcelona, I decided to move to Copenhagen, Denmark. I have a very good friend there who had been my kitchen compadre as well as my roommate during my El Bulli time. You know Soren Westh (about him in another segment) who has been the sous chef and part of the creative team at Noma. He connected me with many chefs in Copenhagen so I was able to experience many kitchens there. I was very impressed by these Danish chefs and the structures of their kitchens. I was really inspired by the way in which they related their cuisine to nature.
I know you have worked and done stages in some of the most well-known kitchens and worked with notable chefs in Europe. Can you name some of them?
In Spain, El Bulli of course. In Denmark I worked at the Nimb hotel and also spent time in the kitchens of Noma (Rene Redzepi), Geranium (Rasmus Kofoed), and AOC (Ronny Emborg). I have to say all of them were amazing places to work and learn. The chefs there were extremely professional and I admire their talent and their passion.
What made you move back to Barcelona?
After a year in Denmark, I missed Barcelona and so I decided to go back and work on the opening of 41° for Albert Adria. The concept was in the process of development at that time and he gave me space to express myself with everything about food that I had learned on my travels.
I know you work closely with Albert and he appreciates your work. How were you able to develop the concept?
It was a very unique situation because with Albert's help, I started creating a new concept of food. Food that can be eaten in a few bites and brings out many flavors while relating a story about it. This concept was totally new and it all started with the snacks that were served at El Bulli before the meal. Albert thought that they were perfect to go with cocktails and that's how we started.
How did it turn into the 41° menu experience?
With the creation of new and better bites, Albert took the decision of turning the cocktail bar into something else. You cannot say it is a restaurant because it is not; we are still searching for the right definition of our experience. (how about WOW!)
How do you define your menu? Because for me it is mind boggling how you can transform products into visual delectations.
As our menu is a reflection of our minds, it changes all the time. Sometimes we become so involved in a season that we set off in a new direction and at other times a few trips inspire us to turn the menu upside down and we find out it works better. We have many courses and so it is extremely important to have the right amount of food in each bite and place them in a proper order.
Ferran and Albert Adria's organization is opening three more restaurants this year. Are you involved in those projects?
Right now besides taking care of the menu at 41°, I am also developing the menu for the new Nikkei restaurant we are going to open. I am on the creative team along with a Peruvian and a Japanese chef. After this one opens we are moving on to open a Mexican restaurant, hopefully in July. For both cases, we have been developing the menu for many months and I believe they will be special places.
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
It is a complicated process and hard to explain. I often go back in time in search of flavors that made me feel special and try to recreate them in an original way. Other times I have dreams, wake up in the middle of the night, write an idea and in the morning turn it into something great , and sometimes not!
Which cuisine has inspired you the most, and which one would you want to learn more about?
I have to say Peruvian cuisine and also its people. I have travelled all around this beautiful country and I am constantly surprised at how connected people are to food. Everything revolves around food, as you can see in their impressive food culture and unique ingredients. Of course, Spain has inspired me and this is where I have learned all the techniques that are so useful in realizing my creations.
I am looking forward to traveling in Asia, especially Japan and Vietnam. I am sure they will inspire me just like Peru and Mexico.
The 41° concept is referred to as another El Bulli. What do you have to say about that?
People relate us to El Bulli, which we have nothing in common with. Of course we use techniques developed there when Albert was involved in the creation of many of these methods. Our style and concept about food is different and unique, so it is impossible to compare.
What do you think about people copying your work?
Our style and concept is very unique and we have opened new frontiers. It is natural that many other chefs will try to recreate our food. That is normal in the globalized world. I have been inspired by other chefs all my life, so I cannot complain when someone does the same to me. I think it is something to be proud about. I hope I can serve as an inspiration for people who love this profession like we do at 41°.
I know you go shopping everyday for your ingredients. Do you know what you will buy ahead of time or do you let the ingredients lead you?
I am always searching for new ingredients and I let them tell me what to do with them. Sometimes I find a normal ingredient, but it is so perfect that it deserves a place on our menu. We also work with some local producers who are proud of our work and bring us the best they have. They know we will respect their products and transform them into something good.
What are your specific contributions to the world of gastronomy?
We are keeping our work low profile and time will tell. We are constantly working to make it the best it can be. Right now, not many people know or understand our work at 41°. I don't believe we are better than anyone else because what we offer is impossible to compare.
Do you have plans to visit the US? Which cities would you like to visit?
I would like to visit San Francisco, Chicago and NYC soon (don't you forget Los Angeles and Orange County or you will be off my list!). I have many friends, including you, working there and I like to keep up with what's going on there. There are so many interesting things I would like to see and so many amazing chefs with distinct styles to learn from.
What do you do in your free time?
Lately, I have changed my working hours so I am able to eat out more often and I am doing it now. I think to be a good chef you need to know all about food and the best way is tasting. (Amen to that)
On my days off, I like to cook for friends. I love to be the host and receive and take care of old and new friends. I have a nice terrace where I grow many herbs and plants. The grill is on every Sunday. We will cook together very soon when you are in Barcelona.
Any last words?
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This profession is so beautiful, it is impossible to get to know everything; there is always something to learn!
Bravo Sebastian. Keep creating and amazing the world with your talents.