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 Mugaritz in Spain and its fabulous chef, Andoni Aduriz. Enjoy!
I have always believed that memories of food you taste on your travels are the best souvenirs of a trip, easy to pack and transport. I know this because I revisit my cache of such memories many times. Mugaritz and Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz figure very prominently in my reminisces of San Sebastian and the gastronomy of Spain.
San Sebastian, located in the Basque area of Spain close to the border with France, has become the gastronomic capital of the world. The countryside around San Sebastian area is hauntingly beautiful, with verdant green hills, views of the Bay of Biscay, and the Urmea river almost dividing the city into two parts. There is the old town with numerous pinxto ("tapas" in Euskadi, the Basque language) bars and then there are the fabulous restaurants at the pinnacle of haute cuisine.
Chef Aduriz's Michelin-starred restaurant, Mugaritz (rated #3 by Restaurant Magazine in 2012) is in Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, outside of San Sebastian. Set amongst the picturesque countryside, at the end of a long winding road, is a farmhouse-like structure standing in isolation, surrounded by greenery. The first time we drove there at night, we got lost in the hills; the second time we took a taxi and the taxi driver got lost. Now thankfully any navigation system will lead you there in 20 minutes or so from the center of San Sebastian.
If you have a choice, you should visit Mugaritz in the daytime to be able to enjoy the serene setting, and later during your meal be able to understand the connection between the terroir and the cuisine. The food at Mugaritz is representative of local produce, traditions, seasons and the enormous respect Chef Aduriz has for the gifts of nature. His style of cooking is sometimes referred to as neo-naturalism. He changes the properties of foods while preserving the form or sometimes transforms them completely by an advanced scientific process. His food at times is like an intellectual dialogue between the chef and the diner. He plays with your mind and emotions, resulting in a dining experience beyond the food. The menus are constantly changing based on the seasons and on what the research team has created.
If anything, food is the culture of a certain time or place encapsulated and presented on a plate or a menu. Aduriz exemplifies this concept brilliantly, as he presents the Basque culinary traditions in a modern format, re-imagined and representative of here and now. He is a dignified, intellectual chef, part food researcher, part philosopher (a very young 42 year philosopher!). I am enraptured by any conversation or contact with him. He is one of these individuals that cross your path in life and leaves an indelible impression on you that transforms you in a positive manner.
After my first visit and the unforgettable watermelon carpaccio (the last time at his luncheon for the Gastronomika, I did have the vegetable carpaccio which, though brilliant, did not trump the watermelon masterpiece) I have been back for more of these experiences. You enter this large farmhouse-like structure and emerge into a very clean, contemporary, yet traditional dining room with wrought iron screens and the silverware resting on pottery shards. It is very soothing and serene, just like the service, the food, and the chef in the kitchen leading his brigade. His dishes are about texture, technique, creativity, and imagination. Prepare yourself for the unexpected, as on a previous visit we were offered two choices for our meal: Either we submitted to a superlative experience, or we rebelled (or thought we wanted to).
On my last visit the team at Mugaritz was into Papel "Kraft". The diners are presented with an envelope containing a sheet of edible paper made of flax and wheat! The complicated process of transformation one of the many developed by the R&D team upstairs.
This time I went back to the kitchen for the first time since a devastating fire destroyed it in 2010. During this visit to the kitchen, Aduriz offered me a taste of what would be presented at the Gastronomika in a few days: a macaron which looked like a perfect chocolate macaron from Ladurée. At the first bite (knowing Chef Andoni's sense of whimsy) I knew that I tasted foie (in fact it was partridge and duck liver), but there was another slightly metallic taste that I could not place. The smiles on their faces told me that it was something I would not eat otherwise (At Mugaritz you even enjoy tasting what you know you do not like to eat).
The macaron de Caza was served the following week at the Gastronomika along with a short film featuring a primitive huntress who eventually ended up in the Mugaritz dining room, macaron in hand after a hunt through the forest. The mystery was revealed the following week: The albumen from egg white in the macarons had been replaced with fresh pigs blood, which has the same properties.
Aduriz has also dabbled in the world of art, theatre, and music in the form of a collaborative music project and a play titled The Degustation de Titus Andronicus. The research aspect and the scientific approach, both elements he absorbed at his time at El Bulli, are nevertheless entirely his own interpretations at Mugaritz. The R&D facility on the floor above the restaurant carries out research that sometimes appears as offerings on the restaurant menu. Their FoodSprays are now available on the market in Spain after being presented at the Madrid Fusion conference this January. At this event, Chef Aduriz demonstrated a dish with baked Jerusalem artichokes that mimicked exactly the crabmeat that he served them with on the plate. The Jerusalem artichokes were marinated in a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide) to form a kind of outer coating which preserved the vegetable's texture during the cooking process. The dish was representative of a nouvel cooking style referred to as neo- naturalism, when natural ingredients are transformed by a complicated scientific process so that they retain their organic texture and shape and mimic another ingredient with perfection.
I presented numerous questions to him during our meeting, which he took the time to absorb and give very thoughtful responses to. If it is possible, I feel even more impressed with Chef Aduriz's intellect and his grasp of important issues in the world of cuisine. His social consciousness separates him from a lot of chefs in the world,AND I feel fortunate to have been able to have this interaction with him.
And now, the questions...
What is your philosophy about food?
Given the fact that there are many fine restaurants in the world where people have the choice to eat and create memories, we search to expand the boundaries of the known, create unique moments, and stimulate creative outlook. All this from a quest for excellence and respect for the environment and culture.
What do you not appreciate about restaurant menus?
I believe that if people do not do things better it is because they are ignorant or incapable. I am very tolerant and understanding generally. I believe that restaurants should communicate better what we offer and thus avoid many frustrating episodes. One of the things that bother me the most is when they kidnap time, when the meal is endless.
Is the present fiscal crisis in Spain and the rest of the world affecting the operations of fine dining?
When consulting with professionals who have been in the hospitality business for many decades about the impact of the current crisis, they say that they had never experienced anything like this. Before, when there was a crisis in a sector or country, there was another covering the vacancies...but right now, the situation affects all sectors and a large number of countries, creating a new and difficult situation. We cannot complain, because we work a lot (Mugaritz reservations are not easy to come by), but obviously we have noticed that national customers don't come as often, and of course, a contraction in domestic consumption is visible.
You choose to highlight a lot of local ingredients in your cuisine? What is the most important reason for doing that?
In Mugaritz, we think that customers do not pay only for our cuisine, they pay for more...they pay for us to search for, explore and introduce them to new recipes and ideas. Also to select to and for them the finest ingredients...so, if we understand that about a vast majority of gourmets who visit us from around the world, it is logical that we make an extra effort to make sure our environment is represented on our dishes.
There is a lot of interactive process in your menu where the diners interact with the presentation. Why do you want to engage your diners in this way?
When we are moved, we connect with our most transcendent part. Visit a place like Mugaritz, it is something that you cannot do every day, so when it happens, it should be a special and unique experience. If we want people remember this experience for a long time, it has to dial into our emotional memory. We do not want people who visit us that are just observing dinners, we try to have active accomplices in our dining room.
What do you think about chefs who offer your creations on their menus without giving you due credit?
I think as professionals we do all that we can. I think if someone does not do the right thing it is because he does not know better or has no opportunity to do so. (I ask this question of chefs because I have during my dining experiences have begun to classify plates by the names of chefs who created a particular style or mix of ingredients lately. Rene Redzepi, Albert Adria, Thomas Keller, and Massimo Bottura come to mind)
You have visited the United States many times, which is your favorite city?
I have lived great experiences in many cities of United States: Chicago, Boston, New Orleans... But if I have to choose, I would pick New York.
When is your next planned visit to the US?
Probably I will be in California next April participating in a event. I have many friends in the U.S. and it is tremendously inspiring visit them. (The introduction to his book Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking has been written by Thomas Keller, of Per Se and French Laundry fame, and by Ferran Adria of the now closed El Bulli. Aduriz was part of the conceptual team of El Bulli for two years before establishing his own restaurant.)
What are your views regarding collaborations with chefs who cook other cuisines?
I am not referring to fusion but actual collaborations where the presentations have items from each cuisine.
I have the good fortune to have travelled widely and met many many chefs worldwide. All chefs are more adept at some things than others so, when I have the opportunity of being in front of someone who has something to teach me, I become a curious apprentice. I like to learn, try to understand and interact.
Is there a particular cuisine that you would like to learn more about?
Honestly, I would like to know everything. I have the good fortune to meet many cooks in the world and when something catches my attention, I have no problem asking a thousand times.
(I heard a story recently about a food event in France. Rene Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen was demonstrating a technique for some kind of soup and Chef Aduriz was taking copious notes. To Aduriz surprise, Redzepi announced at the end of the demonstation that this particular technique was in fact inspired by Chef Aduriz.)
What is the most exciting cuisine that you have encountered in your travels?
Traveling with Alex Atala (the handsome world-renowned chef behind D.O.M restaurant in Sao Paolo) around Brazil or around Peru with Gaston Acurio, have been two of the most adventurous experiences of my life. Now I can say that I have eaten some of the most exotic ingredients in the world, especially in Japan.
Which one of your peers do you respect or admire the most?
I deeply admire many colleagues. I respect the committed cook, courageous, sincere and honest and, fortunately I know many cooks who have these attributes.
Which female chef do you think is the most innovative?
Because of the proximity I know Elena Arzak's work better than that of other female colleagues who are also doing a great job. Personally I consider Elena one of the most innovative professionals I know. (Elena Arzak, along with her father Juan Mari, heads the kitchen of Arzak, their three-Michelin starred family restaurant. Juan Mari Arzak is known as the father of contemporary Basque cuisine.)
Which is the most interesting food symposium you have attended in the last few years?
There are great culinary events worldwide. Perhaps those events located in rich environmental proposals, whether kitchens or markets, are especially remembered. It happens when you go to a meeting in Japan or Peru, for example. An event out of the ordinary, because the conversations about cuisine are minimum is "Diálogos de Cocina" (it is one of the most interesting that I remember) with takes place biannually in San Sebastian.
Do you plan to open multiple restaurants locally or overseas?
Mugaritz will celebrate its 15th anniversary this March and there has been no year in which we have not received proposals to open other restaurants around the world. We like to do things right and enjoy the process. Right now our priority is to consolidate our presence in the Hotel Abadía Retuerta Le Domaine in Valladolid. It is an idyllic place, an oasis of beauty and tranquillity.
Being one of the leading food personalities in the culinary world, do you feel a sense of responsibility regarding the direction that food will take in the future?
In some ways, I would say yes because the future is built by all of us in the present so, our actions are crucial. I hate to be alarmist but it is vital to understand that the rate at the world is advancing can lead to a barren landscape, speaking about culinary landscape, if we do not protect cultural and biological ecosystems. It is very sad to see how information technologies have advanced so much in a few years and we are not able to eradicate world hunger.
Would like your family members to follow you into the culinary world?
Not particularly. I try that my family live in a quality gastronomic environment, understanding that the cuisine and food is an important part of our cultural and emotional landscape, and this is directly related to health and wellness. If my son internalizes this, I will feel satisfied.
What would be your ideal vacation?
Quiet, in a calm place with my family where I can go unnoticed, where no one knows me.
What is your comfort food?
A good selection of cheese, good bread and wine.
What is your favorite meal that you like to cook for your family and friends?
It depends on the season of the year or where we are but I will say that I usually cook: peas "tear", hake in green sauce, rice with fish or clams, squid in its ink, marmitako, tuna with tomato, peppers "cristal" roast etc. (I want to be at one these meals, Chef Aduriz please note!)
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After a wonderful lunch he hosted at the end of the Gastronomika at the Kursaal restaurant Nineo, I said goodbye to this brilliant intellectual chef, looking forward to seeing him in a few months in California.