Andoni Luis Aduriz is a new chapter in Basque cooking,” a Spanish, Madrid based, journalist tells me when I mention I am interviewing him. “The Basque country has always been famous for its food and its chefs but when Andoni appeared with Mugaritz, we knew this was something different.”
A photo of Andoni with the Basque greats of the previous generation gives an inkling of what this difference is. The previous generation of Basque chefs, Arzak, Subijana and Berasategui (in whose kitchen
Andoni worked), look like the kind of men at whose tables you would have a really good time, bon viveurs who know how to feed and be hospitable. Andoni, small, unassuming, almost mouse-like, seems more like a man who should be in a white lab coat at CERN in Switzerland, than a white chef’s jacket and running one of the best restaurants in the world.
Listening to Andoni, I quickly realise why this quietly spoken but intense chef has become so important, has such influence and is regarded with such respect among chefs worldwide. During a telephone interview I ask him why he has been described in several Spanish articles as “one of the most disruptive chefs of his generation.” He laughs modestly and says: “Well, they say that. What I think they mean is that I challenge tradition.”
Spain has gone through a massive culinary revolution in the past 20 years and looked at from afar it can seem that the whole country luxuriates—despite the recent economic crisis—in a world of culinary innovation and progress. It can appear that la cocina nueva has completely triumphed in the minds and hearts of all gastronomically inclined Spaniards. What actually happens is that each development and each innovation is hotly debated, analysed and disagreed upon. Many modern Spaniards take their gastronomy as seriously as, and often more than, art, culture or literature. Staunch gastronomic traditionalists feel that chefs like Andoni are dangerous anarchists disregarding and casting aside all that is right and proper about Spanish food and traditions and are paving the road to ruin. In fact the only thing guaranteed to have Spanish voices more raised than an argument about food and gastronomy is one about politics.
“We had a project,” Andoni continues, “a few years ago that was based on the insipid. Normally the last thing a chef wants to do is deliberately make dishes insipid but we wanted to look more closely at textures and what they mean, and the effect they have on taste, so we promoted and pushed the idea of insipid. What happened was that many traditionalists found this diffi cult to understand and completely counter-intuitive. It caused a lot of debate.” Andoni is also a master of understatement.
I point out to him that one of the most frequent and oldest criticisms levelled at Mugaritz is that it isn’t a proper restaurant. “What we are not is a dining room,” he says. “People don’t come here for lunch instead of a bar round the corner. Most of our clientele are from very far away and it’s obvious to me that a couple from South Africa who have come specially from there to a small place in the North of Spain are not coming just for a straightforward lunch. I think of Mugaritz as a place where people come for a very specifi c experience and as part of that experience we give you food to eat.”
This philosophy of Andoni’s led to the hugely popular, and now widely copied, clay potatoes dish. You pick up what looks like a warm pebble that is strangely light and it turns out to be a small boiled potato covered in clay. In your mouth the texture of the warm clay acts as a reminder of the earth that the potatoes have grown in. The taste isn’t strong, it’s verging on insipid, but the textures and the
contrast between what the pebble you see and the potato you eat does make you think. It makes you refl ect on the relationship between food and earth, as well as on the nature of earth and its changing form.
This, for Andoni, is the heart of what Mugaritz is about. He wants his guests to come with all their life experiences and share a moment to reflect, enjoy and think via the food that they have. Having a customer enjoy a perfectly made soup is not what Andoni strives for, he wants you to share his life.
Listening to him talk I realise that, while I am always loathe to call chefs artists, as I believe very few of them are, Andoni has far more in common with an artist or a writer than he does with most chefs. unlike them he’s not satisfied with a guest enjoying his food, that is almost irrelevant to him. What he wants is to transmit a sense of shared humanity, to connect with people, to share the whole of the Mugaritz team, their travels, their knowledge, their ideas, their thoughts. Dismissing this ambition with, “yes but in the end it’s only lunch” is to entirely miss the point. It’s along the same lines as dismissing a Jackson Pollock painting as nothing but a series of badly made drips.
I talked to Basque writer, and friend of Andoni’s, Harkaitz Cano, and he explains to me that his conversations with any other chef are completely different to the ones he has with Andoni. “When we meet it’s like talking to another writer or artist, his concerns are cultural and philosophical. He uses food the way I use writing, trying to tap into something greater than himself. We once had a long series of conversations about Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium as he was trying to work out how to produce those same ideas in food. What he does is amazingly brave and risky. It doesn’t always work and can be very frustrating for him, but it is incredible that he even tries.”
After talking to both of them I am left with the feeling that the best analogy for a meal at Mugaritz is a visit to a Rothko exhibition, but a private viewing where you have the chance to sit and look at your leisure and experience all the paintings fully. You sit at a table and you are on your own, with the whole team serving you while hoping you will understand them.
Drawing the interview to a close the last thing I asked Andoni was to explain some of the ideas behind the recipes on the next few pages. “The ice scraping with aroma of red prawn essence is a journey into nostalgia. Almost all of us remember our first experience of sucking a prawn’s head and I wanted to re-create that but also have it cold, even freezing, like the ice that the prawns are laid out on at the fishmongers. The frozen rose of the desert is a dish that you could say defines Mugaritz. It encapsulates our travels, how we play with the unexpected, from temperatures to tastes. Even the way we have constructed the dish, it doesn’t actually look like food, it’s supposed to make you really contemplate.”
With that we bid our goodbyes and I return to a friend’s restaurant and eat some giant roast lamb. I thoroughly enjoy it but what I really want to do is go to the Tate Modern and sit and look and think.