Chef Oswaldo Oliva: Mexico to Mugaritz and Back

With Oliva and Aduriz
With Oliva and Aduriz

Oswaldo Oliva is a name not so familiar to diners just yet but I expect that will change. In the near future it will be shining amongst the names of other top culinary talents in the world. It is so heartwarming to see such brilliant talent be honed and transformed under the guidance of some of the world’s best mentors. Not many young people have the opportunity to travel and work in another culture and country and then be able to bring back home all they have imbibed and begin  their own dream project. I cannot wait to walk into Oliva’s own restaurant and see his own stamp on his food. It is amazing, this opportunity to follow along with these young chefs on their journey into the future of gastronomy.

Much as I will miss seeing him in Spain I will no doubt see him soon in Mexico City.

Recently published article posted below:

Oswaldo Oliva: Passage to Mugaritz, Spain

By Geeta Bansal

Chef Oswaldo Oliva
Chef Oswaldo Oliva

Chef Oswaldo Oliva’s journey from Mexico City to Spain took him into the most iconic restaurants of the world in Spain where he worked with Joan Roca at the now three Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona and then for seven years with Andoni Aduriz at the two Michelin starred Mugaritz currently #6 on the 50 Best Restaurants List by Restaurant Magazine. El Celler de Can Roca is ranked as #2 on the same list. I first met Oliva during his first season at Mugaritz and subsequently every year at Mugaritz as well as at food events around the world where he accompanied Aduriz for presentations and cooking demos. The time spent at Mugaritz gave him the opportunity to meet, work with and get to know some of the biggest names in the culinary world like Michel Bras, travel and cook in the top restaurants of the world and once even be on stage translating for Rene Redzepi at the Gastrinomika a few years ago!

Oliva on the left translating for Rene Redzepi of Noma
Oliva on the left translating for Rene Redzepi of Noma

At the Gastronomika 2014 we both watched and listened together to Quique Dacosta and Joan Roca on stage just as Olivia was coming to the end of his final season at Mugaritz. Chef Oliva, as his social media profile says, is a dreamer, “seeking… Looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope.” The description may be apt in some ways but in reality this very disciplined and focused young chef has been on a unique quest to fine tune his cooking skills and expand his horizons. Now he along with his wife of five years has come back home to his beloved Mexico, ready to strike out on his own. At the Mesamerica few years ago he accompanied Andoni Aduriz to present and cook on stage and judging from the thunderous applause to his entry and his own emotional reaction there was no doubt that he would soon be coming home to Mexico City and receive a warm welcome home. His peers and friends some of whom I came to because of him like Edgar Nunez of Sud777, Barra Vieja and Jorge Vallejo at Quintonil are big fans of his personality and work and he is no doubt very capable of joining the elite ranks of young professionals in Mexico. Recently he cooked with the Mugaritz team in Enrique Olvera’s kitchen at the Boomerang dinner series at Pujol in Mexico D.F., overjoyed to be back home.

Mugaritz Restaurant, Errenteria, Spain
Mugaritz Restaurant, Errenteria, Spain

I find it hard to imagine Mugaritz without his smiling face where he had moved from the kitchen onto the research team in the latter part of his tenure. I have nostalgic memories of the time when standing next to chef Aduriz in the kitchen he watched the reaction on my face as they fed me a “macaron de caza” that looked like a chocolate macaron but was made with pigs blood and foie as a surprise for the Gastronomika the following week. Strangely it has since taken away my love for those chocolate macarons from Laduree!

Oliva is back home in Mexico now and working towards opening his own venture which will introduce his countrymen to his own unique style of cooking which will no doubt be in tune with the philosophy of respecting nature and the product that he absorbed while working in Spain.

An interesting conversation with Chef Oswaldo Oliva:

At what age did you enter the kitchen and what was the first dish you cooked by yourself?

Memory is elusive but I think my first experience in a professional kitchen was at 17. Back in Mexico I staged at a restaurant where I had to help prepare 4 salads. I remember liking it, but at the same time I remember looking at other stations with a lot more interest. Meat section looked thrilling and I could only think of getting there soon enough.

Tell me about your journey to the Mugaritz kitchens?

I got there in 2007. I came from El Celler de Can Roca, a great project where I spent a long time among great Chefs and an incredible family. When I got to Mugaritz I missed the coziness the Roca family radiated, but I soon discovered a different and unique philosophy which permeated to almost every layer of what I knew as cooking.

What are the three most important qualities according to you that a chef must have?

I believe everyone is different and we are now witnessing the rise of many great chefs who come from completely different backgrounds. Having said this, I do believe that persistence and flexibility are two traits that can help anyone (not only chefs) achieve his/her goals.

How would you counsel young people entering this field of cuisine?

I guess you mean Fine dining? Well, I would ask them to be respectful towards every single kind of cooking. What we do is integrate our knowledge of many different kinds of cooking in order to create deeper experiences with more complex implications. This does not mean that this is the only way to cook and we must always remember that both traditions and culture are as important as innovation.

How important is it to attend culinary school?

Culinary schools provide the base on which everything else will grow. They are the place where knowledge is condensed. Through schools and teachers information is available to young students; however schools are not the only way to approach education. We live in an era where information is everywhere and if someone has the will to invest in self-teaching I can definitely see it as something doable. Although, I must say that in cooking, practice is fundamental.

Who has influenced your style of cooking the most?

My teachers: Andoni, Dani, Javi and Llorenç from Mugaritz. My wife who always reminds me that everyone has different thoughts about what “good food” means and many great chefs whose ideas and philosophy have been inspiration in moments of peace.

What was your favorite time of the year in the region where you lived and worked for so many years?

Summer. I come from a country where rain and cold are not something common. Winter in the Basque region is very long and I could not hide my joy every time summer kicked in and changed the dark nuances of this cloudy region for the most diverse range of colors and produce.

Who amongst your peers do you admire?

Everyone. I have learned that there isn’t a single person from whom you cannot learn something. Everybody is better than me at something and accepting that can be the beginning of a great conversation.

Does chef Aduriz allow the team to come up with concepts and ideas to put on the menu?

Definitely! Mugaritz is a seeder where many ideas flourish. We relied on collaborative development and every single idea is an asset that should be explored.

Any plate you created at Mugaritz?

All the dishes we created are the result of collaborative construction. Even when the main idea belongs to someone, the final dish might be completely different from the starting point. The milk strings wrapped in lard started as dry filling for a raviolo and the Crisp and gelatinous chicken skin was a “Mille Feuille” which simply took another direction after bouncing the idea with an amazing team.

What is your definition of “taste”?

Taste is the sense we use to decode flavor. I think despite being common-ground to must humans, there are endless possibilities in the mechanisms each of us use to process the decoding. Culture, memory, geography, everything affects he way we experience taste.

You have been fortunate to work alongside chef Aduriz at Mugaritz what is the most significant skill that you have learned from him?

He taught me that we are what we do repeatedly and through persistent repetition of what we want to be, one can shape his own character.

Any amusing travel or demo story from your work with Aduriz?

Every trip we made has endless stories to tell. I am especially fond of our time together in Australia because of all the amazing things we saw. I also loved the chance to show him my own country and make all the team enjoy my home town. It was great to give them an overdose of food and Mezcal that they will surely remember the rest of their life.

Tell me about a culinary personality you were most excited to meet while traveling with Aduriz?

The most impressive human being I have met in my life is Michel Bras. I have seen him in several occasions since I started working at Mugaritz and every single time I meet a new part of his amazing soul. He is by far the best example of persistence, coherence and determination I have ever seen.

Your favorite place for a relaxing vacation?

To be honest my vacations are never relaxing. My wife and I usually try to squeeze time as much as we can. Without realizing it, we end up waking up very early to walk endless miles just to take good shots (she is a great photographer) and eat the best food. We love Barcelona as a nearby destination, but Italy is by far our number one spot.

Which other cuisines do you enjoy besides Mexican and Spanish?

I think diversity is the key to joy. I love every single cuisine I have tasted. I also think the great cuisines of the world create a sense of time and place which give sense to meals. The right context makes any meal memorable; context makes you feel that what you eat wouldn’t make sense anywhere else, or at any other time.

Where did you like to eat on your day off since San Sebastian has so much to offer food wise?

Bar Nestor in old town is a classic spot to enjoy Txuleta. Borda Berri is the perfect place to try amazing textures like crisp ear “oreja” or creamy “Idiazabal” risotto. La Bodeguilla Donostiarra is one of the most popular pintxo temples in Gros and I love to eat “Minis” Jamon and white tuna are great.

I also loved to escape the buzz of the city and take some time to eat by the docks in “Pasajes”. My favorite place is a hidden bar named Bodegas Muguruza. Everyone knows it as Falkon Crest and the house specialty is fried fish. I will never get used to the awkwardness of calling to make a reservation only to find out there is a 3 month waiting list.

Have you learned the Euskadi language?

Ez (no)… Euskera is too strange and detached from the languages I speak.

Favorite American cities?

Chicago and Boston, but to be honest I know only a tiny bit of the US.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Hard one… especially because when we try to anticipate the future we do it using the knowledge of things we already know. I just hope that all the things I still don’t know will help me keep on the track of what I seek: Happiness. No matter what comes along, I hope I can enjoy it.


Where are you working now and what are your plans for the next couple of years?

I am currently working towards my own restaurant in Mexico. I hope to be able to give to my country some of the things I have learnt abroad. No hurries. It will be the project of my life, so I will build slowly but in a coherent way.

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