Chefs from the Basque Country are known for their intellectual take on food; that is until you see them outside the kitchens. The young very low-key Alija is the picture of professionalism till he comes across freshly baked bread. Last winter as we boarded a ferry together to cross the Bosporus in Istanbul we picked up bread from the vendors at the docks to feed the gulls that swarm around the ferries. They avian visitors were somewhat shortchanged as Chef Alija had eaten his way through most of it.
Our conversation as published in The Daily Meal.
Chef Josean Alija: Rhythm of Cuisine is Marked by Nature at Nerua
by Geeta Bansal
Josean Alija’s cuisine is more than edible art, it is an intellectual rumination of the flavors and products of the Basque region of Spain. The young 38-year-old chef, is an alumnus of Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, the epicenter that sent out shear waves which forever altered not just Spanish food culture but gastronomy in general. The Basque chef has conceived a unique culinary credo at his Nerua restaurant in Bilbao, Spain. This unique technique based concept of working to create the future is the subject of his book “Muina.” published in 2013. In Euskara, the Basque language of his region, it translates into the soul, or the very essence, in his case, of his work.
Alija knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a chef. His culinary journey began when he was only 14-years-old and has for the most time kept him close to home. He joined the Leioa School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, in Biscay following that three years later with stages and positions in well-known avant-garde kitchens of Spain. He first arrived at the kitchen of the museum restaurant in 1998. Two years later came an unexpected turning point in his life when he was injured in a motorcycle accident that left him comatose for three weeks, during which he lost his sense of taste and smell. Upon his recovery, he embarked on a quest to gradually regain those perceptions and sensations, going forward to formulate his own vision of cuisine. With determination and focus he went on to win The Best Young Chef competition which was a turning point in his career and led him back into the game. Alija since focuses on the purity of products, often with clinical investigations resulting in a cuisine that relies heavily on highlighting just a few flavors and ingredients in a single dish. In 2011 came the opportunity he had been dreaming of; a kitchen of his own at the Guggenheim museum restaurant. The same year he also won the Chef of the Future Award from the International Academy of Gastronomy.
Nerua, his one Michelin-starred restaurant is situated in the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. The architectural wonder that attracts millions of visitors with its complex yet captivating structure on the banks of the Nervian river has revived the old port city turning it into a cultural and gastronomic destination. The city now attracts the hip crowd from all over Europe for its cultural festivals giving an impetus to cutting edge innovation by its talented culinary artists. The restaurants windows frame views of the lush green mountains and the river flowing by spanned by the red arches of La Salve Bridge and the white linear Zubizuri footbridge by Santiago Calatrava.
A walk past the massive spider, a Louise Bourgeois art installation titled “Maman” and Jeff Koons’ the “Puppy” a two storey tall topiary covered with multi-hued flowers on the plaza surrounding the imposing edifice leads guests to a dedicated entrance into the restaurant. Nerua is adjacent to gallery 104 of the museum an expansive space displaying Richard Serra’s massive sculptural installation “The Matter of Time” which provides a context to the spacious minimalist dining room. The decor is spartan, leaving the spotlight on the works of art by major contemporary artists that surround the restaurant.
The muted hues of the interior and the white corrugated mesh overhead provide the backdrop for the chef’s sophisticated food. Alija is a very erudite professional painting his plates with a limited palette of flavors and products. If simplicity is hard to perfect he comes close to it in his culinary endeavors. The immaculate open kitchen is well-organized and the kitchen team works with orchestrated precision in view of the diners. Interestingly, in spite of Alija’s modernist approach the cuisine of Nerua is deeply entrenched into its terroir, its deep roots planted firmly in the Basque culture.
Typical Basque dishes like Guisante lagrima (Spring season peas) or the Kokotxa de merluzza (hake cheeks) are featured on the restaurants seasonal menus but in the chef’s haute cuisine version. Foie gras with candied carrots from the conceptual chef are some of his well known savory plates. A kitchen tour with small bites precedes the dining experience with both a la carte and tasting menu options. Three tasting menus offer a choice between 9,14, or 18 courses with optional wine pairing. The sweet endings at Nerua are as ambitious as the chef whose desserts like ‘Whipped Casein with Strawberry and Violet Ice Cream’ and ‘ Iced Bitter Cocoa Juice with Aniseed Icecream’ have won prestigious awards.
In celebration of the Guggenheims 20th anniversary Alija is hosting a series of four hands collaborative dinners with chefs Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, Spain, Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur, France, Virgilio Martinez of Central, Peru and Bruno Oteiza of Biko, Mexico. The series titled “Onga Terri” opened in February and will culminate in September. The twelve course dinners are accompanied by gastronomic conferences in conjunction with the Guggenheim’s Toparte program. Awarded three prestigious suns by the Repsol Guide and number 56 on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List in 2017 Nerua is no longer flying under the radar on the international culinary scene. Fortuitously the next Worlds 50 Best Restaurants of The World Awards for 2018 are to be held in Bilbao and Nerua will get the attention of the movers and shakers of the international culinary scene.
A speaker and presenter at conferences like Madrid Fusion, Gastronomika, International Chefs Conference ( ICC),Identita Golosa, Gastromasa etc. he frequently collaborates with peers around the world for dining events. Constantly exploring ingredients with projects like investigation of “Applications of Coffee in Gastronomy” to study the organoleptic properties of coffee he stays ahead of the curve.
A meal at Nerua is a great way to begin or end a tour of the museum and the sheer volume of visitors necessitates a reservation to avoid disappointment.
In a recent conversation with the intellectual chef we explored the abstractions of his intuitive, seasonal cuisine.
How long does it take for a chef to define a personal style and does it then become an identity by which he or she is recognized in the industry?
The time is relative, and there are no rules and it depends on multiple variables. In my case I decided to train myself, to learn a trade and then to create a cuisine linked with some values. A personal style of cuisine that made me different from other professionals and which contributed value to the discipline itself. It was an important decision that involved sacrifice. To have your own philosophy, and style which makes your dishes recognizable takes years and requires you to be consistent and faithful to your own values and philosophy.
I use the term Muina which is the core, heart, essence. Muina has no literal translation in English. This is a term that best identifies my way of seeing things, including gastronomy. It is the word that best defines me. It refers to the soul, the substance, but also the brain and knowledge.
Can you elaborate on this idea?
Muina is the way in which I understand a complete gastronomic experience, the unique result of focusing attention on the purity of things. Muina is a general concept that encapsulates who I am and what I have to offer. It enables my creative process to be viewed as a journey to the source of the things, to their roots, allowing their true potential to be developed fully through the description of rounded, complete and pleasurable sensations. This is what Muina holds: a very personal representation of the world and the reality that surrounds me. Acceptance, specification and loyalty to a series of values lead me to follow the same path constantly, never straying from it. It is the determination and desire to share knowledge, research, projects, life experiences and emotions.
You learned your craft in the traditional Basque kitchens and now your restaurant is housed in an iconic contemporary art museum so how do you define your cuisine?
I learned from the traditional cuisine of that time from chefs that have made a difference. It was all about learning from the best to be a good professional. In my kitchen, I want to recover the traditional values that have impacted our gastronomy, temporality and the use of local products. Nature marks the rhythms of our cuisine at Nerua, we adapt to every season without censorship to make the cuisine we feel, a local cuisine that is born in the gardens, the sea and on the farms.
Each year we change our menu three times: in spring, in summer and for fall-winter. Every season we step out of our kitchen to understand the products, be with our producers, who feel Nerua is theirs as well. They know that without them it would not be possible to do what we do. We do this while being faithful to our principles, our environment and the very same producers who make our goal possible: To be at the cutting edge and to innovate without losing the flavor of our roots.
What is your favorite art work on display in the museum and does your food take inspiration from it?
Being in a museum where creativity flows, where there is a specific language, and every artist has his own, is an important source of inspiration. My inspiration comes from pure knowledge of matter. Our subject has to do with nature, which is where we can find that product; we analyze it from different points of view to build an idea. Sometimes you need influence and inspiration, that comes from many things. I recognize that on certain occasions the art has inspired me and motivated me to make things with products, as in the case of the dish, “Tomatoes in sauce, aromatic herbs and capers.”
As I walk every day to get to the restaurant my path takes me along the museum. I stumble across works that always catch my eye: the tulips of Jeff Koons and The Big Tree and the Eye, by Anish Kapoor. You begin to wonder why have they done that work, how they have done it, what has inspired them. Reflection is the key in our creative process. Analysis, reflection, rethinking.
From an aesthetic language, you see different things; you see a perfect balance, an order, one reflects himself, finds what he wants to see. It also invites surprise, the same forms that build that balance. Balance is what we look for in the taste, harmony in the execution. For me it is about the technique: About looking for a tool that allows you to standardize the process, that language, the aesthetics you apply to a plate, to formulate a language that enters by the mouth while playing with the color of the products.
When you see the tulips of different colors, in the same way, you wonder what will each of them contain? It’s the same thing that happens with my plate of tomatoes. Visually, it is a familiar product, but it will surprise you when you put it in your mouth, because it explodes with a flavor, and an aroma. And you wonder: will the next one have the same taste? Surprise! A way to relate with the other, to discover things. The kitchen, I feel, is all about textures and flavors.
These two sculptures I mentioned are already identifiable with the Guggenheim Museum and when we inaugurated Nerua in 2011, we thought of a plate that reminded us of all those moments, how to build a balance, how to unite the restaurant as the most social part with culture. Nerua is a space in which innovation is combined with our roots to live a rich and meaningful gastronomic and cultural experience. We want every person who visits us to leave with a memory, and with some new knowledge.
You stress R&D in your work. At a certain point. does it alienate the cooks or chefs from the average diners?
I feel R&D allows me to generate knowledge and this knowledge is a tool that each member of the team uses with a common interest, to allow our customers to enjoy themselves and to discover new things. I believe learning is more than anything else about, having fun and enjoying.
Is food, especially at the top tier and Michelin-starred restaurants, getting too intellectual for the average diners?
These awards like Michelin open doors and lead new clients to us. They also enable us to experience and work more efficiently. As a customer, you just have to trust and to want to try new things, something not possible every day. As a result our cuisine is generous as well as pleasant offering a unique experience.
Chefs are on the road a lot, at conferences, collaborative dinners or congresses. Why this become an essential part of a chef’s life?
Travelling is important, it is nourishing and inspiring. Everyone in this business knows why they do some or other things, but in my case, travelling allows me to approach a new public and share my work with them, so that one day they will visit Nerua. It is important to share and generate such encounters. These exchanges and travel which involves a lot of individual sacrifice helps to evolve the cuisine and to create interesting projects.
Travel influences all of us regardless of our field of work. Are there any places that have inspired a change of direction in your work?
Traveling has helped me a lot; since it allows you to know, to experience, to reflect, to add experience and to keep the restlessness alive. Each country, each person defends their culture and their habits and this is very inspiring, it is part of the creative process, it is fundamental to be able to innovate in the kitchen.
I love México, Italy, Japan, and I like all the countries that have curiosity and traditions.
You have overcome the consequences of a major accident in your life. Did that alter your perspective towards life and your work?
It was a very traumatic accident, for me, and for my family. It was emotionally catastrophic, because I lost a high percentage of my taste and my smell, a tragedy for a chef. I can say that I was born again after it and because of it now I am a much more sensitive person.
One welcome change in recent years has been the climate of sharing in gastronomy. Do you feel it has created a better environment?
I feel that we have more respect for our peers and think that it is a privileged time for cuisine in general. To sustain it we must continue working together and sharing in the future.
You have researched the use of coffee in food and what are you working on these days?
For this year, we have organized a cycle of four-hand dinners called “Ongi Etorri” (“Welcome” in Basque language), for which we have invited four of the most influential chefs in world of cuisine. It is an idea in which we had been working for some time and we wanted to coincide it with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. During 2017, we will welcome at Nerua Bruno Oteiza, from Biko in Mexico City, Joan Roca from El Celler de Can Roca, Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur, France, and Virgilio Martínez from Central in Lima, Peru.
In addition, as we work on the Autumn-Winter 2018/2019 menu, we are exploring our environment to select the most special and magical products to be able to cook with. It is all about discovering, recovering products and playing with the excellence of temporality and our local products.
You have earned one prestigious Michelin stars and this year are #56 on the World’s 50 Best list. Which award is more prestigious for your resume and which one is better for business?
Both are very good; all recognition is a motivation for the team as well as for Bilbao. The most precious award is the will to do things and share them, to celebrate the years with health and energy, surrounded by a team that feeds the project.
What proportion of your guests are international visitors and is the museum location helpful in drawing business to the restaurant?
About 30% of our customers are local and the rest are international, and many of them, loyal customers. There is no doubt that being in a place like the Guggenheim Museum is wonderful, and it is a marvelous opportunity for us.
What is the future for fine dining cuisine?
I believe that haute cuisine will advance by highlighting seasonality and local products in addition to bringing new things to the discipline, but above all to pay attention to what the customer seeks.
Does a chef’s ego get in the way of receiving constructive criticism, and what advice would you give young cooks about this?
The ego does not help achieve anything constructive. Observing, listening as well as learning from mistakes and being justly critical with yourself are more powerful tools.
What is your favorite way to spend time off in your city and what do you like to eat out?
I like to spend free time with family or friends, travelling or enjoying small trips to nature and I always look for a table to enjoy good local food wherever I am.
Is there another book on the way after “Muina”?
There is some project in mind, although it is still early to advance it. The most didactic part we share through a blog in which we talk about products, techniques, reflections, and trips.
What impression do you want diners to take away from the experience of dining at your restaurant?
Our goal is very simple: we work hard to make our guests happy and allow them to learn and discover new things, but above all enjoy the experience. We aim to allow them to know our environment, the special products of our region, and its seasonality.