One morning during the San Sebastián Gastronomika in chef Andoni Aduriz’s NiNeu restaurant we continued an ongoing conversation about gastronomy and the realities of the hospitality industry. This latest interaction to be shared in an upcoming post.
As one of the most forthcoming and creative chefs in the world his musings about his work and the restaurant industry are avidly followed by his peers and admirers around the world. A previous conversation was shared from my blog in a publication for which chef Aduriz graciously wrote a foreword.
“Chef Andoni Aduriz “One of the most precious things in life is to care as caring means spending time. Time, in turn, is the most valuable of all ingredients. It allows us to live, to question whether taste is most important, to be creative and make others so, or to rethink the rules and play with our senses. It is a gift to have time to stop, to reflect and to understand the state of things.
The effort made by the people behind this publication reflects how having that close conversations with professionals who have a deep knowledge of the gastronomic sector are necessary. It helps us be more aware of where we are and where we are going.
Time is the most volatile aspect of the present. The present automatically becomes the past when you begin to think about it. This is why it is so complex to look toward the future because reality is moving so fast that the future becomes the present.
Thank you Geeta Bansal for giving us time and space to reflect!”
Andoni Luis Aduriz
Set amongst the picturesque Basque countryside of Northern Spain, on the outskirts of the gastronomic hub of San Sebastián, sits the world-renowned Mugaritz restaurant. Opened in 1998, post an initial rocky start, acclaimed chef Andoni Aduriz has succeeded in establishing an international culinary hot spot that is on the bucket list of gastronomes around the world. The restaurant draws not only proud Basque locals or Spaniards but also international guests from over 70 countries to the unique experience that Mugaritz offers in its redefined former farmhouse. The two Michelin- starred restaurant has consistently been in the top ten of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List and is a pioneer of the modernist cuisine movement in Spain. The restaurant maintains an extensive culinary R & D facility while the wine program is curated and led by a dedicated team of sommeliers and researchers.
The cuisine at Mugaritz is representative of the region’s 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 neonaturalism due to his proclivity for changing the properties of foods while preserving the original form or sometimes transforming them completely using advanced scientific processes. The constantly changing seasonal menus (a result of the work of the research team at the restaurant) ensure that every dining experience at Mugaritz is different and unique. A meal at Mugaritz is much more than a dining experience; it is in fact an intellectual dialogue between the chef and the diner. Aduriz plays with the diner’s intellect and emotions by introducing new concepts which stimulate not just the palate but also the mind. The connection between the terroir and the cuisine is easy to understand in the contemporary and elegant dining room where the real art appears on the table as beautifully plated food.
Food is the essence of a 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 looked up to with reverence by his peers. 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. His appearances at food congresses such as Madrid Fusion, Mistura and San Sebastián Gastronomika draw record crowds of his peers and culinarians. He has authored several cookbooks of which Mugaritz – A Natural Science of Cooking has become a valuable reference tool in progressive kitchens around the world.
Mugaritz is jewel in the crown of the IXO group of restaurants that include the one Michelin starred Nerua and Bistro Guggenheim at the museum in Bilbao, and in San Sebastián the casual ni neu, and just down the street from it, Topa Sukalderia the latest venture serving a Basque interpretation of Latin American flavors which Aduriz refers to as ‘contact cuisine’. The old town is home to Bodegon Alejandro in a basement off the cobbled streets of San Sebastián’s old town. According to the Michelin guide it is the place for traditional high quality Basque cuisine and with Aduriz at the helm it cannot be otherwise. For the Topa Sukalderia concept the team put in four years of research before the perfectionist chef was ready to open the doors. A more glamorized version of Topa Sukalderia in Dubai sometime in the near future and more might follow as the pop ups suggest, the most recent in Los Angeles this past July. The articulate and well-informed chef can hold forth on any subject under the sun as I have come to know over the years.
In conversation when I said that sometimes I’m not sure if I like change, he laughed ”saying here things are always changing.”
Are you referring to the menu?
Yes. All the dishes on the menu change with every season and we did a lot of reflection and actually changed the whole structure of the menu.
The organization too?
It changes every year to adapt to the menu. Like we changed the menu some most of it is to be eaten with the hands and we forced it pretty much as a creative technique. However some dishes we felt were too much to be eaten this way so we then we changed the structure so guests would not have to switch back and forth between cutlery and eating with their hands. This also makes planning the progression of the menu more challenging.
Is it necessary for menus need to follow the usual format with desserts at the end and small plates at the beginning of a meal? Can we change that order?
We actually changed all that except we kept some sweet notes within the progression of courses. The next season we might eliminate dessert altogether. (The current seasonal menu no longer ends on a sweet note).
Why is this constant change so important?
If the change arises out of reflection in our lives then it is always necessary. If the change is solely because we feel we must change then here is no use for it and no purpose behind it. It has to be logical and natural.
Since it seems everyone has become a critic these days how do you deal with negativity or criticism?
When someone critiques you or gives a negative comment you always put yourself on the defensive. I feel the most important thing is to take a step back and look at things from a distance and understand what exactly are they are saying. Two things may happen, one that it’s possible that they may be logical or on the other hand you cannot share the same idea or viewpoint and find them totally illogical. For example one day we had a table in the restaurant that was very challenging and difficult to please. The same day we had a table of guests who had dined all over the world in restaurants like Noma, etc. Those guests said last year we liked our meal a lot but this year it’s like a perfect ten. At the same time we had yet another table who were just angry and when they visited the kitchen like all our guests are invited to do, we asked how everything was. They said they had come three times once in 2002, then 2006 and then that day ten years later so it was over sixteen years since their first visit. They loved it the first two times but liked nothing on that particular day.
I asked what went wrong and they said the first time they came there were only five tables, and today the whole dining room is full and they thought we had sold out ourselves for more money.
I said we didn’t change the number of tables and for almost twenty years we only seat 50 people and have only sixteen tables. The difference is that whereas earlier we didn’t have so many customers now we are cooking for fifty people at each seating. We cook for fifty only because we know that we can offer the best quality for that number though most probably the dining room can hold a hundred people. Most tables are only of two people and sometimes it is only 32 or 36 guests instead of 50. So if you say the food is not good I can accept that but it is incorrect to say that it’s because we are serving so many since we always cap the number at 50. If it were 70 our quality might be wobbly but not under 50.
Is there an ideal number or limit as to the number of guests to be able to control quality in a fine dining restaurant?
In our case we have determined that its sixteen tables or 50 guests is the limit and whichever comes first so we close our reservations at that point. We can even have 50 guests on five tables. So that is what I explained to that irate guest in the kitchen that day but she still didn’t agree.
Do you think guests understand the complexity and preparation of food at fine dining restaurants like yours?
There is also an even worse situation when each table has a different menu. We don’t usually talk about products in our case rather we focus on creativity. It does not mean that we don’t attach importance to products but rather we only use the best quality we can acquire. Sometimes these products are available in limited quantities only, since we work with singular producers or special providers so they are limited in the quantity of product that they grow or catch. We then have to mix and match these products and because of the limit to devise the menu for a table. We cannot guarantee that there is ample quantity of say a particular fish for every table. There may not be enough for everyone so the menu may vary for some tables. For us it’s important that we offer the best to every table though they might end up having different experiences and unique experiences.
So that same guest then asked if that meant that every table has a different menu. When I replied in the affirmative she had an issue with that too. She said despite serving different food to all the diners you still charge the same price!
Isn’t this a perception of value? Are people calculating the cost of product and not comprehending the concept?
They are crazy to think that way and I don’t have a problem responding but after a certain point you just look at them in fascination as they go on to list every restaurant that they have dined in on virtually every continent. This was an issue with just that guest and they went on to tell me where else they had eaten listing Arzak and Celler de Can Roca. I said the last time you came here was ten years ago and you might have eaten in Mugaritz, Arzak, or El Celler few time but I have eaten over 50 times in those restaurants.
We don’t work to please because for us pleasing has to do with taste. What you like and don’t like is up to you. The problem with a restaurant like Mugaritz is that we might get seventy different nationalities from different environments and cultures so the taste range varies widely. At one time there may be more Australians than Basque so which taste do we need to please?
We can only do so many things and there may be some that guests like and some not so much. We are however doing what we know is best. We are not trying to please all the palates at the tables.
Are guests who come from a distances more adventurous?
I think so because that is a result of them having made the effort to travel from so far away to dine here. For some it may be a dream to eat here while others just want to add it to the list of trophy restaurants.
Some come because they love to eat, others study us before coming and then (laughing) some who have no idea where they are. Luckily those are very few and some come already knowing that that they might not like it. This brings us back to the subject of critiques.
You work to make everyone happy and when someone doesn’t appreciate what you do of course it is difficult for us. They have reason to do that or they might not but we suffer regardless. Usually people are very appreciative and it’s very seldom that someone critiques objectively. Very rarely it could be that they didn’t like the kind of fish or the service was slow but such critiques are subjective.
Since we are talking about critiques, what role do food critics play in this context. Are they well-informed themselves about the food, techniques or processes?
Food critics usually write for the restaurants when they really need to write for the public. The people who read reviews need a sort of guideline as to what they can expect in a restaurant. The culinary world I feel is very subjective but journalists need to write for the public and help them understand and guide them about what they will experience on their visit. Instead of critiquing they should chronicle the experience for diners.
There is so much diversity in the culinary world right now and the critics need to be almost like tour guides. Informed diners can then decide for themselves if they want to go to a restaurant or not. For example let’s speak of the Amazon, is it hell or a paradise, it’s a matter of perception. One can say it’s very hot, it’s humid, there are lots of mosquitoes, the water is not potable but you can’t criticize by saying the waters really bad, you can get sick, get bitten etc. You should instead create a chronicle for it and leave it to the visitor to decide if it’s paradise or not.
It’s the same with diners they should have the information and then be able to form their own opinions. Sometimes critics are bored since they visit every single restaurant or just write from their own perspective. There are also many things they don’t write about that are also in the experience.
What is the effect of scripted shows like Chef’s Table or reality shows that depict the chefs as being glamorous and do they lead to inflated egos?
There are guests these days who think that chefs are Gods because of all this. Young chefs can get inflated egos, especially when you reach the top very fast, and then yes, the ego plays a part.
Chefs like me or Elena Arzak for example, we have taken a long time to get where we are now and are more flexible and as a result more down to earth and human.
In the restaurant kitchen right now there are sixteen different tests being undertaken because at the sixteen tables people are going to test me and see how everything goes. If I pass that then tomorrow there will be the next sixteen tables and then it’s another test. With each test I get more flexible and more human and it keeps me grounded.
When does a chef reach the point when he begins to cook for himself and not to please others? Have you reached that point where you are comfortable putting it out there for people saying like it or not this is how I do it?
Even though you are confident that what you are doing is right you can never please everyone anyway. With more experience and age we are able to say what we do is incredible even though some people may like it while others may not. But what we do is solid and has maturity and even those who have eaten just about everywhere else are still surprised here. I am a diner before I am a chef and I get bored very fast. I also don’t want to lose any time and there are restaurants where I go to eat and where I don’t have much patience because I already know what I want to eat and order. Then there are some places I go to experiment, so there are different kind of energies in different restaurants.
Everything we do at Mugaritz is from the perspective of the diner. When diners sit down to eat they experience things that are very revolutionary. Maybe they have been done before in other restaurants but here there is lot of ingenuity.
For example there is a lot of space between tables in Mugaritz and the table is bare and there is nothing on it. It looks like set in a theatre and objects are not just objects but they are tools. That is already a challenge for guests which actually began happening ten years ago. Following that the way we talk to people and attend to them is not conventional. It is a choreographed process since we have worked over ten years with choreographers to develop it.
Let’s talk about the dishes, it’s a very long sequence and since I love diversity because I get bored without it so the food has to be inspired and show something new, create doubt and while at the same time has a rhythm to it. In fact this rhythm is very fast and comes rapidly. There is no protocol or cutlery to deal with and the two hours at the table go by really fast. The restaurant gives very different stimuli during this time but in a very gentle and natural way. There is nothing forced and nothing weird and though it seems like everything is the same as always but the guests don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of. Rather they feel that they are being taken care of but everything is different. This is what our service has been about for the 50 guests each day.
More than 1400 dishes are going out from the kitchen and that is incredible when I think about it. It’s rapid and very organized while we play with different aspects, temperatures and ingredients which are very important elements for me. There are many restaurants that can grill a fish perfectly and then they put it on a cold tray to take it to the table and serve it on a cold plate. Though the fish is cooked to perfection and is of good quality but during this process it loses its qualities.
We are talking about Mugaritz which is a fine dining restaurant, but is such service an elitist concept since the average diner does not have such frequent exposure to it?
That is a great question because people from different walks of life come to our restaurant. How is it possible that people from more than 70 countries come here and how is it that they travel from the other side of the world just to eat here.
What motivates them?
A lot of them are well to do and have everything. For me a Ford Focus is my car which might not be good enough for some people but for me it is my car. I have a nice house though there are better houses and I don’t have a gold Rolex, however I do have a watch. From my perspective I have everything but some people who have more are trying to find experiences. So why does Mugaritz exist? It’s very simple because people do need it to fulfill that quest.
Sometimes people save for a special trip to Mugaritz, especially young cooks, so you have those clients too?
Yes and they need the experience and that is another reason Mugaritz exists.
How long does a dish take from inception or an ideas to finally appear on the table at Mugaritz?
Creativity is done through different teams at Mugaritz. I can have an idea, it could be a good one or a bad one. I had an idea that I relayed to the team who created their interpretation of my idea and we found it worthwhile. Some ideas resolve fast while others may take years. Sometimes as they go through the development phase the team and I are not so sure anymore. Maybe later something comes up that connects to that idea and then it’s workable.
Is there a dish out of thousands you created that still surprises you?
I always say that it’s the “edible stones” that I created over ten years ago. It was when we didn’t know that Clay could be edible and we had no reference point for it either. It was in fact a starting point and we had to do a lot of research and go through a lot of trials before we could perfect it. We do a lot of such work with products and elements that are unusual with a lot of scientific support in our work. A lot of fun ideas and dishes have been realized here at Mugaritz.
Any dish that you are not so proud of?
A lot of them, especially from the beginning phase. But they were necessary steps for us to get where we are now. This what I tell people when a new chef emerges, to be patient and give them the opportunity to find their way. If they cannot accomplish it within three years then maybe they are not going to succeed.
With the political and socio economic conditions in flux these days is that why chefs are choosing to open new ventures closer to home?
I feel life is a risk and when we first opened people thought we were crazy because we were so far out from San Sebastián in those days and no one came here. Then we were crazy and now not so crazy anymore because we are working well and the more we worked, the more money we had, the more money we invested back. We hired more people, added more equipment and grew. Whatever the next step we take it will also be thought of as crazy initially so it’s going to be a risk. Remember all the crazy people in the world do a lot of amazing things.
If we look at certain things objectively life is full of crazy things that happen and exceed our expectations. For us to be here it’s like having won the lottery a billion times. It’s like one particular sperm meeting an egg, also a slim possibility and when they meet they create life. Objectively it’s pretty amazing and a miracle that it happens. The same is true about the fact that you have the parents you were born to and your grandparents and so on for millions of years. For me it’s like a lottery has been won putting me in this place and for me to be here right now. Each year is a miracle and is proof that you can win a lottery more than a billion times.
Actually it’s even more complicated like that game when you throw a ball and try to aim it down at a slot. From an evolutionary point of view this ball is not going down, in fact it’s going up. Do you think someone who has a child thinks about all this? From the point of view of nature we transport genes but we do all that without thinking much about it. We always prefer the more simplistic explanation and if we don’t think about something so vital so then how much thought do we give to a restaurant.
Do you believe in destiny?
No, I believe you make your own destiny because at the end of the day you are the one making the decisions. Sometimes you have clarity about where you want to head, you dream about it, and feel certain you will get it but then it eludes you. Then life will put you on a different path and maybe destiny has nothing to do with it because it’s all based on your interactions. In certain aspects you can change your direction by your own choice. In absolute poverty or in a situation that doesn’t allow you to grow or if you are a woman , and poor then it doesn’t allow you access to education or medicine and then you even marry into a similar situation and you are restricted.
There are still certain parts of situations you can change so we are very lucky unlike some people who live a different reality, where their decisions cannot really change their circumstances.
Are you satisfied and content with all that you have achieved so far?
I try to be though I can’t be every day. It all depends on the colors I see through my glasses or the colors rather that they show me. The studies of happiness show that a major factor in this is genetic, at last 50% or so. A lot of essential elements we think of contribute only 10%. Say you are in a wheelchair, are poor or have a chronic illness but that amounts for only 10% of your happiness. The other 40% we can try act upon and it has to do with attitude. Things are the way they are but what we can change is the way we confront these things.
I can say oh my God I am 45 years old, maybe economically on a fine line and I can look at other restaurants and say they have a lot of business and work less than I do. I can look back and think that I spent most of my adolescence working and now worry about if today’s service will go smoothly or think my life is shit. I can think this way or think Holy Shit! I am so lucky. So I would say that though I work a lot I am mostly happy and I can do what I want and am not wanting for anything. A lot of people love me and we inspire so many people and make the world better with our work.
I could work less but I get to travel around the world, eat at the best restaurants things that my parents could never have dreamt of doing so I am privileged. It’s about adapting too for example if on my day off its raining and I can’t go out I will say fine I will stay in and watch a movie. Sometimes I need to push myself to be positive because I feel I need to.
Are rankings and lists distracting chefs from their work in the kitchen?
I hope not though in the 50 Best there are over a thousand or so voters and in each zone it’s chefs, gastronomes, press, etc that are involved so it is supposedly a democratic process. The result is sometimes surprising so should only a limited number of people vote or should it be more democratic. This is truly a paradox.
Do the chefs make the lists important or do the lists make them?
It works both ways. For example Rene Redzepi is way higher in importance than a three Michelin star and has already made history. In the Michelin guide we are in the two star category but the restaurant is way up in the 50 Best list. The only way is not to look at the people ranked above you on the list or think too much about it. It’s not important where Mugaritz places on a list but what is more important to me is my objective to make it great. It has definitely helped us to be on the list because a lot of people came to know us because of this list. It also motivates us to work harder and maintain our standard. It’s all very objective because who is to say that they are better than Mugaritz or we are less than anyone else. I am happy to see my friends at the top of the list and that’s it. We merit number one but if we end up at 50 then that’s life.