The experimental San Sebastian chef on eating and memoryby Wendell Steavenson / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
First there was a perfectly empty white circle. The table was not laid with any cutlery, nor cluttering glassware. An opaque dish was placed in front of us containing a little ball of grass. We picked it up. It felt tender and squishy in our fingertips and when we put it in our mouths the fronds of sprouted teff tickled our lips as our tongues found their way into a hazelnut mud centre. It was like eating—no; it was more like exploring—a miniature earth, a new world.
Lunch at Mugaritz, a restaurant in the hills of the Spanish Basque country outside of San Sebastian, number six on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. Weird, confounding, elemental. Next came a jagged ridge of cockscomb, its flame shape compressed into wafers that sandwiched a crumble of coral shrimp. It crackled into shards under our teeth. Red and crisp in contrast to the soft green ball, hot after cool, barnyard funk after meadow sweet.
“It’s like eating a Terrence Malick movie,” said Adrien.
A shining white triangle of hake in a sandy pool of clam essence and ground tiger nuts; my toes digging into the sand trickles left behind by receding waves. An angelically delicate crostada, filled with nothing but air, pouf, disappeared in a bite. An autumnal mushroom, as smooth and foetal as a kidney, under a layer of gritty paprika dust. A burnt black silhouette of a fibrous fern that tasted like rhubarb and honey. Embryonic watermelons, like miniature zeppelins, in a tuna broth that I mistook for miso. A dome of glass appeared. We turned it over and found a bowl of milky bubbles, crab hiding underneath. We dredged it with a spoon covered in a chilli and chocolate powder.
Our assumptions were challenged with every mouthful. We could not tell if we were eating fish or meat, if something was savoury or sweet. A slice of cake arrived that was toffee and fishy and defied its own ingredients: parsnip moulded with cod gelatin and layered with caramelised lactose. Dessert was crunchy codskin with lemon cream.
“What is going on here?” I asked the chef Andoni Luis Aduriz afterwards. I told him we had been amazed, tongue-tied, bewildered. Aduriz clapped his hands delightedly.
“Here there are a lot of questions!” he answered. Aduriz was an early disciple of Ferran Adrià, the godfather of molecular gastronomy. He trained at elBulli in the 1990s, and has honed his own vision at Mugaritz. He has collaborated with neuroscientists, molecular biologists and choreographers to create a new concept of experiential dining. What is cooking? What is a meal? What, indeed, is a restaurant?
“A year ago we took down the sign that says restaurant,” he admitted. “This was very scary for us to say: Mugaritz is not a restaurant anymore.”
“What is it?”
“It is memory,” he said. “It is the place we come from, the culture we grew up in, everything we see when we travel.” For Aduriz, Mugaritz is an expression of all his eating experiences. It is, above all, a personal vision of the way he sees the world, “naked, sincere.” A laser beam of genius gleamed in his eyes. I realised he wasn’t talking about cooking. He was describing the creation of art.
“We concentrate all of this, push it through a tammis [a very fine sieve] and then…” He searched for the word in the air, “rematerialise!” He smiled broadly. “And then we share it.”
When he first opened his restaurant 17 years ago, no one came. Aduriz stared at the green hills, despondent for weeks, until he realised the fields were actually full of different plants and herbs. He discovered that the rich Basque country and coast could yield extraordinary things if you just got on your hands and knees and looked closely. Nature, minerals, meat and marine life. New and overlooked ingredients found their way on to his menus: artichoke stalks, duck tongues, chrysanthemum petals. Dishes were counterintuitive: crunchy milk, frozen cheese, sourdough soup. He uses dehydrators and fish tank pumps; enzymes and quick lime. How to cook an egg? Break it! One of his most famous dishes is baby potatoes coated in clay so they look like stones.
“And what about taste?” I asked him. Our meal was full of subtle shadow savours, smoke and sea, nut and chlorophyll; none of the usual flavour profiles that are enriched with the facile trio of salt, fat and acid. Aduriz shook his head.
“The idea of whether something tastes good or bad is just cultural,” he told me. A Basque boy will grow up eating and loving the gelatinous slime of hake throat, a boy in the Amazon will feel the same connection to a worm in a tree root.
“We don’t aim to make tasty things… When people eat here, it goes beyond eating, it is emotions.”
It is the moment between creation and reaction to it that most interests Aduriz. His diners are his accomplices. For Aduriz, “the worst thing is indifference. Between provoking anger or happiness, of course we prefer happiness, but we love most of all the doubt.”
All the time he is distilling, paring down. Less.
“Concentration, austerity,” he told me. “Simple is better than complex.” Dishes as haikus, carefully constructed, edited. One of our twenty four courses was a fig leaf that we unwrapped to reveal a ripe fig with a nugget of honeycomb at its centre. Biblical; sexual. The very Original of all.