Quique Dacosta speaks with rapid-fire eloquence. Like many of his Iberian culinary brethren, he prides himself on having a thoughtful, rigorous project and on being part of a vanguard. Of late he's gotten more opportunities to flex his discursive muscles, now that the chef and his eponymous restaurant in Dénia, Spain have been singled out by some as the next big thing once elBulli closes its doors.
Earlier today I interviewed him to discuss his style, his views on progressive cuisine (which, as you will notice, he likes to refer to as the "avant-garde"), and his thoughts on Spain's future.
You've spoken at length in different places about your philosophy, and one of the things that seems to mark those comments is the way they differ at various points in your career. How would you describe it now?
The response is very simple, but at the same time, it might not give a complete idea of my project.
My cooking is rooted in the idea of proximity: the concepts of context and terroir. In my case, the inspiration comes from the soul and spirit of the products and culture of the Mediterranean. When we talk about the Mediterranean, one of its iconic elements is its diet. We feel that what we've done here is make that diet and that lifestyle contemporary. Because we had to. The Mediterranean is at the epicenter of my culinary ecosystem; most of the products I use have to come from my surroundings.
And, of course, this is all transmitted through the prism of the avant-garde. In my case, it is a very personal and concrete avant-garde.
Can you give a specific example of how you make the Mediterranean diet contemporary?
The concept of the Mediterranean diet was established around 1948, and if we consider that Spain has changed much in the last sixty years — that we don't live the same way, that we don't work the same way, that we don't eat or portion our food the same way, and that we don't even cook the same way — then it follows that there needs to be some sort of reflection on this. As a concrete example, let's take certain ingredients that weren't part of that diet originally but should be: seaweed and mushrooms.
As I've suggested, in addition to this engagement with tradition and the product is the element and perspective of the avant-garde. It's what defines and distinguishes this restaurant most of all. That's why people come to eat here.
What does a person interested in your food need to know about Dénia?
I consider myself a privileged human being for being able to live in this town. I'm even more fortunate because I've been able to develop my professional life here. Denia, [a province between Alicante and Valencia], is a unique place. There are olive trees, icons of the Mediterranean diet. There are natural parks, rice fields, and one of the best fish markets in the world.
But it's perhaps most crucial to note that that this has always been a very open-minded port; it's a beautiful, elegant place that has always welcomed tourists and different ideas and products. It's not just Quique Dacosta Restaurant. There's a long tradition of brining (salazón) and pickling (encurtido), of seafood stews and paellas, as well as German, Arab, and Christian influences due to the different cultures that have passed through here. This openness has made this area a gastronomic capital. Because it is small, it is really Valencia's gastronomic capital.
Going back to the question of the progressive, many Spanish chefs employ the term "vanguardia" to describe their cooking. What distinguishes yours?
There are many different avant-gardes. If we're talking about art, for instance, it's obvious that not every painter falls under the Picasso, Miró, and Dalí umbrella. And if we consider only the three artists I just mentioned, we'll see very quickly that to a great extent they have nothing to do with one another. Sure, there were synchronous moments where there were strong resonances between their works, but overall, they were very different.
The term itself refers to someone being ahead of the times in some way. To make that happen at my restaurant, we use the best products and the best techniques, but most of all, we emphasize personal expression. I could talk at length about my techniques, I could describe specific dishes to you, I could explain the provenance of my products, but at the end of the day, you have to try my cooking to understand what makes it mine.
Try to describe it.
At this moment, I'd describe the way we are expressing those concerns as being intense and essential. After having closed down for six months to develop this new season, we opened with food that is direct, nude, seemingly simple but actually of great complexity.
To give you an idea of how things can change from season to season and to illustrate the fact that my style evolves, my longest tasting menu last year had twelve to fifteen courses. Now, it is made up of 36. The concept has changed completely. Furthermore, when it comes time to develop and conceive this menu, the approach is different this time around. There are micro-menus within the same menu and everything has a conceptual order that takes into account the greater harmony we are striving for. You could say that if you were to take a course out of the tasting menu and give it to another table with a different menu, it would make no sense.
This season is really the sum of all we have done to this point. I have spent 24 years working in kitchens, 22 in Quique Dacosta, and 17 doing progressive cuisine. What we are doing now is the project of my life. It's not just technology, it's not just products, it's not just striving for the progressive or the personal. It's a unified form of expression based on all of those elements. I'm not saying that we are making the best food in the world, but I would venture to say that what we are doing exists nowhere else.
We are working to make it so that everything is unexpected. If you go into a restaurant, no matter how forward-thinking it is, and you know what you are going to get and how things are going to go, that restaurant has stopped being avant-garde. If the next album from a band like the Rolling Stones comes out and it's derivate of their previous albums, then the band has ceased to be progressive. This is what we try to keep in mind.
More specifically, in the food there is a concern for biological culture, for seeds and spices that are about to disappear, and for creating a dialogue based on products that are very important and that in and of themselves point to this area and the potential for me to create something progressive. Also, dignifying unknown or lesser-known products that might be among the best in world gives my cooking a singular and personal dimension.
Do you consider yourself a chef, an artist, a philosopher...
I can tell you that I see myself as a cook. Actually, it's not that I see myself as a cook. I am a cook. I analyze, I think, I have certain sensibilities, but my means of expression are purely related to the kitchen. I express myself, my life project, through dishes. Of course, within this there is reflection and philosophy and art. I can't control what you will write about me or how people will classify me after eating my food. But I am at the core a cook.
It's time to talk about the big, obvious question: what happens to Spain after July 31st, when elBulli, at least as we have known it until now, closes?
We could say that in the last fifteen years Spain has been able to build a team — a progressive undertaking. This has essentially been based upon a strong understanding of the country's traditions, as well as the freedom to develop a new way of understanding food. This new way of cooking has made the world focus on Spain, and in turn, Spain has influenced the world in a direct, notable, and we could even say central, way. This can be seen in the areas of menu structure, technique, and technology. I'm not breaking any news by saying this; this is pretty much common knowledge. Experts and journalists have seen how the world has cooked in "the Spanish way" in order to contribute to a new pluralistic, global project.
And obviously, in this country there has been a person with talent and a great artistic and creative capacity, Ferran Adrià. He has been the leader of an important movement and he has been able to tell its story and spread it around the world. Just as he has had the capacity to lead, we have had the capacity to gracefully cede him that role.
But it's important to note that Spanish cooking has cemented its influence and importance with other expressions of the culinary avant-garde. These either occurred at the same time or before or after elBulli, but there's no question that they have been different. I would say that the great kitchens of Spain of the last ten or so years have had ideas as important as those of elBulli's.
My kitchen, at some point in the early 90s, was greatly influenced by elBulli, and that was clear. We all jumped on that technical/conceptual/creative bandwagon, but little by little, we all found different paths. I found mine, which was in Denia. Joan Roca was originally influenced by Ferran, but around 2000 he began developing his own project, which was singular, particular, and concrete. We could say similar things about Andoni Luis Aduriz, Dani Garcia, and Martín Berasategui. Then of course there is Juan Mari Arzak.
So your sense is that it will be just fine?
What I can say confidently is that if elBulli ceases to be a restaurant in the traditional sense, the gastronomic wealth of this country assures that it will continue to be a leader and influencer in the ways I just described.
But I want to be specific and emphasize something, because I think the question the rest of the world is asking is, "Spain has been the leader with Ferran Adrià. Will it be able to be the leader without him?" And I really do believe the answer is "yes." If you think about it, Ferran Adrià is definitely not gone. He ceases to be a full-time cook to be a full-time creator — the world will gain a creative force in 2014. That is a good thing for the world, not just for Spain.
If you think about it, now there may be even more of an opportunity, now that elBulli is closing, for chefs in Spain to show what we are capable of.