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Mugaritz's Elisabeth Iglesias on Ketchup Requests and Making Guests Feel at Home

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This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.

elisabeth-iglesias-mugaritz-gatekeepers-eater.jpgElisabeth Iglesias runs the dining room at Mugaritz, the two-star-Michelin restaurant in the bucolic countryside of Errenteria, Spain, just outside the city of San Sebastian. She got involved with the restaurant in 2001, when she was a college student in need of a weekend gig, but quickly realized that it wasn't going to be a temporary thing. "It was going to be my way of life," she says. You'll hear many stories like that from people who've worked at chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's restaurant, a place that seems to make its employees feel part of a family and an essential part of an important, evolving project.

In the following interview, Iglesias talks about dealing with an empty dining room in her early days at the restaurant, what it's like to work for Aduriz, pleasing customers who may want something more traditional from the kitchen, and requests that she hasn't been able to accommodate.

How and when did you start working at Mugaritz?
I started working here in 2001. I was looking for a job I could do on the weekends, while I finished up in college. I started working in the dining room, with the first maître d, who was actually Andoni's wife. It was a weekend job, but little by little I realized that I liked studying and being in college, but the Mugaritz project seduced me in a way. So I stayed and turned it into my way of life.

What about the restaurant pulled you in?
It's a project that has involved lots of people over the years. It's been a collective endeavor. I'm especially fond of Andoni. He's a leader that you want to follow and work with. He knows a lot, he teaches a lot, and I can say his approach has had an impact on everyone who has walked through these doors. We like to say that this is a team effort, since everybody contributes in their own way to making the restaurant what it is. For most of us, it's not a job. It's our life.

Tell me about what Mugaritz was like eleven years ago, and how it's changed.
The most important thing, I think, is that we've stuck to our guns and followed the same principles since the beginning. But I think back in 2001, we weren't as understood or embraced in this area. The cooking here tries to be revolutionary, and even though this arae is known for its gastronomy, Mugaritz tries to be a little transgressive and risky, which at the beginning wasn't easy. In other words, I remember a Mugaritz where we were working like hell and no one was in the dining room.

The evolution has been amazing. People have embraced the restaurant more and more. We haven't changed much — we've progressed, obviously — but we've always operated with the same foundation.

When did things start getting busier?
I think 2008 was a really important inflection point. People started seeking out this type of restaurant more, I believe.

Have you worked at any other restaurants? Would you like to?
I've only been at Mugaritz, but I've spent a bit of time at places like El Celler de Can Roca and elBulli, which have been refreshing. It helps that we close for several months a year, since the team can travel and experience how other restaurants do things.

You bring up the risky cooking Andoni does. How do you handle customers who may be skeptical of that, or who are not fully enjoying the experience?
I could tell you that it doesn't really happen, but honestly, it does. Still. There are guests who come looking for another type of cuisine. What we try to do is explain where we are coming from and what this restaurant is about — who do we source from, what's behind these preparations, who are the people that are involved with this. I know the name of the person that brings us milk, the person who brings us carrots, and that's important to us.

It's sad to see someone not enjoying the experience. If we see that, we try and come up with other options so that they can be happy. We can't really do traditional cooking, but we'll look at the products we have available and do the best we can to fix something up that will make things better for them.

Do you have regulars?
Not really. For a restaurant like this, with degustation menus, it's hard to get people to come in very, very often. I'd say that what qualifies as a regular is maybe four visits a year.

Who are the people that come four times a year?
They're usually gourmands or people that travel a lot for work. They tend to have lots of experiences eating at restaurants around the world. It's really useful for us to engage with those people, since their insights are great. You could obviously say Mugaritz is about food, but it's also sensorial — it changes from season to season, with the weather. You could come here in the winter and eat only inside, and then come back in the summer and have part of your menu in the patio and another in the guest house adjacent the restaurant. The smells of the restaurant change from season to season. People who come here more than once experience that and value that.

I think a lot of people have the perception that a restaurant like Mugaritz is all about technique and showmanship and doesn't emphasize products, purveyors, the natural. Would you agree with that?
That's really interesting. I'd agree. You see it when certain clients sit down. You know when you have someone who comes in expecting mostly fireworks, tricks, and technique. They come a little bit skeptical, not ready to give themselves up to the experience. But once you start talking to them and explaining what we do, you notice that they notice what you're about. I think that the vast majority of people who come in with skepticism come out with a different view of what we do. They find it soulful. They'll go into the kitchen and ask the chefs questions about what's behind the process. Of course, I'll say that people who just want a more traditional style of cooking can still come out slightly disappointed.

What are some of the strangest requests you've gotten from customers?
Recently, we had a very famous person come in, and we served him one of our most famous dishes, the rocks that are actually potatoes — the edible potatoes. He was a bit apprehensive, and when we explained that you had to play the game a little bit and he realized that they were actually potatoes, he asked for ketchup. We couldn't oblige.

Are there any other requests you haven't been able to accommodate?
Oh, I have a great one: once a couple came in for dinner and asked for a table with an ocean view. We don't have an ocean view. We're in the countryside.

So they actually got to the restaurant and asked there? It wasn't by phone?
Yeah, when they got here. I don't think they had any idea where they were. It was nighttime, though, and it's hard to get here if you're not familiar with the area. We offered to put an iPad on the table with a picture of the ocean on it.

Finally, I want to ask you how you make people feel at home right away. Speaking from my experiences, you can often feel nervous or jittery going to a restaurant you've been looking forward to trying for a while. You've probably traveled, jumped through a lot of hoops to get a reservation, and read about the place tons of times.
To tell you the truth, we don't treat customers like customers. The most important thing is how you treat someone and make them feel. I think we manage to calm people down and break that barrier between customer and client very quickly. You have to make them feel like friends, you have to make them feel close. We don't like to say we have customers or diners — we have accomplices in this crazy, wonderful project. They're part of this experience that will last five or six hours.

You have to be natural. We don't have a dress code, for example, because we want people to feel comfortable. You have to break the barrier, like I said. Another way we do that is by having a menu where the beginning portions are eaten with your hands. You can do that at home, but not always at a restaurant. The goal is to get people to a point where they stop feeling like they're at a restaurant. They're in someone's home, having fun.

[Photo: Per-Anders Jorgensen]
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