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Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz on Mugaritz and Deliciousness

Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater

On Saturday morning, Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef of Mugaritz in San Sebastian, took a cab down from Kitchen Arts & Letters on Manhattan's Upper East Side to Minetta Tavern in the Greenwich Village. When he got there, he enjoyed a cigarette outside, before slipping into a booth at the restaurant and ordering a burger and a beer. For the next hour and a half, he did as he had done in the days before, sitting and answering questions to promote his new Phaidon book. Here's the first part of that interrogation (translated from Spanish), which deals with Aduriz finding his own voice, the experience he hopes to create at Mugaritz, and how he views words like "good" and "delicious." For part two, see here.

There's a sentence at the beginning of the book where you say that after cooking with Adrià and Berasategui, you realized that you had to carve out your own style. I imagine it's something lots of cooks go through, but how'd you go about it?
Before opening Mugaritz, I worked for two chefs with a lot of personality: Ferran Adrià and Martín Berasategui. It's a rather natural thing to imitate the spaces you're in for an extended time. If I move to New York, for example, I'll try my best to become a New Yorker to survive, and it's not much different when you stage somewhere. You learn how to think there, you learn how things are done, and you go to absorb. And when you leave those experiences, it's hard sometimes to even notice how much they've marked you and come through in your thinking and cooking.

When we got to Mugaritz, I definitely had a bunch of ideas that I wasn't able to work on while at other restaurants, but at the same time, it took years to develop my own style. I tend to say two years, but it was probably more.

So how do you end up being yourself?
There are a couple of reasons you do, and it boils down to growth. I've seen it happen over the years at Mugaritz, where cooks will leave, and what they end up doing at the beginning of going at it alone is basically what they were doing at our restaurant. But we constantly try to change this restaurant, to question things, and I've had old kitchen staff come in after being away for two years and be really surprised by how different everything is. So, you can't really keep on the track of doing what someone was doing years ago for too long without it either getting old or realizing that it's not you. It all requires lots and lots and lots of reflection, I should also say. You can't be afraid of thinking.

In other words, it's gradual?
Yes, there weren't really specific efforts to do it. I think that at the end of the day you have to create a context or atmosphere of creativity. Well, at least that was the case for me. You obviously don't leave someone else's restaurant and immediately know the characteristics of what you're going to foster, but the goal is to nurture an environment where people can think and express themselves. With time, that distinguishes you.

At Mugaritz the environment is extremely critical and autocritical, and it's hard to escape that. The goal is to question everything that we do. People will ask me, "When do you come up with a dish? Where do you find inspiration for dishes?" It's all the time. Sometimes in the morning, sometimes when I'm taking a walk, sometimes when I'm sleeping, etc. It's about being in that constant state. You train yourself to be that way, to have those mechanisms and sensibilities, and that's what takes you to being yourself.

You say that you constantly question yourself and are looking to evolve.

But is the goal to be ahead of everyone else?
I don't know. I don't dare to say that.

Well, Ferran Adrià used to say that was the goal at elBulli.
Yeah, but look, for us, the revolutionary thing was realizing that people don't come to our dining room just to eat. They come for many things, and among them is to be fed. It's a space to feel things.

What we worry about at this restaurant is this: 94% of our clientele is from outside the Basque country, with about half of that percentage from outside Spain. So, I'll go to the table and chat with someone, and when I ask if they're passing through or visiting the city, they'll tell me that they came specifically to eat here. Someone who's taken the weekend off, made the effort to come here — how insane do you think their expectations are? Do you really think they just want to put tasty food in their mouths?

I'll ask them what they expect from the restaurant and often, they don't know what to say. You could say that that's because people come to Mugaritz not knowing what they want, but that wouldn't be true. It's that they often don't know how to put it into words. It makes sense, too, if the guests haven't been here before and therefore really can't be precise about it. But I can tell you exactly what they all don't want.

What's that?
For nothing to happen. Things have to happen, you have to move them, you have to excite them. These days, gastronomy is so ambiguous and abstract and there isn't an absolute truth— something that's becoming clearer and clearer — and journalists are moving more and more from critiquing to describing experiences/ There's a lot of cooking that is about projecting your way of understanding the world, and it gets to a point where you lack the tools to explain what's going on or you can't really say what's good or bad. That being said, there are of course certain objective judgments you can make.

You're going for an experience, then. Can you describe that more?
What we try to propose is a trip or a walk where we synthesize our knowledge, our story, our skills, our fears. We invite people to take our hand and go down a path where you'll see who we are, where we come from, where we are now, and what we've been thinking about. It's all there. And we'll give you cues and signals along the way so that you're aware of what's going on.

People will look at the book and say that there are lots of plays on words or tricks or trompe l'oeils. But that's not what we're going for. When you try to be creative, you can't place something that's new or innovative in too abstract a way so that it's disconcerting or impossible to pick out. You have to make it legible in some way or another.

Give me an example.
We did a watermelon carpaccio. People see it, eat it, and likely say, "How fun! How neat!" But that dish comes out of a lot of thought and reflection: all of our traditional and local cuisine uses vegetables like onions, garlic, asparagus, and tomato. All of those have capabilities for sweet flavor, like when you make a sofrito with onion or something like that, but we're used to associating them with savory preparations. We started thinking, "What if we go the other way and cook with something sweet? We did all sorts of sofritos and broths with plums and other fruits — tons of tests — but what ended up really working was something I had come up with but actually forgot about.

What was it?
I told a cook to start playing with watermelon, and one day I'm walking through the kitchen while everyone is resting before dinner service and see this tray of meat. I said, "Who the hell left the meat out?" It turns out it was the watermelon, and shit, it had a perfectly analogous texture and flavor to meat.

Vegetable carpaccio accompanied by a sweet and sour dressing, Idiazabal cheese shavings, and vegetable splinters [Photo: Phaidon]

The other thing we were thinking about with that is the idea that when you eat a whole menu of vegetables, you can often feel like you're missing something at the end — some protein. And this manages to fill that space. You can eat this and it'll feel complete, which is pretty great. My point is that that little game or trick of appearances can be a good tool to shine a light on that one new idea. If it's too abstract or busy, it can get distorted, because a bunch of extraordinary things isn't always the best. It's about harmony.

We serve about twenty dishes now, and sure, we could be really precious and complicated, or we could make it a kind of party. Can't you learn while having a really good time?

Do you think guests pick up on the fact that you're going for something a little deeper than a wink with dishes like that?
There is a lot of communication with the guests, and customers these days know where they are going, in a way. At Mugaritz we emphasize creativity, understanding our products, and work. All the while, we seek excellence and the artisanal. I'll put it this way: if we came here, ordered some burgers, and they gave us some obnoxious, abstract interpretation of a hamburger, we'd be pretty unhappy. It's much the same if you go to a place like Mugaritz and are just fed.

There are many different types of restaurants, and people have the capacity to choose what kind of experience they're in the mood for. These days, if people make errors in judgment with that, it's pretty much because they want to. Or, obviously, because the place sucks. It's much the same with music or art: if you want to see a heavy metal concert, you're probably not gonna buy tickets to "The Lion King" on Broadway.

We're lucky at Mugaritz, because people more or less know what they want, and we try to give them that. Like I said, a meal here is a trip where I take your hand and show you. I work for you, I try to be creative year round for you, I search for things for you, I learn for you, I think for you, I travel for you, and I cook for you. It's a sincere commitment to the guests, and we're open to the fact that we may be wrong in some cases and that some people may not like it.

You know, I went to cooking school decades ago, and there they taught me how to make delicious food. It's not my goal to make delicious food anymore. I want to make interesting food.

Then what do you say to chefs or critics who criticize haute cuisine or tasting menus or creative cooking that isn't "delicious."? In other words, the people who say that every single dish has to taste great above all else.
Whenever anyone wants to sit down and have a calm, civilized discussion on what deliciousness is, I'm game. We can talk about what's hidden behind the phrases "This is good" or "This tastes good." If I take a suckling pig, which I think is delicious, and put it in front of a Jewish person or Muslim, they might flip or be disgusted. It could be worse than serving them a roasted dog. There are people that can't start their day without a cup of coffee. OK, but is that because it's delicious or because it's pleasant? My son is two, and his palate is totally clean. If you give him some coffee, he'll be shocked and displeased.These are the toxic seeds of a plant, which we then burn! It's bitter, intense, and appreciated because of cultural habit and acclimation. It's learned. In other words, things are, and then you decode them.

My mom, who cooks like a badass, has never tried Japanese food. If I gave her some, she'd hate it, because she lacks the cultural cues and the tools to read them. A lot of people think that eating is sensorial. More than that, it's about interpreting the information that your senses give you. When you see something — the concept of beauty isn't in the simple sight but rather it's in what you interpret from what that sight gives you. You know, if I gave an Indian person a massive, juicy, delicious steak, he'd be disgusted. I respect people who say things like that about taste, but "good" and "delicious" are very tricky things to discuss.

And I'm game to talk about it with anyone, as long as it's a serene, sound, calm debate, because maybe I am wrong. But I really do think there is an anthropology of the senses and that we need to understand that and learn about that. In Spain, if you wore a hat inside the restaurant, like you are now, it wouldn't be acceptable. But where are we? You have to adapt and try to understand. You have to understand the context and keep an open mind and know that truths are relative, especially in food.

People will often use tradition to criticize progressive cooking. Look at this table, though: cheese, wine, beer — these are things essentially created by errors that we've adopted and are now accepted. It's all a little more complicated than it may seem.

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