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Andoni Luis Aduriz on Fun, Expression, and Didacticism

Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater

In part two of this interview with Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz (see part one here), the chef talks about how there's nothing pretentious about having a restaurant with didactic qualities, discusses anti-illectualism in the world of cooking, emphasizes the importance of fun in a kitchen, and explains how he negotiates the natural and the technical.

You say that for a guest, coming to Mugaritz is like taking the kitchen's hand and going on a journey where you will need to be guided and you'll need to keep an open mind. That implies a certain didacticism, which some people probably get turned off by. Would you agree with that?
Yes, yes. When you come to this restaurant, do you come to eat what you like, and is that fun?

Yes, that can be great, because you know what you like and you certainly don't want to have a bad time. But let's go further: is having fun eating only about finding the pleasures that you're already familiar with?

I'm going to guess that you don't believe that to be the case.
Right. I have a friend who is a biologist in Spain. He writes about how the way we eat today — the way we understanding eating — is a very, very new thing. For centuries and centuries, eating was about uncertainty, because you didn't know what you could find and you didn't know if what you were putting in your mouth could kill you. That's really no longer the case.

Yet that way of thinking is in many ways ingrained in us, despite the fact that in this context it doesn't make much sense. You'll hear people talk about their grandma's cooking and their mother's cooking, and that's an instinctual thing: the first bites of food that didn't kill them probably came from those people. You'll hear about the amazing tortilla that someone's abuela used to make, and it may have been pretty good, but the best part of grandma's cooking is almost always grandma. If you had that tortilla sixty years later, it probably wouldn't be that great.

But this is a really powerful force: you have the biological aspect, the aspects of affectation, and the cultural aspect, which is about identity and pride. It's so strong that it's logical that people stick with those ideas.

But how do you see it?
There is so much pleasure that comes from understanding, discovering, and expanding your knowledge, too. Paradoxically, people really like that. So, if I tell you that when I eat this burger, I eat it because I like it, and that in the things that I like there is something ludic that gives me pleasure, why does that nullify another kind of cooking?

Look at museums, which are designed for pleasure. They're designed for you to not only see but to interact and learn and understand while having a good time. If museums can become more and more interactive and proof that you can learn having fun, why can't restaurants be like that? If we can learn while having fun, why are we going to deal with tedious, boring bullshit? If people don't understand that, fine, I guess.

You and some of your colleagues seem to get a measure of heat for trying to express themselves, speaking at symposiums, and dabbling in other disciplines. There are those that say that cooks are cooks and that they should keep their heads down and work. What do you feel about that?
I totally acknowledge that that is a strong force, but where is the problem there? It's not my fault or the fault of other chefs who attend congresses or try to talk about ideas. It's someone else's anti-intellectualism. It's a symptom of a lack of curiosity and, as a result, education.

I don't consider myself an artist, but I'll continue to express myself and talk about ideas. I tell the people I work with that for everyone that may criticize us or say something truly unpleasant, we have to apply all of our patience, plus their total lack of patience. We're giving it double. There'll always be people that don't like what we do, but that's not a big deal.

If people are bothered by a search for knowledge, the only way to respond is for me to search harder. If people are critical of progressive cuisine, the only way to counter it is with more progression. You know, I've poured my heart and soul into a little book that's coming out in Spain, which I collaborated on with a philosopher. It's a book by a cook and a philosopher. Are critical people going to stop me from doing something like that? No. When people say pejoratively that I'm trying to be a mystic or a philosopher, then I just hit them with more philosophy or at least ideas that I have thought about and express sincerely. You don't like ideas? OK, we'll give you some more.

It kind of pisses you off.
It's not that it pisses me off, really. It's just that you have to defend your little space. I try to respect everyone else's spaces for expression and for doing their own thing, so I need to work to preserve mine.

Let's go back to your cooking. Do you think that every plate has to be a knockout, or do you tend to be more concerned with the total experience — the feeling the diner has at the conclusion of the meal?
That's a good question. I tend to think of both at the same time, honestly. Each plate is a story, but the important thing is the total experience. As a result, there are a lot of very good dishes that don't make the menu, because they'd mess with the balance of the meal. It has to be coherent.

Before we opened for this season, I had the menu three times to make sure everything was balanced — to see if there was too much or too little. We think about it so much.

The biggest problem we do find is that we'll come up with something — a technique — that's spectacular and exciting, but it doesn't fit harmoniously. For something to be new doesn't mean it's great. What we do in that case is table it, work on it a bit, and believe me, it ends up showing up at some point.

For a person who hasn't gone to Mugaritz and might just be reading articles that talk about your training at elBulli and the rocks that are actually potatoes and so on, it may seem jarring to see an emphasis on both progressive cooking and the natural. How would you explain it to that person? I acknowledge that that person may not exist, but give it a shot.
A new technique doesn't take away the natural qualities of a product. You can do something extremely technical and still preserve the natural. They don't clash. You know, you could do something with extremely natural components and turn it into an artificial, abstract thing. What we go for at Mugaritz is an end result that has an organic aesthetic and feel.

We do an immensely complicated dish of sea bream eggs. To make it happen, we have to collaborate with an aquarium. The eggs have to be live, not touch sweet water, and are unfertilized. After that, there's a ton that goes into making the plate. Do people perceive that? No, and that's the goal. The end result is seamless and natural.

I'll add: you can drink wine filled with nitrites or contaminated broccoli. You may perceive them as natural, but. There are natural poisons and there are artificial things are very good for you. The point is, both forces can be good and bad.

There are charts in the book that explain how the menu has changed over the years, but I'm wondering how you view the restaurant's evolution in general.
What's your favorite soccer team?

Real Madrid.
Well, I'll use Barça as an example. There's lots of technique in everything they do, but you know when it becomes extraordinary? When technique seems to disappear — it becomes integral — and you start having fun and it all comes out without forcing it. That's where we are now. When you start having fun with what you have and stop bemoaning what you don't, it's liberating and empowering. I do things because I enjoy them and can do them sincerely.

I tell my staff that I used to work at restaurants that were propelled by fear and tension; there was pain in the kitchen and pleasure in the dining room. We seek excellence, and to do that you need to search for knowledge and work hard. Doing things well assures quality, but you have to go one step further and make it enjoyable. There has to be balance and pleasure. That's where the magic is.

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