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Chef Quique Dacosta on Creativity, Pragmatism, and the Importance of Innovation

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The Valencian chef Quique Dacosta does not shy away from philosophizing or talking about his career as if he were an art historian observing it from the outside. His vocation, the way he sees it, is to push the envelop day-in and day-out, using new techniques and the Mediterranean products of his hometown of Dénia, Spain, as his most important tools in that process. It's something he outlined in an Eater interview in 2011. That approach seems to have worked out for the chef, whose eponymous restaurant earned three Michelin stars in the 2013 edition of the guide. In the following interview, Dacosta talks about getting the three stars, the new season at the restaurant, and the importance of the avant-garde.

You just got the third Michelin star. Beyond the attention that'll get you and, of course, the joy, do you think it'll change anything?
To be totally honest, it hasn't changed much. I always say that you need to be natural, to be yourself. We got that that third star by doing what we do, and it was the same with the first star and the second star. This is a professional and personal project, so it feels quite nice to get some recognitions. But these things don't put pressure on me, honestly. I don't lose sleep over getting them. I would actually say that they make my job easier. They make us want to keep going and enjoy what we do.

Do you think it'll affect diners' expectations?
We've only been open for two weeks so far this season. My sense is that people come to enjoy the experience. They give themselves over to us. I think the great achievement of this restaurant is that the vast majority of people that come to it come with an open mind.

So you'd say that most of the people that come into your restaurant put themselves in your hands?
Yes, exactly. I don't think anyone will hop on a plane to come here without being open to it. But I think the same applies to the farmer from around here that has saved up to come to the restaurant. It's always been that way, even though I'd say we're doing some of the most avant-garde cooking there is.

That's interesting, since there's been debate here about the "tyranny" of tasting menus and the idea that they can sometimes — or often — be oppressive.
I've never had a high-end restaurant in a city. As far as I can tell, I don't think I would change if I went to a big city. I think you can pull it off anywhere, especially in a big city where more people would be into something like this. But yes, being in Denia, we attract those who know what we are about.

Tell me about the new season at the restaurant.
2001 was when we made the big change. We were doing about ten to twelve courses, and then we started doing a long-form, thirty-course experience. As a consequence of that, things changed and set us in the course we've followed since.

All along, we've been interested in innovation, in new techniques, in engaging the traditional, in provoking and pleasing. And of course, all of this has been done from a decidedly Mediterranean point of view. This is a singular place, so when you revive products that haven't been used in ages, you have the ability to really amaze people, especially those that come from abroad. You realize that tradition or the forgotten can be a really effective tool for someone who is going for the avant-garde.

There are basically six acts and three sets to the meal here, the way I see it. You start in the outdoor garden, where you'll have about eighteen snacks; you eat them with your hands or with tweezers. Then you go to the dining room and have tapas, and there are still no utensils there. Then you enter the third act, which is made up of the dishes like the rices, cod, and other products and preparations from here. The fourth act right now is a pigeon to share. The fifth is a set of sweet tapas, and the sixth is a few chocolates in another outdoor space.

Around 70 percent of our products are local. The rest come from anywhere else I may need. If I were to boil it down, what makes us unique is my way of cooking — every chef in some way brings a different perspective to his food. In addition to that, there's the unique products from here, and our way of applying technological and conceptual ideas to those ingredients. You can't get this anywhere else.

What's more important to you, innovating or highlighting the products from around you?
They go hand-in-hand. The product has to be excellent, first of all, but I can't really prepare it in a traditional way given what I'm known for and what I'm trying to do here. I do think, however, that you need to insert elements of the traditional, of the familiar, into the experience so you can let people in on what you are doing and what you are playing with. But the avant-garde can't exist without a good product.

You just said before that you were the most avant-garde restaurant.
There are lots of popular ideas right now in gastronomy, some avant-garde and some not. I wouldn't be categorical about saying that we're the most avant-garde, actually, but I would say that we're doing some of the most important contemporary avant-garde food around. It is very difficult to innovate and surprise people with an orange, with a paella dish, with a suquet, yet I think we manage to do it.

The fact that we are in this area, which is unique, makes our food singular. That's I think why we've gotten to that third Michelin star.

And the 2013 menu is completely different and new?
Nothing is the same. There are some dishes left over from last season right now, but by March, everything will be new. The dining room remains more or less the same, because it's one of the most interesting in the world. It's the only three-star in Europe without tablecloths. The food, though, is completely different.

How do you manage to truly be progressive as opposed to just changing things up?
It's a state of mind, an attitude. Creativity here is really pragmatic and practical. It's not about being Romantic. When we get into the creative phase, we get serious and disciplined and structure. We spend over 200,000 Euros on creativity a year. New ideas can come all the time, but coming up with 70 to 90 things that are completely new requires structure and professionalism.

Give me an example of that creative process.
Like I said, an idea can come at any point, anywhere. I could say, "I want to eat something that looks like a Rothko painting." I should say that my food was much more inspired by art a few years ago than it is now, by the way. But let's keep going with the Rothko example: I want to eat the canvas. So I'll go to the person that heads up the creativity department, and from that, the process starts. We think about the flavors we'll want, the edible textures that will give us the canvas effect, the edible "paints" that we could use. Maybe something comes of it, maybe it doesn't. That's how it always works. We start working on the techniques and the concepts — which determines whether something can be done — and then figure out how we can make it flavorful.

What would you say to people who think that progressive cuisine has hit a wall or that avant-garde cooking is played out?
I can't really generalize and I respect the fact that some may say it's time for a different type of cooking to get into the spotlight. For me, though, creativity and innovation have always been what I strive for. That's what I most believe in. The moment I stop functioning that way, I'll probably leave cooking. How many restaurants are there out there that are truly avant-garde? Not many. There are some who do things here and there, but it's our main goal here. If you have the tools and you have the talent, I think it's very important to innovate. But you have to consider that there never have been that many restaurants doing it anyway.

So, I think you have to support those restaurants and encourage them. Once innovation stops, so does humanity in many way. It's part of our nature.

· All Quique Dacosta Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interviews [-E-]
[Photo: M. Ponce]

Quique Dacosta Restaurante

C/ Marinas, KM. 3, 03700 Dénia, Spain

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