In an airy room on the third floor of the modern Bizkaia Aretoa building in Bilbao, just 350 meters from the renowned Guggenheim Museum, an array of dishes were displayed as if a part of their own museum exhibition. On one counter, there were lamb brains surrounded by a goo made of oyster gel. In the center of the space, petri dishes held fetuses that, on closer inspection, were made out of gelatin. Meanwhile, across the room, a large glass full of liquid and topped with an amphibian-like scoby — the “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” that’s the start of most kombuchas — emanated an almost rotten smell. And on a luminous table nearby, providing perhaps the least appetizing sight of all, there were edible condoms filled with a viscous white liquid made from viili yogurt. Everything was meant to be tasted by those who had the guts to do so.
These provocative creations were all served at a food tech symposium in Bilbao last year, but they originated from the mind of chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, known for his adventurous Basque Country restaurant Mugaritz. The dishes, held up as examples of how the restaurant approaches innovation, were never served at a proper restaurant table. “We must always walk the fine line of what we can provoke and what can really shock people,” says Dani Lasa, the head chef responsible for innovation at the restaurant.
This approach fuels the Mugaritz menu. Since 2011, Mugaritz has remained closed for four months per year. During this time the kitchen staff, made up of roughly 18 cooks, develops the new dishes that will be served to the approximately 13,500 people who visit the restaurant from April to December. It’s a process the team recently completed for the eighth time; the first dinner for the 2018 season, its 20th, was served to guests on April 10.
Every year, the Mugaritz team produces around 500 recipes during the process’s initial creation phase. They submit only around a quarter of the recipes to three tastings that Aduriz conducts with guests in the Mugaritz dining room. (In 2017, only 120 made it to this stage.) “In these tastings we are not worried that [the tasters] analyze the dishes technically: if it is crunchy, if it is at the correct point of cooking,” Lasa says. “When we set a table, we see how people react. We explain a little about the concept and observe their interaction with what we are serving.”
This year, at one such meeting in late February, prominent writers Martín Caparrós and Harkaitz Cano, choreographer Jon Maya Sein, and journalist Sasha Correa sat with Aduriz in Mugaritz’s otherwise empty dining room surrounded by cameras, a high-definition microphone, and a reflecting light. For more than four hours, the group tasted around 40 dishes while listening to the restaurant’s cooks explain, in detail, the ideas that led them to conceive of each one. For the first time, the cameras recorded all their reactions so that the team could analyze and learn from them later.
“After the tasting, we sat down with all the staff. And when I say all, it means everyone from office staff to gardeners,” Lasa says. “It is our moment to really question whether the concept of the recipe made sense in practice at the table. ‘Is this concept worth explaining, is it fun, does it work?’ We need to understand all the intricacies of each dish so that we can be sure it will be on the menu.” From these, just over 70 reach paying diners every year.
Last year, for example, a frozen mushroom creation and a dish of freeze-dried eels didn’t make it past the first tasting round. The dishes displayed at the Bilbao tech symposium didn’t fare any better. Aduriz keeps the exact reasoning for rejecting these dishes confidential, but he uses specific evaluating criteria that has become more demanding over the years. There is a maxim: A Mugaritz creation must make sense, both on its own and in context. And many good efforts are left out simply because they are competing with better ones.
The team eliminates other dishes because they are not “ready” to be served, according to Lasa. “Even though we try to be as creative as possible, we still need to keep at least one foot on the ground,” he explains. “If you have two pretty new techniques, and you put them in the same dish, you run the risk of missing the diner. To be truly innovative, the recipe needs to have a part [that’s] novel and another part of something he already knows. The total rupture is not good for creating unforgettable moments.”
In the high-end restaurant world, innovation is the most coveted ingredient, and one of the hardest to come by, which explains why some of the best restaurants in the world are investing in innovation teams and test kitchens. Increasingly, the creative process is a methodology at Mugaritz.
“We used to try to understand innovation more with the heart (emotion) than with the head (rational). And we had to change that,” Lasa explains. Although Mugaritz first created a team focused on creativity in 2004, in recent years, it has implemented specific protocols to foster greater experimentation. “It was difficult for a restaurant of our size to think of ‘protocolized creativity,’” he says.
As part of this push, Mugaritizians (the internal name for members of Mugaritz’s staff) formed partnerships with research entities, universities, and laboratories to fuel their research on culinary creativity. In 2017, Mugaritz contributed to five different studies. Since 2012, there have been 15 scientific and technical articles published by Mugaritizians or with the participation of Mugaritz, and an additional five scientific articles involving Mugaritz are set to be published in 2018 and 2019.
Mugaritzians recently collaborated with Complutense University in Madrid, the University of Humboldt in Berlin, and consulting firm El Jardin de Junio for a study titled “The Meal Experience.” It aims to answer a tricky question: “What makes the hedonic experience of a meal in a top restaurant special and retrievable in the long term?” In other words, what do diners remember most about a meal? This is a million-dollar question for the whole restaurant industry — but especially for fine-dining restaurants. According to the study, moments of intensity leave diners with the most lasting impression. Their conclusions appeared in the research journal Appetite.
Mugaritz employees also recently participated in a study that examines cooks’ brains when they’re creating, comparing that action to their brains when completing everyday tasks. In December, a group of 20 people who were part of the 2018 menu creation completed tests for the study. They’re in the process of completing the same tests again now that this intensive period of creative work is over.
Although the experiment is not yet complete, the Mugaritzians have their own philosophy about what inspires creativity in fine dining. Aduriz believes that the dining experience is more important than the food that is served. “We have lived the hegemony of taste for a long time,” he says. “In a restaurant like Mugaritz, there are other more interesting aspects that we are keeping an eye on than just if a fish tastes good or not.”
The academic work extends into the realm of diner perception. At Mugaritz’s request, a group of neurolinguistics researchers analyzed years of emails and letters sent by Mugaritz customers. They found that the word “taste” didn’t crack the top 10 when it came to how diners described positive perceptions of the restaurant. Words related to the dining experience, like “emotion” and “setting,” were more indicative of a diner’s response.
The Mugaritz team also believes in the power of limitation. “Imposing limitations is one of the best ways to push harder for creative dishes,” Lasa says. “We always strive to be very reflective about our craft, to think about why things are or have to be as they are. For some time we’ve been thinking about a meal without the cutlery: How can we create truly innovative dishes by withdrawing the support people use to eat with?” he asks.
A dish from the 2017 menu embraced both aspects of Mugaritz’s creative philosophy: The waiter presented the diner with an ice ball topped with a tiny portion of raw oyster tartare. The diner would then grab the ice ball with both hands (taking care not to let it slip) and suck the oysters without using any cutlery. Some diners described the experience as erotic (the oysters weren’t a coincidence, in that case), while others were reminded of sucking breast milk.
All the creative effort at Mugaritz has a single goal: to turn its meals into memorable experiences. At Mugaritz, a meal is “like an earthquake reader: There are bigger peaks that make the house fall,” Lasa explains. “We do not want to create an entire experience with only peaks.” Mugaritzians pursue these “aha moments” year after year when creating the dishes that will be included in the menu — a demanding and exhausting task for those who seek innovation. But, according to Lasa, “innovation is Mugaritz’s DNA. It is how we understand food.” This year’s menu focuses on the concept of time, and the dishes come with vague, curious names, like “What lasts a kiss,” “The impossible only takes a little longer,” and “Everything changes.”
”Unlike a restaurant that seeks indefinitely to make the same old recipe even better every time, we are here to generate ideas, provoke new concepts, and when they become known, we are done, and we move on to new things. I think we’re crazy escapists,” Lasa says. “But we are always looking for the ineffable.”
Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.
Editor: Monica Burton