Q&A with Andoni Luis Aduriz, head chef and owner of Spain’s famed Mugaritz
Widely hailed as one of Ferran Adrià’s most talented protégés, Andoni Luis Aduriz, chef and owner of Mugaritz, on the southern outskirts of San Sebastián, Spain, is at the forefront of some of the culinary world’s most innovative techniques and dishes. He also runs the third-best restaurant in the world. Mugaritz serves avant-garde cuisine that often upends traditional understandings of food, and is heralded by chefs and culinary enthusiasts worldwide. Diners are told to expect the unexpected—from edible stones to chocolate nails—and interact with ingredients sourced from varied and unusual suppliers in an unfamiliar way. Aduriz stopped by Toronto recently to promote his new cookbook, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking, which was released last month. We had a chance to speak with the chef about the cost of being original, his inspirations and motivations and the impact that awards and recognition have had on his success.
We hear this is your first time in Canada. What are your impressions?
I expected to see Mounties, but I haven’t seen any! I thought I was going to find a country which is a mix of everything between the United States and Europe—I don’t know why. I realized that there was a parallel between Canada and Australia. Both are vast countries with a lot of nature, and both have been able to learn from the errors of others.
Your restaurant is known for the unusual sensory experiences you create for diners, which no doubt are not cheap. How difficult was this pursuit? Has it been worth all the sacrifices?
I won’t lie, it’s very difficult. If it weren’t, there would be a lot more people doing what we do. Honestly, we’re not extraordinarily talented, we don’t do anything that other people couldn’t do, but what we try to do is give context to what we want to do. It is true that it requires a lot of sacrifice, that it’s a path filled with problems and doubt. But it also helps to see how others see your work—how they value it, how it inspires them. This helps you realize at the end that the work you’re doing isn’t bad.
What goals are you reaching for?
I realize that in 15 years we’ve grown a lot—we’ve developed a lot of techniques and ideas, done a lot of incredible work and mixed different disciplines. Fifteen years later, I’d say there’s still so much to do. I still don’t see the restaurant as a space to eat; it’s a space where we interact with people, where we work with their senses and their prejudices and stimulate and excite them. I would like the experience to be a performance where the diner is like a viewer, but they’re asked to participate in the performance and their participation can influence the experience of others. All of this we try to do in an elegant, natural and harmonious way that doesn’t feel out of place.
Congratulations on your recent recognition in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. How much does that ranking mean to you?
I won’t deny that awards and recognition mean a lot, because they give us access to an audience that we certainly wouldn’t get to know otherwise. However, I need the security that independence gives. I really love that people know us for the quality of our work, not because we’ve been given awards or distinctions.
Do you have any advice on how a restaurant can achieve this recognition?
I don’t have the key for this, but I do have the good fortune of being in the Basque country, where there are many wonderful restaurants that attract people from all over the world. This is a little like when someone presents a movie for the Oscars: you have to have a very good movie, and you also have to make sure the maximum number of people who vote can see the film.
In the last decade there has been much attention paid to Spain’s culinary scene. Why is that?
Maybe because other countries have a traditional culinary culture that they are expected to adhere to, but Spain has always been set on creativity and innovation without the necessity of tradition. There has been a revolution in Spain in this last decade that has been important. The feeling of freedom, that you can progress without betraying your tradition, has garnered a lot of attention. These ideas and concepts have been imported by others: Alex Atala from Brazil does Amazonian cuisine, Massimo Bottura does Italian cuisine, the Nordics do their own cuisine. It’s a revolution that doesn’t have a canon. It doesn’t ask anything of you. I think this is very inspiring.
How much of your success comes through trial and error? In your book, you chart the development of a dish for 11,000 hours. Do you spend that much time even on the failures?
I think in the book it says 11,000 hours, but today it’s 12,000. Mugaritz is like a tapestry where successes and failures are intertwined and there’s nothing left over. But the failures have been just as or more important than the successes. People see us as people with a lot of talent; we appear to have privileged minds, but this is not true. It’s a lot of work, a lot of passion and a lot of errors. If you look at the history of Mugaritz, initially we were going to open the restaurant in a sports centre. We invested a lot of care and work in that space, but at the last moment a larger company with more money came in, and it left us without a project. But if that hadn’t happened, I would be beside a municipal swimming pool with ladies doing aerobics, and have a dining room that smelled of chlorine.
When we got Mugaritz, the next problem arrived: we were in the mountains and we didn’t have the clientele. That situation forced us to take advantage of all the herbs and nature surrounding us, and to collaborate with people from different disciplines. When there was a fire at the restaurant, it completely changed our way of thinking. There are moments in a crisis this dire that leave you without any hangups, and you tell yourself, “I’m just going to do what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m going to bet 100 per cent on creativity.” What I would like is for people to understand one thing: Mugaritz is a restaurant where very normal people, working together, have achieved extraordinary things, and that’s a marvellous thing. So what I would tell people is to dream and to devour the world. You have to dream, dream, dream.