You may know him from the Netflix Original Series, The Final Table, or from the Michelin Guide. His restaurant, Mugaritz, located outside San Sebastián, Spain, has been on the top 10 of World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 12 consecutive years. He, meanwhile, he has retained his 2 Michelin Stars since 2006, even while keeping the restaurant closed for four months in a year. If there were a culinary icon of current times it would be Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz.
Andoni’s approach to food signifies the coming together of many unusual concepts. His tasting menu at Mugaritz, for example, spreads over 20 courses; the items change everyday, and 70-80 new dishes are introduced every season. Served in no set order, the food is created to challenge the diner—what looks like beer could be a soup, what looks like crab could be a potato, what looks like grape could be a melon. In short, nothing on Andoni’s table is what it seems like.
On a short visit to Delhi to present his maiden culinary offering in India, the chef presided over a gourmet experience curated especially for ITCs Global Tastes initiatives. The 10-course interpretation of his menu at Mugaritz, created in consultation with the Masterchefs of ITC Hotels also involved many Indian ingredients—onions, okra, crabs, pumpkin, coconut, spices—to name a few.
We meet chef Andoni for an exclusive (can we call it that?) tete-e-tete and talk about his work, his philosophy, his restaurant, and his experience in India.
How has your experience in India been so far?
Intense. Very intense.
Why do you say that?
When you step out of your routine, when you are travelling to a different place, you see different things, you converse with different people. And when you are a curious person like I am, you tend to become even more alert. You observe how a glass has been kept, how a bottle has been placed; you see how is it different from your own surroundings. In this way it becomes very intense—you are constantly looking to understand new things in surroundings that are alien to you.
How was it to cook for the Indian palate?
I got only two days (to cook), had I got a third day it would have been better and the fourth day would have been even better. Come to think of it, all our traditional dishes have undergone a lot of changes over the years. They have never been constant; they have been done in different ways over generations. Likewise every time I cook, I like to add something new – some creative touches. On the first night, I used onion for one of the courses, but it turned out to be completely different from what we are used to. So the next evening I had to change its treatment to suit the palate. We have a lot of respect for this culture and have given a lot of careful attention to everything that we are doing here. We have taken care that the minutest of thing should not go wrong. It is challenge, but we have come here with an open mind
You see we all come from a very individualistic point of view and we see the world from that point of view. When you come to a culture that is so complicated, and hear a language, which is somewhat recognizable, and yet the meaning of word is totally different everything changes.
Is there an Indian ingredient you would like to use in your kitchen?
I am absolutely ignorant about India. My knowledge of India is less than that of an 8-year-old child. You don’t live in a country, you live in a continent. It is so rich and so varied and has so many ingredients that it will take me two lives to learn about it.
Having said that, at Mugaritz we believe a lot in theory, we go into the theory of a dish and then go on to the practical aspect of it; and I am thinking of something as simple as chickpeas. I have always wondered why fresh chickpeas are not are not available in my region. But when I came to India, I saw fresh chickpeas on the markets. Wow! We had been theorizing about fresh chickpeas all this while and here they were. So that is one of the many Indian ingredients that I would like to explore more.
You say that you cook to stimulate; what kind of stimulation are you talking about?
We want to stimulate the overall senses of our diners. We want to connect their emotions to their thoughts and want them to wonder what the food is all about.
Many years ago there was group of neuroscientists that had come to Mugaritz. Antonio Damacio, the famous neuroscientist, was also a part of the group. When had tasted the food he said “Wow! You have generated a sense of creativity and curiosity in me.” This was not only about the taste; we had stimulated all the other senses also. That’s what we want to do.
At Mugaritz is all about experimenting, are young chefs allowed to experiment in your kitchen? What kind of eco-system do you encourage?
We have creative spaces in our kitchens for people to experiment and to be creative, but it is not done randomly without thinking. There is a process and a theory in place.
While during the 4 months when the restaurant shuts, all of us do a lot of creative things, during the rest of the year also we have a team that works on it. We have recently added two people on the creative team. One of them joined only last year as an intern, but we saw promise in her and thought she could take us to the next level, so she has joined the creative team now. When you let people work on their own you do not know what kind of surprises you can get what kind of creative things you can get.
What is it about Basque that makes it a hub of fine-dining restaurants – is it the climate, the air, the water?
Wow! You have a very complicated question; I can only speculate. And I will respond to this in parts.
A restaurant should be at a place that allows it to be colonized by the environment—colonization at the cultural level, by the people, and by the surroundings. Mugaritz, for example, is surrounded by woods, and all the elements of the forest impact the way the restaurant is.
Secondly, the summer in Pais Vasco is very long – it lasts for four months. Tourists, however, would come here just for two months and return. So the businessmen here brought in innovative ways to get the tourists to stay longer. They came up with things like the film festival and the music festival. The restaurants, I think, also came up for partially that reason: to keep the tourists at home for longer. Also, every problem in our region is solved by sitting around a table. We love to eat and feed, and we resolve all our issue by sitting around a table and eating together. That could be a reason too. But like I said, I am only speculating.
Movies, Books, Music: You do so many things apart from cooking, how does that feed into your work as a chef, or does it at all?
That is a very good question. It does reflect in my work, yes.
To make even one dish I give about 80-100 ideas. For ideas you need to learn new things and meet new people, people who have different thinking and different creative perspective. When we research, I sit on a table with a journalist, a choreographer, a moviemaker and I place my thoughts on the table and they put theirs and that’s how we come up with new things.
I cannot just keep giving and giving. I also need to learn. And that process can only happen if I interact with people who are not only from my field. That is why there is a need for collaborating with moviemakers, musicians, choreographers – people from other fields.