Coun­ter­in­tu­itive gastronomy

Neue Luxury - - Front Page - By Paul Tier­ney Span­ish trans­la­tion by David Gon­za­lvo Gar­gallo

A few miles out­side the Basque city of San Se­bastián, past road­side bars and ver­dant fields, lies Mu­garitz; a restau­rant so revered that peo­ple here talk about it in a kind of hushed awe. From the out­side it ap­pears fairly un­re­mark­able; a large chalet-like build­ing topped with a slop­ing roof and flanked by gar­dens that pro­duce the del­i­cate flow­ers, veg­eta­bles and herbs that con­trib­ute to its menu. To the side is a squat out­build­ing hous­ing a bar and meet­ing space and in the cor­ner of the plot stands a large hand­some oak, Mu­garitz’s name­sake. So far, so nor­mal. How­ever, walk around the side of the restau­rant and you will wit­ness myr­iad fig­ures—cooks? chemists?—labour­ing away in a lab­o­ra­tory kitchen, like fu­tur­is­tic art-sci­en­tists on a mis­sion. I peer through steamy win­dows, fas­ci­nated by the test tubes, para­pher­na­lia and on­go­ing ex­per­i­ments, only to be met with quizzi­cal stares. There is se­ri­ous and po­ten­tially con­fi­den­tial busi­ness go­ing on here, and pry­ing eyes are not on the menu.

Opened in 1998, Mu­garitz has de­lighted and con­founded vis­i­tors in equal mea­sure. This is no or­di­nary restau­rant, but the brain­child of An­doni Luis Aduriz—a man whose vi­sion and culi­nary ge­nius knows no bounds. One of the world’s most cel­e­brated chefs, he is at the fore­front of a food revo­lu­tion where hum­ble in­gre­di­ents are ap­pro­pri­ated into eso­teric plates of magic. Here, the prac­tice of molec­u­lar gastronomy has been el­e­vated to an art form. Guided by his ex­per­tise and seem­ingly lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion, raw in­gre­di­ents are trans­formed from the pro­saic to the baf­flingly ro­man­tic. It’s been de­scribed as ‘tech-emo­tional-span­ish’: food that shocks and de­lights in equal mea­sure and de­signed to be provoca­tive, tell a story or evoke an emo­tion. Along­side the now de­funct el­bulli (where Aduriz once worked), Den­mark’s Noma, and He­ston Blu­men­thal’s Miche­lin-stud­ded Fat Duck; Mu­garitz is among undis­puted restau­rant roy­alty.

Meet­ing the man him­self on home turf is some­thing of an achieve­ment. The chef’s de­mand­ing, al­most to the point of manic, sched­ule has not been easy to in­fil­trate. He ar­rives 15 min­utes late, bound­ing into the room like a car­toon blur, “Does some­one here speak Span­ish?” he ven­tures, not wish­ing to get lost in trans­la­tion. “You do? Per­fect.”

Chefs of­ten carry the paunch and jowls that come with the ter­ri­tory, but Aduriz is com­pact and fairly slim and looks like a man happy with his lot. “I have every­thing to live for,” he beams. When talk­ing up his craft or demon­strat­ing the tech­niques be­hind his so­phis­ti­cated food on cam­era, he can come across as in­tense and not given to emo­tion. How­ever, in per­son, this open man, fu­elled by cof­fee and end­less am­bi­tion, is charm­ing com­pany and more than happy to dis­cuss his al­chem­i­cal ways with a con­ta­gious en­thu­si­asm.

He didn’t grow up want­ing to be a chef, but was guided into the pro­fes­sion by a prophetic, sage-like mother. By all ac­counts, Senora Aduriz, now eighty-five years old, has seen much trauma in her life­time. As a girl she wit­nessed Guer­nica burn dur­ing the Span­ish Civil War, and as a refugee lived in an apart­ment shared by twenty peo­ple at a time, of­ten starv­ing for food. “My mother has an old-fash­ioned men­tal­ity. She saw that I wasn’t a very good stu­dent. That I had no vo­ca­tion or abil­i­ties, so she thought I was go­ing to give her many prob­lems. I guess peo­ple never rid them­selves of that in­deli­ble feel­ing af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing famine. So I was sent to kitchen school where she knew I would at least eat every day.”

Food has al­ways looked large in his life, and he is quick to ac­knowl­edge that tra­di­tional Basque cook­ing has sub­con­sciously formed his en­quir­ing per­son­al­ity. “You know, when I was a teenager I thought that all fam­i­lies were like mine, with mother as a house­wife and ev­ery­one re­turn­ing home to have lunch. I used to think that the whole world was this way. Now I re­alise we were the ex­otic ones. Look­ing back, I was in the kitchen all the time. It was the space where I played. So in some way I have al­ways lived with the aro­mas of cook­ing. Later on, I started to put my head in the pots, ask­ing peo­ple how things were cooked. I have this mem­ory of my mother telling me that the most im­por­tant part of the squid was the ink be­cause it gave added value. That par­tic­u­lar thought has al­ways stayed with me.”

Mus­ing on food comes eas­ily. We talk about taste, ap­pear­ance, and how hu­mans re­act to the pre­sen­ta­tion of food served to them. Fa­mously, Mu­garitz takes things fur­ther than most by cre­at­ing ex­ten­sive, twenty course tasting menus that aim to stim­u­late all five senses. “We al­ways give our senses re­spon­si­bil­ity,” he says, nudg­ing clear rec­tan­gu­lar glasses up the bridge of his nose. “What you see, what you smell, what you taste is im­por­tant, but there is some­thing I am much more in­ter­ested in and that is how the brain de­codes it. If you have a steak, the keys of the mouth and the stom­ach make an im­pres­sion based on what you are ex­pect­ing. But the keys of the brain are even more in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause if I told you that the steak is ac­tu­ally a mouse, how would you eval­u­ate it? It changes your per­cep­tion com­pletely. It’s very likely that it will make you feel re­pulsed and sick. But this is only what your brain is in­ter­pret­ing.”

Mice aside—and to my knowl­edge they have never fea­tured on the Mu­garitz menu—ap­pear­ances can be de­cep­tive. Per­haps his most ar­rest­ing take on pre­sen­ta­tion is the abil­ity to cre­ate food that is more than meets the eye. A prime ex­am­ple is one of his sig­na­ture cre­ations, a dish that ap­pears to be a smooth grey stone. Your brain tells you that an at­tempt to bite this seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble ob­ject would re­sult in shat­tered teeth. In re­al­ity, the stone is a spe­cially baked potato, coated in kaolin clay that melts dis­arm­ingly in the mouth. It’s this play­ful han­dling of food that el­e­vates Aduriz’s dishes to more than the sum of their parts. “We play with the con­cept of coun­ter­in­tu­itive idea,” he ex­plains. “The Brothers Grimm fairy­tales are full of counter-in­tu­itive ideas, and that is part of their ap­peal. All the re­li­gious books: the Bi­ble, and the Qu­ran, are also full of counter-in­tu­itive ideas. Logic tells you that this thing you have in front of you is not pos­si­ble, so you have to stop, think, and de­code it to your own un­der­stand­ing.”

Fu­elled by his third cup of cof­fee in half an hour he is fir­ing on all cylin­ders, pulling philo­soph­i­cal gems out of the bag at an alarm­ing rate. His most fer­vent idea is to give the cus­tomer some­thing they think they’re not go­ing to like, but they in­vari­ably do. What ex­cites him most is the no­tion that all his culi­nary ef­forts, their ef­fects on the senses, and this fas­ci­na­tion with counter-in­tu­ition, pale in com­par­i­son to the per­for­ma­tive el­e­ment of his work. “What we try to do is ba­si­cally tell a story through pre­sen­ta­tion and at­mos­phere, and through a sense of the­atre. It is these care­fully planned, of­ten sub­tle el­e­ments that make us who we are and what we stand for.”

Tak­ing this at­ten­tion to de­tail to new heights, noth­ing at Mu­garitz is left to chance. Art­fully bro­ken plates on each of its sev­en­teen ta­bles es­chew any sort of restau­rant hi­er­ar­chy, while ex­tra­or­di­nary dishes that emit be­guil­ing sounds and dis­ap­pear in the mouth are the norm. From the wood-burn­ing stove em­a­nat­ing a smoky aroma through the din­ing room, to the quirky place set­tings, every last nu­ance has been de­signed with emo­tion in mind.

“We strive to ban­ish the cus­toms that cur­tail our free­dom,” comes the rea­son­ing —as mea­sured and evoca­tive as any­thing you might find on a plate here.

The chef’s ethe­real side comes to the fore­front once again when he sug­gests, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, that in­fus­ing food with mu­si­cal tone can ac­tu­ally im­prove its flavour. “I know there are psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­per­i­ments made by the food sci­en­tist Charles Spence, where when you eat a French fry and am­plify the sound twenty times through head­phones, you per­ceive the crunch­i­ness of the fry much more than nor­mal. Spence talks about oys­ters sound­tracked by the sound of the sea that you per­ceive to be far more salty than with­out the sound. Surely there’s a link here. But it has to be de­coded by the client, oth­er­wise it could end up feel­ing gim­micky.”

I ven­ture that what he does con­sti­tutes art. “But am I an artist?” he re­torts, pre­empt­ing my next ques­tion. “I see my­self as a cre­ative per­son, but it is not up to me to say whether what I do is art. I debate the food/art thing all the time, es­pe­cially with one of my favourite artists, Juan Luis Mo­raza. The ques­tion is: does it add some­thing to the cook­ing? I don’t have the an­swer I’m afraid, and I don’t spend too much time think­ing about it. I am much more ex­cited about hav­ing an in­tel­li­gent re­la­tion­ship with an artist than to be la­beled one my­self. It’s in­signif­i­cant. What I care about goes way deeper than that.”

It is fair to say that Aduriz is a man ob­sessed. “If by ob­sessed you mean be­ing com­pelled to carry some­thing out, or to have a deep-rooted de­sire to achieve some­thing, then yes, you are cor­rect. I would say, out of the blue, and with­out think­ing too much, that prob­a­bly my most over­whelm­ing ob­ses­sion has to be my com­plex. And by that I mean never want­ing to dis­ap­point. It’s some­thing that I can’t, and don’t want to shake off. It’s what drives me, that con­stant striv­ing for per­fec­tion. I think we achieve it here of­ten, but per­fec­tion re­quires at­ten­tion, so I can never be sat­is­fied.”

And with that he is off, back to the lab­o­ra­tory, cof­fee in hand, fir­ing off or­ders to his pla­toon of white-coated co-sci­en­tists. Off to cre­ate some­thing you didn’t know you were go­ing to like.

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