Andoni Aduriz is young but wise and boasts — along with Mugaritz, the fifth best restaurant in the world— a healthy sense of humor and humility. At this year's Gastronomika, the Basque chef gave a presentation on his failures, which include but are not limited to being so closely identified with using freshly picked flowers as ingredients even while a Spanish law threatens to render that practice illegal. The presentation's finale was a video of men in bunny suits romping in a field of wild flowers to Harry Nilsson's Everybody's Talkin'. I spoke with Aduriz, through a translator, the day after his presentation.
This is a pretty specific interview with questions that were brought on by your presentation this year — on your errors — and on the presentation you gave last year at Gastronomika which was, I believe, about sadness. I recently spoke to Juan Mari Arzak about the limits of emotion that can be expressed through food. He said he's only interested in positive emotions. I wanted you to weigh in on that as well.
When you ride a roller coaster at an amusement park and you are going 200 meters per hour, you feel scared, right? But you paid for that feeling, that feeling of fear. So you're scared — which we generally see as negative — but it's a positive emotion as well. It's the same at horror films. You pay and you know you're going to be scared and you know you'll enjoy it. This is what I want to do with food.
My presentation last year, by the way, was about melancholy, that yearning for what you remember. Usually we categorize emotion. We try to say sadness is bad and happiness is good; melancholy is bad, expectation is good. But we are emotional beings. People are stimulated emotionally by whatever is around them. At Mugaritz, we try to transfer emotion to them through food.
When you go to a museum — not to say a restaurant is a museum — but a painting is not always visually or emotionally pleasing. It can be challenging. It can be unenjoyable. Perhaps the point isn't to be pretty as much as it is to be provocative. Is deliciousness a necessary component for food to be food, or is it just another element to play with?
There are many elements involved. First of all, what is deliciousness but a construct? There are at least three options to speak about food. Take a piece of meat. It's protein. It's fats. It's nutrition. Then you eat it. It's in your mouth. You taste it, sense the temperatures and the flavor. Is it juicy? Is it warm? And what's here? [he points to his head] If you're told that meat is a mouse, you'd say "Oh my God!' and you'd die. But it is still protein. It is still warm. It is still juicy. The concept of good or bad, delicious or not delicious, is cultural. If I told you, I'm going to serve you an extract of toxic beans from Amazon, so toxic in fact that we have to roast them. If I tell you something like that, you'll say I'm not going to eat it.
What I just described is coffee.
Of course deliciousness is culturally dependent but you operate in a culture where you understand the code.
There are many people who even inside their own culture they don't understand. I'll tell you: Take something sweet, something savory, something sour, and something bitter. If I pull some guy off the street and ask him to order these through a meal he's say: Bitter for the aperitivo. Sour and salty for the meal and finish with something sweet. That's typical. They say bitter is the most difficult one in the flavors. If I put it at the end of the meal, they don't like it. They want something sweet. They say that but afterward they take a bitter coffee and then a gin and tonic which is even more bitter. They are not thinking about that. The concept of good and bad is amorphous. It just depends on the proportion of good and bad. It's not good. It's not bad. It's the relation between the two.
Well, take you, for example, what do you think is delicious?
Individual tastes vary but what I'm interested in is your intention.
My intention is that the food is emotionally interesting.
How does the philosophy of the cuisine at Mugaritz work to challenge those assumptions?
We play with the balance. We welcome our guests with a plate called a "Table Stone." It's potato paste that we make look like a stone. They see it and say, "What is this?" Well, it's a potato that we make look like a stone. It surprises them. It occurs to them that there might be a new way to make potatoes. If you surprise people with something they know, then you have them. Then you can do whatever you want. They give me their hearts. There is a confidence between me and the client and the entire meal is a balance between this confidence and this relation. Sincerity is very important as well. The most important thing in the beginning is that I have to be trusted by the client. I have to work to gain their confidence.
You said yesterday when you close the door on your failures you close the door on truth as well. Has there been a formulative failure?
There are moments like this all the time in life. I'm going to be very sincere. The biggest errors I remember are the errors in which I felt myself as an individual I haven't behaved justly as a human being. There are not professional mistakes. Professionally I've made mistakes and that's just part of my job. I've burned food. I've broken dishes. I've cooked poorly. These are my ghosts: When I have been too passionate. When I have been irrational instead of being calm. When I have spoken unkindly or given poisonous looks to others. The only failures are the ones you don't learn from. Failures teach more than successes and my failures in my personal life has served me well in my professional life too.
I'm going to be evil. We are surrounded by chefs who the only thing they have in their lives are Michelin stars. When you take from them their three Michelin stars, they have nothing. As they say, "What a poor man, he only has money." If you want to be successful in your job, you must never lose sight that you are a person. You are a successful person to have people visit your webpage. You have a lot of power. If in your life you only have that, then you are poor. You will be a slave of your own project. If you abjure the responsibility of humanity, this professional character will stick to your skin. The character — Joshua David Stein from Eater.com — will be you. You have to use the successful things as a credit but to do other things. Great, you have a lot of visitors, but you have to look above all that. You have to use this credit to go farther and improve.
On that point of what we might call paying it forward, at Mugaritz do you see a broader implication to something like the table stone? For instance, if a client can see a stone is really a potato, perhaps they'll see a person and think, 'Well, I thought they were a null but they are worthwhile." Is that an extrapolation for which you are aiming?
I have no answer to this question but I'll tell you this story. There are 60 people who work at Mugaritz. 35 work in the kitchen. The techniques are important but not so important. The products are important but not the most important. But the values? Those are vital. I work with 15 nationalities and I've work with them for a long time, but in 2015, I have no idea where they'll be working, or with what techniques or with what products. The future is unforeseeable. The only thing that remains are the values. Values are fractals. If you are sensitive when you put a flower in a dish, if you are sensitive when you are grilling a cow, you are always sensitive. You aren't sensitive when you only cooking. You can't be sensitive from 8 to 9 and then a sonuvabitch.
So he's raising the consciousness.
Yes, I'm transferring the values through how we prepare the dishes. When people come to the restaurant and learn something, that's fantastic. I'm trying to transfer, not to teach. We project your values. IN the way you work, you show how you are. Whatever kind of person you are — if you are bad or mistrustful or if you are distracted or if you are sensitive or if you don't agree in your own project — you project it. People will know. Maybe you can think you are good or you are bad. But values are built. You aren't born with them.
It's interesting because this goes back to flavors, how in different contexts people experience flavor differently.
In the last 50 years in Western society, we have sown fear. We live in a fearful society. In the history of humanity, we have never lived better than now. We have more hope, more access to culture, more access to medicine — not in the States, maybe — but the data shows that people are unhappy.
What a poor man, all he has in money!
The fear has been imposed on society by politicians on television. Fear about food. Fear about politics. Fears about health. My mother is eighty years old, she's lived much worse than now. She still laughs a lot. She doesn't understand why all this fear is generalized now. She lost children. She lived through the civil war. Now people are worried about all these things. We have to work to implant positive values. We have to fight against this fear and implant happiness and hope and creativity.
[By this time, the Kursaal has emptied out and night has overtaken San Sebastián.The calm is interrupted suddenly by a loud fire alarm. The translator and I bolt up. Andoni reacts calmly and smiles.]
Don't be afraid. We have water.
[A few minutes later, the sound stops. It was a false alarm.]