The Spanish restaurants leading the world: an interview

Unorthodoxy reigns supreme in Spain, where some of the best chefs in the world consistently inspire with innovative techniques and creative cuisine. Luxos discovers what's happening in the Spanish culinary world

Luxos chats with two of Spain's most talented chefs, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Martín Berasategui, for a little industry insight.

Spanish alta cocina dominates the world culinary scene today, proudly boasting some of the most daring, creative and avant-garde chefs in the industry. In 2010, Restaurant magazine’s prestigious list of the world’s 50 best restaurants included five restaurants in Spain (4 in the top 10): El Bulli and El Cellar de Can Roca in Catalonia, Mugaritz, Arzak, and Martín Berasategui in Basque Country.

With an ever-increasing number of Michelin stars between them, and some of the most deliciously tempting cuisine in the world, Basque and Catalonian chefs have inspired an entire generation of cooks through the use of innovative techniques and creative approaches to cooking. “If you look at the creative style of the world’s most daring chefs,” states Mugaritz chef Adoni Luis Aduriz, “you will see that almost all of them use concepts and techniques pioneered or socialized by Spanish chefs."

Martín Berasategui explains why he believes Spain has become a leader in the avant-garde culinary scene, “Spain has done important work in recent decades in terms of research, innovation, modernization, and a desire to excel every day. A series of factors have come together, including recognition from national and international press, healthy collaboration, in many cases, between chefs, and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another.”

The spirit of collaboration and exploration is pervasive, and most certainly contributes to the popularity of Spanish chefs, not only with the public, but also within the industry. The father of Spanish alta cocina, Ferran Adría, instilled this collaborative spirit from the beginning, having consistently demonstrated an eagerness to share his findings and expertise.

The rise of alta cocina

“Creativity,” uttered French chef Jacques Maximin in 1987, “means not copying”. According to the tome, A Day at El Bulli, Maximin’s statement was to serve as inspiration and a catalyst for change for today’s most celebrated chef and head of El Bulli, Ferran Adría. In 1984 Adría became chef de cuisine at El Bulli, at that time a two Michelin starred restaurant that served classic and nouvelle French cuisine. His 1987 audience with Maximin was to create a sea change in Adría’s approach to cooking. Eschewing the traditions of the past and adopting an almost anarchic philosophy of cooking, Adría began to employ deconstructivist methods designed to challenge preconceived notions about the look and taste of food.

For over twenty years Adría and his team at El Bulli have continued to push culinary boundaries, creating innovative flavors and textures, using scientific techniques, rare ingredients, and combining unusual flavor combinations. Adría is famed for his somewhat mad-scientist techniques and creations like warm gelatin, ‘foam’, and ‘air’. According to Aduriz, Adría “is a creator who has taught us to look at the world of cooking with different eyes. He is an honest idealist who has broken all the rules that for decades were passed down from generation to generation. He has provided new techniques, a new language and has opened doors that were unimaginable.”

Back to the land

The lush valleys and green foothills in and around San Sebastian boast the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain. Inspired by the beautiful natural surroundings of both land and sea, many Basque chefs are taking part in the most recent incarnation of deconstructivist cuisine, the terroir movement. This back-to-basics approach, implemented by chefs like Aduriz and Berasategui, emphasizes locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, rare produce, unexpected food pairings, and creative cooking techniques.

Aduriz, like Adría, focuses on unorthodox cooking, but with a less technical, and a more restrained, austere approach. He sources all of his ingredients locally, with most of Mugartiz’s herbs coming from the restaurant's own garden. Aduriz describes his cooking as, “unpredictable, organic, honest, practical and beautiful.” He is forever inspired by his Basque Country surroundings and cuisine which he feels is, “sober, humble and straightforward, yet reflective.”

At present, Aduriz is exploring products, muscle-by-muscle , from fish to pork, in a process that Aduriz admits is yielding plenty of knowledge and a number of surprises. He continues to experiment with vegetables, aromatic herbs, and flowers, and technically speaking, he is attempting to deepen his knowledge of quicklime and high-pressure techniques.

For Berarsategui, place is of supreme importance, “My kitchen is very tied to my city, San Sebastian, and the Basque Country in general, to our culture, our way of life. My cuisine could be described as innovative and complex, yet at the same time local. The raw material and its treatment are the protagonists of my creative cuisine.”

He continues, “Basque cuisine has a very distinct identity…and in general, is very close to its roots. We are lucky to have excellent products, orchards and fields from which we obtain incredible primary materials. The truth is that we are privileged in this. And of course, were it not for the sea that surrounds us, the greatness of the Cantabrian (Sea), we could not possibly enjoy fish as we do. It is a cuisine that over time has gained in complexity, and there is still enormous potential.”

The future of spanish cuisine

So what do our insiders see for the future of Spanish cuisine? Berasategui ventured a guess, “I suspect that alta cocina will be even more connected to reliable local suppliers, will be respectful of nature and its cycles, and will fight for the survival of high-quality artisanal products.” Aduriz believes that those who will excel in the future will, “reflect a unique and sincere style. Creativity linked to identity will be vital in an increasingly globalized world.”

As for Adría? In a controversial move, Adría has recently announced that 2011 will be the final season for El Bulli. Instead, in the spirit of research and collaboration, Adría plans to transform his restaurant and lab into a gastronomic think-tank and non-profit foundation.

El Bulli

Cala Montjoi, Roses, Tel. +34 972 150 457, www.elbulli.com 

Martín Berasategui

Calle de Loidi 4, Lasarte-Oria, Tel. +34 943 366 471, www.martinberasategui.com 

Mugartiz

Otzazulueta Baserria. Aldura Aldea 20 zk. – Errenteria 20100. Gipuzkoa, Tel. +34 943 522 455, www.mugaritz.com