The Last Temptation of Andoni Aduriz

Pamela Cortez picks the brain of a man who failed his first year of culinary school only to become one of the most respected names in the business

by Rogue, photo by Neal Oshima

Both cerebral and creative, Mugaritz is known to shut down operations for months at a time to conceptualize menus more technical than any before. In a dinner with Andoni Luis Aduriz, the restaurant’s head chef, Pamela Cortez picks the brain of a man who failed his first year of culinary school only to become one of the most respected names in the business

I have never been to Mugaritz.

The two-Michelin-starred restaurant, with Andoni Luis Aduriz at the head of its experimental kitchen, currently holds the number six spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The restaurant is buried deep in the Basque hills, 20 minutes away from San Sebastián, and has always seemed to be unattainable. The food is often described as “techno-emotional Spanish,” and has become the most molecularly relevant restaurant in Spain since Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli closed its doors permanently. But tonight, Aduriz is cooking at Gallery Vask. He says that the rarest of pop-up dinners is a one-off, the kind of thing he would only do for his protégé chef Chele Gonzalez, who has made the Philippines both his emotional and culinary home.

I have no room for comparison, which leaves me with wonderful prospects as a diner. I know that Aduriz is infamous for being all about surprises and experiences, but I have no idea what to surmise. The Mugaritz menu is ever-changing, closing from December to April every year in order to create new dishes that seem to be more conceptual and technical than the year before—which leaves tonight’s dinner a completely singular experience. Jose Ramon Calvo, Mugaritz’s restaurant manager who is a brilliantly colorful character, sets a plate of stones in front of us, urging us to pop the oval-shaped rocks into our mouths and bite into the granite. Of course, at Mugaritz, nothing is ever what it seems. The edible stones are the most definitive example of what the kitchen is known for: delicious visual trickery. The humble potato is dipped into edible clay, creating a thin skin emulating the color and texture of stone. It is warm and luscious, the clay merely creating an illusion. Next, a macaron, called “The Belly of the Monk.” A bite into the crisp shell is intensely savory on the palate, with a distinct funkiness that could only be attributed to game. It is made of pig’s blood, and not merely for shock factor; their months of research revealed that when blood and egg whites are emulsified, they reach the same texture.

Mugaritz is more than just about flavor, and the rest of Aduriz’s dishes display this philosophy. A game was played that night involving one of their signature courses that often finds its way into their evolving menu: tortoloxak was an exhibition of the more playful side of the restaurant, accompanied by a comic strip and porcelain bones, with tonight’s winner receiving a luxurious prize of fresh, ecological caviar chosen by Aduriz himself, while everyone else was offered cream and toast. It is an edible interpretation of rich and poor, luxury and indulgence versus simplicity. “Cultural Textures,” one of the most memorable plates of the night, involved a painstaking process using one of the Basque country’s most revered ingredients, the kokotxas. The mini sandwich used the gelatinous hake throat, more prized than any fish cheek, in both the “bread” and the “filling”; crisp flattened throat surrounded a fleshy, viscous piece of meat that was simultaneously mild but full of the concentrated flavor of the sea, almost as creamy and milky as cod milt. It was mind-bogglingly technical, but insanely delicious.

Creativity is incredibly important to Aduriz, and this is what is ultimately the backbone of his work at Mugaritz. During his talk at Madrid Fusión Manila, the reason Aduriz found himself in Manila, the man talked about this open creativity, both figuratively and in the confines of his restaurant. “Most of the time,” he said, “people think they are not creative, but everyone is creative. If you want to be a creative person, believe and behave as you are a creative person. Get into the habit and you will be.” This is why Aduriz continues to push limits and evolve, challenging diners’ perceptions every time they walk through the doors. The man is an artist first and foremost, obsessed with the experience from start to finish, creating unique, indelible moments with his chosen medium.

The sight of the world’s sixth best chef, who is known across the globe as one of the most important chefs in Spain since Adrià, is more than daunting. But even a few minutes with Aduriz reveals a man that is more than his genius, unfazed with his years of fame, marked by incredible humility. When he is praised, he shakes his head and insists that he is not the best, that there is better. “There are two important things in life: one, you have to be eager to learn; two, you have to be consistent. People forget that this is a marathon. It’s a long run. A brilliant moment will not take you anywhere. You have to keep working, working, and working,” Aduriz says. And with these proverbs (which always seem to flow from his conversation) comes a little humor. On stage, he charms the audience, with both his immediate wit and his intellectual discourse, managing to make a joke and a jab or two. Off it, he is just as genuine, speaking in tongues but with fantastic retorts.

It is now 6 A.M. on a Monday morning, and I am in the dingiest of girly bars in Burgos. I’ve been to quite a few around the infamous district, but this one has particularly let go of their decor: a shoddily painted graffiti sign, a smoke machine spurting out questionable fog, and a few chairs with peeling pleather on the seat. The DJ is trying to mix some vocal EDM with slow R&B jams and it’s not working, and uncoordinated neon lights are the only source of brightness in the basement. But in the middle of the dance floor, dancing like no one is watching with a San Miguel in hand, is Andoni Luis Aduriz. It’s been a hectic week for the chef, never far away from a fan bombarding him with requests for a selfie, or else shoving a book in his face for an autograph. But here he is alone, with friends and colleagues, after orchestrating a dinner service for 40 guests with Gonzalez in a foreign country, in a foreign kitchen.

We embrace, partly because we are tired and slightly inebriated, and I congratulate him, but the language barrier is difficult. He manages in broken English to impart a few words of wisdom anyway: “Life is great. Don’t regret life.” For a man of many words, this blunt, immediate advice is what defines him to me most. He is humble, but the people that surround him treat him with quiet veneration. He is an artist, a genius, an all-around good guy. This moment is a culmination of what Aduriz is: wise, intelligent, odd, eccentric, sincerely hilarious, and beautiful. The man is still dishing out life advice in the middle of a Burgos dance floor, for crying out loud.

A day later, I’m waiting for him to arrive at dinner. His team has spent a night diving in Anilao, and the Vask family is preparing a feast for the chef a few hours before he leaves to resume his life. He probably won’t remember me at all, through our interview, dancing at B-Side and Burgos until they closed, threading through the kitchen watching him cook, eating his food with renewed knowledge and appreciation. But with all I’ve managed to learn from him—the snippets of conversation, the lengthy proverbs which make up his speech that have weaved themselves into inimitable lessons—I know I will.