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 85-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 20 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, 20 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 counter-intuitive 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 20 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.
Spanish translation by David Gonzalvo Gargallo.