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Andoni Luis Aduriz

Apartamento x The Natural Wine Company

Rentería: Andoni Luis Aduriz is a self-described part of the avant-garde in cooking, which leads to the question of what that actually implies. How radical can a restaurant be, or a chef making one of three meals you’ll eat in a day, all soon to be physically expunged from the body? Ask Aduriz what his priority is though, and I doubt he’d say it’s to feed people. His restaurant, Mugaritz, has consistently held two Michelin stars since 2006 and is currently ranked #14 on the World’s Best 50 list, but he also objects to it being called a restaurant. Food is part of the equation here, sure, but it’s also not everything.

Aduriz graduated from cooking school in San Sebastián then worked for some of the most celebrated restaurants in Spain—Arzak, Akellare, Martín Berasategui, and El Bullí among them—absorbing the desire to subvert culinary conventions that’s shaped Ferran Adrià’s whole ethos. An ethos that Adrià summarised in an episode of Bourdain’s No Reservations by saying that if he already knows how to cook a tortilla, much better to try and cook something he doesn’t know how to do. Whoever created that first tortilla created a new technique and a new concept—and Aduriz, like Adrià, exist to do the same. Back at Mugaritz, Aduriz proclaimed that our most extraordinary skill as human beings is the ability to take something non-existent and make it real, the ethos that he, in turn, tries to embody in his kitchen.

For a project we were working on with The Natural Wine Company, we visited Mugaritz during its annual four-month closure, a period for creativity when they test ideas and build their new menu. The kitchen had a wall covered in A4 sheets of paper with words and rudimentary drawings—mycelium (the vegetive part of a fungus), meat honey, silk, and finger—concepts that were eventually folded back into a 25-course tasting menu, this year based on the theme of ‘taste’ and asking diners to think more deeply about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s meant to entice or repulse, and what they really think about the dish in front of them when all the usual signifiers and prompts of fine dining are confounded or absent. If you think of daily life and the vast repetition of experiences, the controlled messaging around this good and bad taste, the sublimation of instinct to expectation, maybe a restaurant that supplicates you to reconsider all of this could, in fact, be somewhere out front in the avant-garde.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

Can you start by telling us how you first came to be here?

I was 26 at the time and someone told me they’d found this place kind of frozen in time. The owner had problems with the city council and they were at an impasse, so I went to take a look. We talked to the owner and proposed a deal: if we managed to work things out with the city council, they would rent us the space. So then we ended up here at a bit of a loss, because we were 20 minutes from San Sebastián. For locals at the time, that was far away.

Did you want it to be a local restaurant to begin with? Or was the plan always to work on a more global scale?

We just wanted someone to come—really anyone. I never dreamt that we’d have a place that could pull in people from around the world. This week one of the best chefs in the US asked me a favour to get a reservation for someone he knows. At 27, there’s no way I could’ve imagined that this guy would be asking me for a reservation. I was just hoping that anyone would come.

But was the cooking the same kind of experimental, research-driven style as you’re doing now? 

No, there’s been a huge evolution, conceptually, formally, in every sense. It’s been a process over the past 25 years. The first year we just fed people, because you have to get a feel for the atmosphere. I remember the first village fairs; the place filled up with people from around here and we handed out more than 100 menus. People were looking for a restaurant, and we had a restaurant. Then we started innovating. It was a fairly quick shift though; it happened over the course of two or three years. I think by the second or third year we’d grown beyond the local clientele; people had started coming from around Spain. We’d already made a bit of a name for ourselves.

Going back a little, where were you working before you opened Mugaritz? 

I studied at the cooking school in San Sebastián, and I had the immense luck of failing my course, so I started again the following year. There was definitely some drama at home—keeping in mind that my siblings are 15, 16 years older than me, and my parents grew up during the Spanish Civil War. They were taken out of school when they were eight years old. For them, education is a luxury and they couldn’t understand how I could let it go to waste. My mum imagined I’d end up on the streets or homeless or in jail. In the end she basically said, ‘Look, this one’s cannon fodder, he’s going nowhere. Let’s put him in cooking school. There’s always food in a kitchen, at least he won’t go hungry’. So that’s why they put me in cooking school. But then I failed.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

And that was a good thing?

It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Originally, my class was full of kids whose parents were restaurant-owners. And the parents, like many parents, projected all their own unfulfilled dreams onto their kids. I mean, the hospitality industry―and even more so back then―demands a lot of sacrifice. So you had these excited parents who imagined a better future for their offspring, taking over the businesses they’d worked hard to establish, but the kids couldn’t have cared less. They wanted to hook up with the girls at the secretarial school next door, smoke joints, whatever.

When I failed that year, I started over with a new class. They’d already known each other for three years, so the friendship groups, the seating―it was all established. When you’re the new guy, you’re lumped together with the other new guys. I was lucky though: the two others in the class had both dropped out of programs their parents had made them do. They were dead set on learning how to cook instead. As in, they were passionate. So I was sitting between the only two passionate students in class, and, professionally, that was a godsend; deep down, people are very mimetic, and enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re surrounded by people who like football, you’ll end up learning about football, even if it’s just to share in that reality. I won the goddamn lottery.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz
Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

Are you still in touch with them? They’re still cooking?

No, they’re both politicians! Life’s funny. But I had this hunger for knowledge and it drove me crazy. These kids told me about chefs who were doing incredible things, who infused their dishes with their own personality. That was just incredible. But to cut a long story short, there used to be a pizzeria here, and I was lucky that the owner of the pizzeria had another well-known restaurant. I worked in the pizzeria then moved over to the other place, and from there I was able to access other opportunities—El Bulli being the next step.

Right, so you’d already worked in a lot of kitchens. At 27, you’d been at it for 10 years.

Or more—12 years as a cook.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz
Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

You were never tempted to do something else? 

There’s basically no saving me. No, the truth is that I’ve kind of cheated. The way I see it is that I’m bloody lucky to have this platform, so what do I want to do now? I want to mix things up, and that’s Mugaritz. It’s a workshop for all these kinds of dreams, a pretty unusual place. I can ask myself what I’m into and then find a way to pursue it: I’ve worked with La Fura dels Baus on a show that toured conceptual theatre festivals, worked with other artists, written a book with a philosopher, and made a documentary with musicians translating our work here into a soundscape.

Mugaritz is like a starting point for anything else that comes to mind.

It’s like I say, in that sense I’ve cheated. I use cooking as an excuse to do anything else that sparks my curiosity, and I think that might be the secret. Mugaritz anticipated something that later became natural: the blending of all different disciplines. We were doing it because it came naturally, because we wanted to escape from the concept of the ‘restaurant’. I mean, that puts us in the same category as McDonald’s. What we do here is completely unrelated to most other restaurants, so we’ve been working to make a world of our own.

In making that world, do you think it’s helped to be located on the periphery? To be in the Basque Country rather than Paris, for example.

I don’t know. Although one thing I can say for sure is that you need to give yourself time. You can’t be out sailing in a strong current and hooked on that, because the current will take you with it. If you’re in a big city, there are things happening all the time, you’re always in that current, and you don’t have time to step back, think, and observe.

But I want to say as well, the world is so hungry for amazing things. It’s incredible. I’m always repeating this to the kitchen team: don’t forget that you are normalising the exceptional. When a place closes for four months every year just to be creative, then opens its doors and people come from all over the world―I mean, that’s already crazy―and they’re begging for a seat, it’s because people want things. At least in the middle class, let’s be clear. In the end, we’re all so specialised and that might be why I like other creative disciplines so much—because I can tap into other people’s lives. I only have one life, my own, and it’s very insular.

You’re in that period of creativity at the moment, and normally no one from outside the team is around. How does this period begin? Is there a specific focus from day one, or it’s more open, flexible?

It doesn’t really have a beginning, because in reality it never ends. When you’re being creative—maybe I can put it this way: you might be a clean person or a dirty person, tidy or messy. If you’re one or the other, it’s pretty hard to become the opposite. I mean, if you’re tidy, it’d be weird if you were only tidy from 8am till 2pm, and then from 2pm you turn into a total messy shit. Normally there’s a spirit that accompanies you throughout life, no? You don’t change skins, intellectually, conceptually, or ideologically. So what happens? When you’re deep into creativity, you’re in bed and still you dream with creativity. We actually did a project with the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language. It’s a centre of excellence and sometimes they do other things too. For example, they did a study on bertsolaris, like Basque poet-rappers.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz
Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

Of course.

And so they did one with chefs, and they took some of the guys here. They did the study over a long period of time, about five years. They started with some tests, MRIs, and after four months they did the tests again to see whether creativity―whether putting them in an environment to explore creativity―really changed their brains. And it did. It’s the most logical thing in the world, because it takes between 20 and 66 days to form a habit. Here they’re exposed to creative dynamics all the time, and it’s true that the brain is very malleable. If people understood that, I think they could really love themselves more, because deep down you are your own limitations. But you can also unravel them and draw a new future.

There’s something else I like to remind people of. If you look at everything around us here—this chair, but also the machine used to build this chair, the glass, the mobile phone―at some point they were all just an idea in someone’s mind. They didn’t exist. That’s an extraordinary human capability: taking something non-existent and making it real. So for us, now, I might say that we’re deep into creativity, but the project is already open and we just keep going with it. It’s across the board, too. As in, I might be thinking about things that aren’t useful for Mugaritz, but I keep the ball rolling.

So you don’t close one day, then come back the next and say, ‘OK, let’s start work’.

No, we cheat. We’ve already learnt that it doesn’t make any sense to say, ‘Day one, blank slate’. When we come in that first day after the holidays, we already have notes. For example, I have this list on my phone and every now and then I’ll look back at it. 

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz
Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

How do you look back at something so massive?! Is it all about food?

No, not at all. If I were to ask myself what I’ve learnt after 25 years, I’d say that I know how to cook. I came up with the dish we cooked this morning just by being in the kitchen with Javi, who leads our R&D team. He just put the ingredients in front of me. It’s like a bertsolari who says, ‘Take a guitar and write a song using the words boat, fight, breakup, future, yesterday’, and you write a song. Why? Because it’s what you do.

So the food―the materiality, technique, formality―what we put on the plate is already resolved. Where we put in a lot of work is investing it with meaning, and that’s when creativity comes into play. We don’t just say, ‘Things have to be good’. Here, they have to have meaning—at least for us. When you give them meaning, you give them a lot of truth, depth, a different dimension.

Normally, cooking suffers from that. People function with pretty simplistic slogans. They’ll say, ‘It’s good’, or someone with a little more education will say, ‘I’m interested in the sensory experience’. They might not know what that means, but they know that it means something. We live in a world that doesn’t make much of an effort to reinvent itself. Here, we put a lot of energy into reinventing ourselves.

I really like telling this one story because I find it very disruptive, in a good way. Last year we came up with a dish. Normally, cooking is very orthodox and very formal. There’s the ‘good’ and ‘bad’; there’s the ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, and we’re constantly trying to dynamite that sort of logic. So we came up with a dish—think of it this way: you’re at a bar and you order a croqueta, but when it arrives, it’s cold in the middle. You think, ‘Damn, these assholes haven’t fried it right. It’s cold, it’s straight out the freezer’.

But you do it on purpose.

It drives people crazy, because all of a sudden you’re eating a fried food that’s also frozen, and that’s shocking. Because in its ‘normal’ iteration that would be a defect. Here, though, we’ve worked for it not to be a defect—to make it intentional. That turned into an idea, which I think is magnificent, and that was to cook with typos. You don’t intentionally write with spelling mistakes, but we intentionally cook with typos. It makes people crazy because they’re thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’

Do you get a lot of criticism?

Yes! For the moment we’re the only restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list that’s been ranked in the top 10 for 13 or 14 years. For a while, we were number three in the world. How many restaurants are there in the world? Millions and millions. You look at TripAdvisor and there are maybe 25 bars and restaurants here in Rentería, which has 20,000 inhabitants, and we were ranked seventh in the town. At the same time as we were ranked seventh in the world.

Tied with the local take-away.

That’s the world we live in. It comes from reviews, parallel realities. It’s funny, but in one place you’re playing by the rules of poker, in another it’s blackjack, and we have to understand that. I think we’re like something of an avant-garde; we’re searching, investigating, seeding, asking questions, building, sowing hypotheses, casting doubt. What are other places about? Eating. There are different spaces, moments, situations, and you can’t apply the rules of one to the other, because it doesn’t make sense.

So Mugaritz is more about confronting received ideas about gastronomy or what a restaurant can be?

It’s a bit of everything. To begin with, you could see it as a kind of factory for ideas. It was like that too when I was at El Bulli. Everything went through Ferran’s filter, and in the end—it’s like when you speak English, you end up thinking in English, and we all end up speaking English. When you have a certain style, it will be passed on to others. A style can be the result of strong leadership, or it can be the product of a team that ends up coalescing; when you look at each other, you already know what the other’s thinking and you already know, more or less, how the thing will be resolved because you already know each other. That happens a lot here.

We have the good luck of having all these people who join us in this creativity, who bring in a breath of fresh air and a tremendous enthusiasm. But they also adapt, they conform to a style. It’s hard. When a place has a certain style, it’s like a dinosaur; it moves very little, and very slowly. Of course it changes, but it could also change more. I love that there are changes, but it moves at its own pace. Right now the team might be doing something in the kitchen and I have nothing to do with it, but it’s still Mugaritz. As in, it’s the Mugaritz style.

Do you think you’ll stay here and keep doing this? I’m thinking of Fäviken, for example, and Magnus Nilsson, who closed down because he wanted a complete break from everything.

It’s true that I ended up in a kind of old-school world, the world of cooking. But it’s also a paradox: Mugaritz is part of the avant-garde, but my thinking is traditional. It’s never occurred to me that I could step back from this job before I retire. This is my life, but it’s also my job. What else would I do? I don’t know how to do anything else. The other thing―and I insist on this point, which we talked about before―is that the entire project has almost been given over to my interests, or there’s been room for so many things to happen that I’ve dreamt of. 

With Magnus, or Gaggan Anand in Bangkok, these restaurants belong to a younger generation where they’ve done a decade-long cycle. They started in a world where the ascent is super vertiginous. They gained global success very quickly and went through a cycle―10 years exactly―and said, ‘That’s it, I love you all, I’m done’. 

And that hasn’t crossed your mind?

I don’t know, I have to make a living. I mean, you get together with someone, and you think it’ll last forever, but couples break up. Everyone has exes. What about ex-jobs? I don’t think any of those chefs—Magnus or Gaggan—imagined that it would only last 10 years. But there’s such a weight in that relationship—in this case, with the work. I don’t know, I just can’t even think about it. No way.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

How do you feel about the menu you’re about to finish?

Frustrated, like every year. If you’re a demanding person and non-conformist, you always suffer. Then you learn to reduce the tension, the pressure. We’re going to cook well, that’s not the problem. The menu will be good. Perhaps what people expect is to be told a story, to try something they’ve never seen before. And that’s extremely difficult because there are already so many amazing people doing amazing things.

Do you keep changing things up to the last moment?

Yeah, we keep changing, everything’s alive. When we start service we’re already changing things, and even the last day before closing you’ll still be changing things. In fact, that’s the curse, the myth of Sisyphus. No doubt our best service will be in the last week before closing, and then we’ll get rid of it all and never serve those dishes again. That’s the paradox.

Is it frustrating that—

Yes.

Andoni Luis Aduriz | Apartamento Magazine
Andoni Luis Aduriz | Apartamento Magazine
Andoni Luis Aduriz | Apartamento Magazine
Andoni Luis Aduriz | Apartamento Magazine
Andoni Luis Aduriz | Apartamento Magazine

Is it frustrating, and the answer is always yes?

No, I hope people appreciate it, whoever they might be. People come and judge the dishes in terms of, ‘It’s very good’, or ‘It’s OK’. But you can’t avoid that. The sooner you accept it, the better. The sooner you accept the complexity of life―once you learn that, you’ll only suffer the necessary. You might suffer, but you should still always set your own direction. There are people who think we’re a cult, I’m sure of it. There are people who’ve thrown up their hands—well-respected people—because after 25 years they can’t understand how we’re still around. There are people who think we’re the biggest crooks in the world, the biggest swindlers out there. And there are people who think we’re absolute geniuses, ahead of our time, that we’re pushing boundaries that’ll be recognised 100 years from now. All that coexists. 

The question is: how are you? Are you satisfied with what you’re doing? No, I’m never satisfied with what I’m doing. Would I like to push it further? Yes. But once I’ve got that out of my system, I can start to acknowledge that there’s always discomfort. Even if I’m a perfectionist and would like to do things better and think that everything could always be better, I have to admit that things are actually pretty amazing. In other words, what we do represents us. If that’s not the case, then you have a problem. Our work represents us, and it’s as imperfect as we are. 

In the end, the only good thing about time is that, as it goes by, it brings authority. If this had been all talk and nothing else, after 25 years people would’ve realised. That’s where I do get mad with certain people, reviews, that kind of thing. You can’t just pass over people. And you can’t measure people who are just starting out against people who’ve been around for ages. That isn’t fair. You have to let people grow.

Do you see a lot of young people now doing interesting things?

There are great professionals all around. Doing new things? There must be, surely. Things that are totally ground-breaking? Not that I know of―but because I don’t know, not because it’s not happening. I’m sure there are new people out there doing things, but the battle lines are global now. By which I mean, it’s not much use doing something amazing if you can’t get out in the world and tell people about it. There’s such intense competition that you either have to be very determined or very convinced of what you’re doing, and on top of that the results of your work have to be good. It’s not enough just to want something. 

It’s complicated; the circumstances have to be right. You have to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve seen a lot of people succeed more from being in the right place, and there are people who should’ve succeeded because of their work, but the timing wasn’t right. People are being much more reasonable now too. They’re creating life projects that are much more in line with reality, rather than fighting for something epic, trying to become a global reference. Maybe people just don’t want that.

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz

That goes back to what we were saying at the start; do you think it’s something you can even aim for?

Maybe you’d have to ask Elcano if he set out to become Elcano, the guy who first circumnavigated the world in his boat. I mean, first of all Magellan died on the voyage. He had no way of knowing what would come next and just said, ‘Well, I can’t go back, that’s a mess, I’ll just have to go forward’. So maybe we’re Elcano on a ship sailing around the world, but it wasn’t premeditated. And now people just wouldn’t go there, not for the love of God. I think people have a much more moderate idea of success in the profession today. It’s much more sensible.

That’s why I like giving talks for people who are early in their studies, because I like to bring it down to a human level. I tell them all of this, that I flunked out, that I’m a disgrace, because that’s also true, it’s part of reality. The problem is when you only see a biography or a CV or a bunch of awards, you think, ‘Why even bother?’ In other words, rather than motivating you, it discourages you, and that’s terrible. You leave the amphitheatre thinking, ‘Great, what a nice guy, so friendly, important. Now I’m going to bed, there’s a new series’.

‘I’m going to roll a joint’.

Exactly. People have to be given goals that they feel are attainable, feasible. When new people arrive for the season here, I always tell them the same thing: that the idea of success is bullshit. I ask them what they think it means, to them. It’s not Mugaritz. Success is when you manage to align what you do, the life you have, with the life that you wanted. That’s it. You might come through Mugaritz and then open a bar on the beach that doesn’t even have electricity to sell beers. Is that what you want? Then that’s success, forget the rest. Do you want to have the most famous restaurant in the world? If that’s genuine and it’s true for you, go for it. But if it’s what your parents want, or your partner, or your upstairs neighbour, or the local newspaper, it’s over. 

Apartamento Magazine - Andoni Luis Aduriz
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