Most conversations with chefs turn quickly to food, or their restaurants. But during a walk along the High Line yesterday with Andoni Luis Aduriz, the man behind Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, the chef wanted to discuss the effect of war on humans. “Normal people kill children, neighbors take each other’s eyes out,” he said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “The context turns them into monsters. If a person in a specific context can become desensitized, then why can’t we create a space where people can become more sensitive?”
Last week, Mugaritz ranked third in the annual S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants awards. The restaurant also has two Michelin stars. Using modern techniques to create a cuisine he calls “techno-emotional,” Aduriz creates food that defies preconceptions. That beef carpaccio is actually watermelon. That stone, served with garlic aioli, is a potato.
With the release of his newest book, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking later this month, he invites the world behind the scenes of his restaurant-cum-science lab. You may not have an immersion circulator, or keep natural black carbonized vegetable dye in your pantry or leafy goosefoot shoots in the vegetable drawer, but Aduriz believes the text and 70 recipes will be an inspiration to anyone who is curious.
“Today, there are programs on television that teach you how to construct an airplane, build a building,” he said. “In gastronomy, the same thing happens with the audience. They want to know how we do the things we do.”
Aduriz, 40, grew up in the city of San Sebastian, and turned to cooking after discovering that traditional school didn’t interest him. He spent two years at Ferran Adrià’s famed elBulli and later found space for his own restaurant in his hometown’s surrounding hills.
Mugaritz opened its doors in 1998 when Aduriz was only 27. No one came. Bored, the young chef made his way out into the green hills to poke around.
In Mugaritz, he recounts how “suddenly the continuous expanse of green began to offer up shapes and hues that until then had been invisible to us … we began to gather a few leaves and sprigs of herbs.” And so began his era of exploration.
Aduriz worked with botanists to determine if certain herbs and grasses surrounding the restaurant were edible. One resulting dish, “Flowers, Flowers, Flowers,” calls for petals from twelve different kinds of flowers, piled on top of fried artichoke. Another, “Roasted and raw vegetables, wild and cultivated shoots and leaves,” consists of hundreds — literally, hundreds — of leaves, herbs, and vegetables, served with “cheese juice.” Some of the plants and herbs he included in the dish were bitter. But it got to the heart of Aduriz’s aims: to have diner’s question assumptions, and always be curious.
“There was a key moment in the evolution of Mugaritz when we realized that we were serving certain things that, objectively, weren’t ‘good,’ but which had great emotional power,” he writes in the book. “What it comes down to is: You don’t have to like something for you to enjoy it. Pleasure is not only found in the mouth … In the end, it isn’t only about eating; it’s also about discovering.”
On the High Line, as tourists snapped pictures of each other against a backdrop of the Hudson River, Aduriz honed in on the abandoned train tracks that snaked their way between swaths of green. He marveled at how the manmade and natural world morphed into one, likening it to Mugaritz.
“When people come to the restaurant, they see that it’s a place where humans have intervened with nature,” he said.
Then, in true philosopher-chef fashion, he went on a slightly grand tangent: “You see a forest and you think it’s a natural forest, but it’s not always that way,” he mused. “It could be planted, or cultivated, or maintained for various reasons. If you exchange a natural forest for a forest of buildings, you get New York.”
Later on, Aduriz attended a screening at Lincoln Center of the documentary he made with musician Felipe Ugarte, Mugaritz BSO. It follows Ugarte on a three-year journey as he travels the world to research and compose music inspired by a handful of Aduriz’s dishes. (Think: the song of the liquefied cheese, written for guitar.)
When the lights fell and the film started, it appeared to be running in slow motion. The sound was languid, Aduriz’s speech low and drawn out. Is this on purpose?, a few audience members muttered to each other, All part of some grand plan? Everyone watched the screen intently as Aduriz fed Ugarte what appeared to be an unshelled walnut, very slowly. Ugarte easily bit through the shell, and, in a protracted, almost comical few seconds, his face morphed into a huge, surprised grin. Then the film flickered, the lights came on and someone announced, “We’re having a problem with the sound.”