Chef Josean Alija of Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao Tells us About His “Rebirth” and the Importance of ResearchApril 15, 2017
Fresh off delivering his highly awaited talk at Madrid Fusion, Josean Alija of one Michelin star Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao (currently no. 56 on the World’s 50 Best list) arrives at the interview room smiling, and shakes our hands. Having begun his culinary path at the tender age of seventeen, Alija carries a remarkable list of achievements under his belt—working in the kitchens of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, El Bulli, and receiving a number of prestigious awards that include Identità Golose‘ Best International Chef in 2009 and the International Academy of Gastronomy‘s Chef of the Future in 2011. All this, in the midst of a motorcycle accident in 2000 that left him in a coma for 21 days, and with his senses suspended upon awakening.
Alija has recovered ever since, and much of these experiences are reflected in his cuisine today. The Bilbao-born chef follows a philosophy that places importance on essence—the “soul” of an ingredient in its purest form— which is uncovered through research, an in-depth analysis that looks at its origins, uses, and properties to discover its potentials and its best qualities. The result: a minimalist style that takes simple ingredients and brings out the best of them—a refreshing sight in an era of stylistic excess in the world of gastronomy. We sit and chat with him about his philosophy, his “rebirth”, and his fascination for a traditional Filipino cooking tool.
Note: our interview was conducted with the help of an on-site translator, whose translation we are going by for this article. Pronouns have been altered back to the first grammatical person in our transcription below.
You talk about the essence of things—of getting to the root of things by doing research. Why is this important? It’s important because the more you know something, the more you can understand about it. If we’re talking about a product, the more I know about it . . . the better I can cook it. [There are] things that really move me or that raise my emotion, no matter how simple [they] may look, [and] we want to make whatever the essence of the product evident so that the person that eats it really enjoys it.
Where do you think the essence of a thing contained? Is it in its physical properties, or is it in the way it is used in day-to-day life? It’s in the message—a certain physicality that makes the product special.
What is the creative process like when you are conceptualizing a dish? First, we identify the product. Then we really study the product. Then we start working to study the whole thing. The creative part is [at] the end; [it’s] the last thing that we look at. So [we] really study the product first [and] get to know it very know it well. After [we inject the] creative part . . . then you have to work to make that idea a reality. But that is the most difficult part. So the idea has to be made into reality, but it has to be constant. You have to work on it really hard. One part of our job is very experimental and you need a lot of experience. And that has to be converted to efficiency.
How do you find the balance between staying true to the essence of the product and also being creative with how you treat it? It’s not too difficult. I document everything. [But] it’s a long process.
How long does the process take? There is no rule. It depends. Some are done in ten days, and others one or two years.
You had worked in El Bulli previously. Would you say that has influenced how you cook today? They teach you to think. They . . . [teach] you to construct. [But] you never copy recipes. They make their own recipes, and [that acts as a] guide. But you don’t copy recipes, you come up with your own. I learned that to materialize things is very complicated. . . . [But it also] awakened the motivation [for me] to create, and to learn to cook in your own style, and to enjoy the job that you’re doing.
You ran into a very unfortunate accident and had to relearn how to taste and smell; has that contributed to the way you look at food now? It has an influence. I had the luck of having been born twice and relearn things. [For people who know me], I have come back more sensible. My senses [have been heightened, while the urge] to do silly things has been moderated.
Are there any aspects of Philippine cuisine, e.g. Philippine ingredients, that fascinate you? There are many things. I love the smells, the odors, the climate, the diversity of the vegetables the Philippines has, and the work that goes behind all the fermentation. The fermentation sometimes is medicinal, but also at the same time gastronomical. [I envy how] you have a lot of things that we don’t [back in Spain]. And it’s too far for me to come back monthly to get some things.
Like what things, exactly? The things that you have here don’t reach me in Bilbao. [Like the] . . baterya? The thing for . . . (rubs palms together to demonstrate)
Oh, the tool for making hot chocolate? The batirol? Yes, that one.