Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz at the market in Ordizia. Fresh scorpion fish are purchased directly from the boats in Ondarroa, thirty miles west of San Sebastián.
Photog raphs by
e h T
RESTAURANT IN THE IS ON A
Andoni Luis Aduriz lives and cooks in a quiet corner of Spain, above the postcard beaches of San Sebastián. He has developed, in his renowned restaurant, M u g a r i t z , a dining experience unlike any other—as much about food as immersion into the simple, thoughtful, self-effacing temperament of his homeland, the Basque Country. In their efforts to build a food commune on a hill, Aduriz and his team just happened to have also built the finest place to eat on earth by
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M i c h a e l P at e r n i t i
THEY CAME TO the mountain
Three times a week, the chefs head to the coast to visit the fishing boats. Here, red mullet from the harbor with “almonds and bread.”
In 1998, Andoni and the staff moved from the city to the mountain to be nearer the plants. A chef picks herbs from the vast garden that carpets the grounds.
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to ﬁnd the stone—and indeed it took many years. After discovering it, they tested it, and talked about it, and ﬁlled a white bowl with gray moondust, nestling it carefully inside. They thought that perhaps the stone was the summation of everything they stood for in that moment, everything to which they’d aspired. Now a man in a black tunic shirt is carrying that stone, in its white bowl, across the dining room to your table at a restaurant called Mugaritz, on a hilltop in Spain’s Basque Country. Other diners sit nearby, hovering over their food. But you sit alone, in November, with a man bringing you a stone set in moondust. Back in the kitchen is a chef named Andoni, who will later say in that unassuming, almost apologetic way of his, “We know we demand a lot when you come to eat here. We ask you to imagine and remember, to give up your prejudices. Perhaps it begins with the tendon, or the ash, or the bones.” But right now, ﬁrstly, it’s the stone, sitting there on the table before you. And it really is a stone, some sort of lunar rock, gray and white, pocked and freckled with black spots, bearing a purplish sheen. “Eat it,” says the tunicked man, then vanishes. Seriously? You pick it up. The stone is heavy in the hand—and warm to the touch. You brush a ﬁnger over it (smooth), tap a ﬁngernail on its surface (hard). It comes down to a ﬂeeting mind-puzzle: Is it or isn’t it? So—lift the stone to your lips, the tip of your tongue picking up the faintest trace of salt. The outer skin, at ﬁrst,
isn’t quick to give. So it really is. But when you work up the nerve to chomp down, when your incisors really guillotine that sucker, the surface cracks, and then everything goes soft and a little steamy. Exactly what you weren’t expecting— tender meat turning to sweet mush. For you instantly realize that’s what it is: a potato. Like this, the perfect tuber, painted with kaolin paste and glazed at low heat, has forced you to cross your ﬁrst border at Mugaritz. Welcome. Plate by plate, for the next three hours, you will be asked to cross many more borders, to climb the mountain above you and descend to the ocean below. Says the chef: “The taste of the edible stone matters less than those ﬁve seconds you spend in suspension, wondering if you’re really about to eat a stone—and what that will taste like. Yes, it’s a sort of dare: Are you willing to come with us? If you aren’t, then our failure is guaranteed.” And if so? “It may sound crazy,” says Andoni (and at ﬁrst, it does), “but we want to change the world, even if the script is written that we won’t.”
THERE ARE TWO ways to get to Mugaritz, one physical, the other ontological. You start on a broad city avenue from your hotel in San Sebastián to the autopista that skirts the Atlantic Ocean as you drive toward the French border—then veer o≠ on a winding country road to the interior, climbing the rugged Basque mountains. There’s an almost Irish lushness here, the weather as unpredictable as a wild animal: rain, hail, ﬂurries, sometimes in the space of an afternoon. The sky shifts with dark clouds and blue patches. The light goes from full and golden, pouring over the slopes, igniting the ﬂowers, to an obscuring kind of death-knell gray. Mugaritz was founded in 1998 by Andoni—whose full name is Andoni Luis Aduriz— and his original band of a
dozen or so collaborators. The restaurant is perched in the village of Errenteria, four miles inland. The stone driveway leads to a parking lot that opens on a sloped meadow of cows and hay. The restaurant is housed in a renovated farmhouse with a red-tile roof, its walls and wood timbers buried beneath climbing glossy-green ivy. From the parking lot, the kitchen appears through panes of glass: bright and warm, its lights hanging like silver bells, a little smaller than one would imagine, but at the same time airy and modern and abuzz. In the world of haute cuisine these days, the kitchens of such Michelin multiple-starred restaurants as Mugaritz, as well as those of steampunk upstarts looking for their ﬁrst star, have become the crucible for a certain war between faux and haute, fu≠-and-noise and authenticity, between extreme dictatorships and imperfect oligarchies, between plates served with miniaturized a≠ectations delivered in designy settings and true artistry exercised in such a way that both challenges our sensibilities and redeﬁnes food, making it unforgettable. The question one must ask on the threshold of any such restaurant is: What, now, are we in for, disappointment or transcendence? The latter, of course, is our hope, for why else would you put yourself in the hands of complete, sometimes less-
A cook prepares the “Tower of Sins”—seven different chocolate bonbons served in stacked wooden bowls, like the Tower of Babel.
than-stable strangers to serve you a $400 meal? Through the kitchen windows, there’s a minuet in progress. The Mugaritzians tick and tock as one, dressed in their whites. People are smiling in there (not a guarantee in every haute kitchen); people are chatting. Says Andoni, “We serve 1,000 total dishes a night”—roughly two dozen per diner—“so we have to make sure we’re ready. We count out everything, and we taste. Everything is controlled, for no failure. That’s healthy. When we receive people, the kitchen becomes a theater, thirty-ﬁve chefs working at the same time as they talk. It’s a contagious moment of happiness.” Perhaps the source of such happiness also resides in the imperative that has guided the Mugaritzians from the start: constant, relentless re-creation. At some profound level, it goes beyond being “great” or even “the greatest,” which is one tacit goal at Mugaritz. It comes down to the health of the commune. For instance, the Mugaritzians began last season with sixtyeight new dishes, contributed by almost everyone in the kitchen. There was smoked-lobster toast and “a salad in soup,” something called “the cow and the grass,” and a pig tail with squash. Each had to justify itself. Each ran a strenuous gauntlet of taste test after taste test. But the standard—and dynamic—by which the dishes are mediated here is di≠erent from those in most kitchens. Firstly, there’s Andoni’s holographic presence. Rather than fuming, raging, or assuming the pose of megalomaniacal celebrity chef who must leave his signature on every molecular morsel, he
disappears into his kitchen. He allows for conversation and consensus. He listens—to Oswaldo, who develops recipes; to Dani, who’s been there from the start; to Javier, who scours markets and ﬁshing ports for product. Good ideas ﬂow from everywhere—the gardener, the mushroom hunter, even the dishwasher—because ideas are valued di≠erently here.
Recently the Mugaritzians studied years of letters and e-mails sent by customers. The restaurant gave these to a group of neurolinguists to run metrics on. (Metrics is something the Mugaritzians are particularly interested in.) If someone wrote, “The setting was fantastic,” they ﬁled it under setting. If someone else wrote, “My heart soared,” they ﬁled it under
The dining room features just seventeen tables, each draped with a stone-colored cloth. Each guest is invited back to the kitchen to speak with the chefs.
Mugaritz closes each winter to re-imagine its menu. In a given year, chefs will create a hundred new dishes, like this one: “ice shreds and scarlet shrimp perfume.”
emotion. By the time they were done cataloging, they concluded that taste ranked thirteenth in importance to people’s experiences at the restaurant. First was the event (the arrival, the greeting, the social aspect of the meal itself ); then came memory and emotion, and so on. This didn’t surprise the Mugaritzians as much as it did
CHILDREN O F Ferran
Andoni Luis Aduriz is among the best-known heirs to the Spanish culinary revolution that began in the laboratory of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli. Here, some other young stars. —CHRIS COHEN
1. ELENA ARZAK Arzak (Spain)
Her three-star joint has been in the family for a hundred years. 5. GRANT ACHATZ Alinea, Next (U.S.A.)
Our foremost molecular gastronomist.
2. JOSÉ ANDRÉS Minibar, Jaleo (U.S.A.)
The alpha and omega of the D.C. eating scene. 6. KATIE BUTTON Cúrate (U.S.A.)
Serves traditional Spanish food as the tapas queen of Asheville, N.C.
3. KEN ORINGER Clio, Toro (U.S.A.)
Just expanded his acclaimed Boston empire to New York City. 7. JOAN ROCA El Celler de Can Roca (Spain)
Helms San Pellegrino’s new No. 1 restaurant.
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4. QUIQUE DACOSTA Quique Dacosta (Spain)
A locavore to the extreme.
8. RENÉ REDZEPI Noma (Denmark)
The high priest of new-Nordic foraged edible moss.
the trigger. What happens after belongs to the individual, sitting out in their dining room. As the stage for this internal drama, the dining room itself is an interesting mix of science lab and auberge. A bright light beams on each table, spotlighting dishes like “slices of monkﬁsh cooked with steam of its bones,” or “loin of milk-fed lamb in a ragout of its brains,” or “chippings of pu≠ed lamb,” often delivered by a waiter with a mischievous smile, uttering a simple command for how to eat the food. Between tables— there are seventeen total here— are white cloth dividers, adding a sense of the confessional. The walls are ﬁnished in roughhewn wood paneling that lends a warm, open feel. And the dishes—with those names that might seem gimmicky or produce an elaborate letdown at other high-high-end places—are not just subversive but strangely comforting, given that you’re eating brain ragout and pu≠ed lamb, whatever that is. In the garden out the window is the real Mugaritz, the huge oak tree seemingly from a children’s book. “Our haritza (oak in Basque),” reads the restaurant’s website, “is strategically situated beside the line dividing [the towns of ] Errenteria and Astigarraga. Thus, this tree delimitates the muga (frontier) between both towns. Muga eta haritza. Mugaritz.” The tree springs ﬁve stories, fully ﬂowering with leaves, then skeletal when fall comes. The outbuilding—a comfy retreat, ten steps from the front door, that they call “the shed”—has its own bar and sitting area, with couches. In nice weather, people might take courses, or dessert, on the patio. “While you’re here,” says Andoni, “this is meant to be your home, too.” And so people have gladly treated it as such. You can mix up the menu, if you want. Request a ham sandwich, if you need. Switch out the oysters if you have a shellﬁsh allergy. (Unlike most high kitchens, this one relishes the challenge.) One couple, unbeknownst to anyone at the restaurant, got married in the shed before coming in to
eat their meal as if nothing had happened. Another, there long after midnight, ended up in the same shed, making love. A waiter walked in, then walked out again. “We just let them have their moment,” says Andoni. “Okay, it was extreme—but if that’s what the food inspired, so be it. We’re committed to compromise, afraid of the ridiculous, and don’t want to fail. And we’re willing to try anything—anything at all—at least once, especially if you are.”
ANDONI HAS PALE, almost translucent hands and thin forearms with neatly rolled shirtsleeves to his elbows. His hair is ginger brown—and he possesses dark, quickroaming eyes and a thin upper lip curtained these days by a mustache with its own sprinkles of gray. He talks about the di≠erence between being 27 and 42, which he is now, and how the body changes, the string bean ﬁlls out, the ripped Bad Brains T-shirt no longer ﬁts. A favorite pair of pants he wore for many years and depended upon—they were part of his identity—failed to grow with his body. In all of its duality, energetic oxymoron, and contradictory forward motion, Mugaritz has been celebrated not just by swooning customers but by colleagues and critics. Ferran Adrià, arguably the best chef of the past twenty-ﬁve years, has called Andoni one of the planet’s two great chefs, the
B OT TO M L E F T, A D R I À : G R EG O R I O F U LG I N ITI/ D E M OTIX /CO R B I S . 1) PA B LO B L A ZQ U E Z D O M I N G U E Z / W I R E I M AG E /G E T T Y I M AG E S . 2 ) N A N C Y K A S Z E R M A N / Z U M A P R E S S /C O R B I S . 3 ) PAU L M A R OT TA /G E T T Y I M AG E S F O R R H . 4) X AU M E O L L E R O S /G E T T Y I M AG E S . 5 ) J A S O N D E C R OW/A P P H OTO . 6 ) C O U R T E S Y O F J O H N WA R N E R . 7 ) M I Q U E L B E N I T E Z /G E T T Y I M AG E S . 8 ) J AV I E R E T X E Z A R R E TA / E PA /C O R B I S .
the rest of the culinary world. In fact, one of Andoni’s most famous remarks came at a food conference some years back, when he said that taste, the ﬁxation of so many ﬁne chefs, shouldn’t matter so much, after all. “You can’t serve bad food,” he says, “but you can serve surprising food, with unexpected textures and temperatures. You can shift the context.” It conﬁrmed some of what the Mugaritzians had assumed for years, and also reframed what they were working to create: a sensual encounter, freed from taste tyranny, as a portal to something much deeper, if ine≠able—the place where taste meets imagination. In fact, the Mugaritzians seemed to have assumed a long time ago that food is merely
other being Ferran’s brother, Albert. In recent years, he’s won the Chefs’ Choice Award (most prestigious because it’s picked by all the other famous chefs in the ﬁeld) and the International Eckart Witzigmann Prize (joining names like Ferran and Günter Grass, for bringing new ideas and philosophy to cuisine), while Mugaritz has risen to the top ﬁve of the vaunted San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Andoni even had to learn to tie a bow tie for a gala celebrating chef Alain Ducasse at the Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. (“I watched ten YouTube videos,” he says.) But for a man so sensitive, there’s been a cost in becoming such a public ﬁgure. “When I’m stressed,” says Andoni, “I throw out my back and hobble around like a hunchback. Maybe it’s more love/hate, pleasure/pain. Before an event, I’m a mess. I mean, we Basques are a little reserved and private. Afterwards I’m completely adrenalized. But I do believe we need to teach other people about our principles at Mugaritz.” Behind rectangular glasses that make him seem a little bookish—which he both is and isn’t—Andoni remembers that he was “a bad boy” at school, unable to learn in a sit-and-drill sort of way. He transferred to culinary school at age 14 but still struggled at ﬁrst. He listened to punk music and found himself protesting, supporting separatism, like a lot of his generation at the time in Basque Country. When it came to food, he ate in the same manner as all kids, or at least that’s what he thought. Though his family was of humble means, his mother shopped each day and prepared dinner in the kitchen. She was constantly pointing out little
Cheeses at the market in Ordizia. The menu is a product of the Basque Country, an ancient region bordering the Atlantic and France.
things: The squid is done when the aroma of its ink changes. Andoni was receiving his own daily tutorial, it turns out—not anything like other kids, in fact. And with each dish, his mother was imparting not just useful food knowledge but Basque history—and its stories—as something to ingest and gain strength from, as something protean. “I remember going with my mother to shop for tuna, our traditional ﬁsh,” says Andoni. “She didn’t have the money to buy the ﬁllet, and she didn’t want it, anyway.” After all, this was a woman who had lived through what’s sometimes called “the hunger years” in Spain—the period of shortages, during and after the civil war, when it’s estimated that up to 200,000 died. “She wanted the ﬁsh tail, the part that would otherwise be thrown away, because it contains gelatin, which is the key to stews and sauces. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in retrospect I realize just how special this knowledge was.” Meanwhile, when he was 16, the ﬁrst lightning bolt struck. Paging through a magazine on experimental cuisine, he was entranced, realizing the whole cosmos was right there, in the food. He went from working in a pizza parlor to catering and then found himself, like so many culinary aspirants, in Ferran Adrià’s kitchen at El Bulli, from 1993 to 1995, peeling clementines, dicing daikon radish, infusing desserts. “The ﬁrst idea that my generation faced, that Ferran gave us,” says Andoni, “is cuisine without constraints, no preconceived idea, no untouchable thought. It’s ‘author’s food,’ someone projecting themselves onto the plate. Ferran was the best example, all technique and explosion, surprise and sparkle. A word to describe him would be Mediterranean.” But then, Andoni sees the work at Mugaritz as a departure, too. “In Basque Country we have gray weather, more prejudices, more self-restraint,” he says. (continued on page 208)
Roasted garlic in its near natural state—perhaps the most ordinary-looking food in the kitchen.
Fried pieces of stretched beef tendon are balanced on thorny branches, with a black “ash” dipping sauce made of honey mead and egg yolk.
T HE WORL D’S M OST A DV E NT U RO U S R ESTAURA N T
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“We’re more austere, and our sense of belonging to this environment is very much present. And maybe these give rise to two historical Basque characteristics: (1) simplicity and (2) the acceptance of the unforeseeable or unexpected.” When Andoni left El Bulli to return to San Sebastián, he worked at the three-starred restaurant Martín Berasategui, then opened a cake shop. And yet he continued to dream of an environment in which he might best create in that unfettered way he’d witnessed at El Bulli. When an old farmhouse became available up in the mountains of Errenteria, he pounced on it and, with his merry band, began plans and renovations. There was much to be done, not the least of which was the self-education the Mugaritzians undertook, for they’d moved to the mountain, in part, to be nearer the ﬂowers and weeds and tree bark—because they had a hunch about using these ingredients in their cuisine. “We were all city people,” says Andoni, “but the country gave us space and time to think. We’d walk the mountain, pick a ﬂower or weed, and just eat it. To see if we could. We’d buy a pumpkin and eat every part of it, even the stem.” They moved to the mountain to be nearer the geese, as well, and the woman, Olga, who raised the geese, for she spoke to them and played classical music for them. They simply felt simpatico with the ideas that came from the goose lady, as well as from the mushroom hunter and the shepherd and the gardener they soon met, too, all of these encounters expanding their own vision of what-could-be. But when Mugaritz opened its doors in the spring of 1998, no one came. “We had the audacity to require reservations,” says Andoni, laughing. “The only guy who showed up was a lost bicyclist who walked into the dining room in bike shoes.” The ﬁrst years were lean and the menu quickly adjusted for survival—serving tortillas and gambas a la plancha. But it was Andoni’s ceaseless energy and optimism, the eighteen-hour days, the sense of collective investment and communal intention, that drove the restaurant, or what the Mugaritzians came to call “the project.” Even after those ﬁrst, anticlimactic days when spirits sagged at the empty restaurant, Andoni gathered everyone in the shed. “It may not seem like it now,” he told them, “but one day this is going to be the best restaurant in the world.” And slowly the people started to come. With their increased knowledge of their surroundings, the Mugaritzians transmogriﬁed the menu. They found the perfect pig tail and served it with that squash. They experimented with ash and bones. They started believing blasphemous, heretofore-unexplored things that, in their experience, were borne out as 208
truisms. (Taste matters less. Food needs a story. Our biology rejects new food, so people must be tricked. Blur all lines between the main protein, garnishes, and sauce, etc.) And all the while, they remained absolutely alert and curious, open to the accident, unafraid of the screwup, inviting the paradox. Even Andoni o≠ers his own dichotomy: His possession of this dogged, sort of messianic faith stands opposite to the way he presents himself, even today, after all the acclaim, for he might be the most self-e≠acing worldfamous chef of our times, disappearing constantly into the food, the plate, the idea it articulates. If he’s soft-spoken, he’s also articulate and personable, with a way of revealing his truths through illustrations, anecdotes, and koans, often boiled down to single lines. You have to rethink your commandments. And: In all the lights of Ginza, why is your eye drawn to the sole dark building? Or: Eating an egg is not the same thing as eating an egg that has a story behind it. When he’s not in chef’s clothes—in the market, or wandering a seaside town in search of ﬁsh—you might almost lose track of him altogether. He fades in a crowd. In the kitchen, he’s a≠able, approachable. He pats a back, clasps a shoulder. He says hi to everyone, whatever their station, and remembers their vitals. “Am I making your life easier?” says Andoni. “That’s what I ask of the people I work with—and of those who come here to eat. We’re 50 percent exactly who we are and 50 percent shaped by our environment. Everyone needs this encouragement to do more than we think we can.” But even in this act of othering, he can be vulnerable. At dinner one night at a local restaurant, I watched him fret with one of his colleagues over one of the gardeners at Mugaritz in a way I’m sure no other celebrated chef has ever worried over a gardener. “He’s been with us twelve years, but I still can’t tell what he thinks of us. Is he part of our family, or does he just like to come and garden?” said Andoni. “Either way is ﬁne,” he quickly added. “It’s the not knowing that’s hard. Does he even like us? I mean: I hope so.” • • • light and airy, like all macarons. Only better. Before that ﬁrst November meal, the Mugaritzians invite you to the kitchen to try one. “It’s very easy to eat and savor and enjoy,” says Andoni, “because you mostly know the macaron, its ﬂavors and textures. Before eating, we ask whether you have any allergies, or if there’s something you like or dislike. Usually people say, ‘I like everything,’ and they enjoy it, this macaron of ours. As they eat, we begin to explain that this isn’t a traditional macaron. A macaron is normally made with egg white. You whisk in the egg whites, you add hot syrup to cook the eggs, then add almond powder and sugar. Then you bake it. That’s the basic meringue of a macaron. But what we’ve done is replace the egg white, because we found that one of the proteins contained in the egg white is similar to one found in pig’s blood, and they work very much in the same way. If you whisk raw blood, you obtain a thick, red, beautiful meringue. You add sugar and almond and you’ve got a blood macaron.” This would be much more shocking in a pastry-shop window with a big sign over it THE MACARON IS
T H E W O R L D ’ S M O S T A D V E N T U R O U S R E S TA U R A N T C O N T I N U E D
reading pig blood treats—or even smack dab in the moment, back in the kitchen at Mugaritz—if the acculturation hadn’t already begun, if you weren’t being guided into the wonderful-horrible world of pig-blood macaron, encouraged and nurtured by it. “If you talk about blood in our Basque culture,” says Andoni, “you don’t talk about blood itself. You talk about black pudding or blood sausage. That is very, very deep in our culture.” When his niece, a former lover of black pudding and sausage, found out that both were made with “raw, thick blood,” she lost her appetite permanently for the food. “But we’re talking about culture, not taste,” says Andoni. “You can enjoy something without being conscious of what you’re eating, but once you know, you either choose to enjoy it or the opposite. This is how we begin to work with prejudice. Our macaron is made with pig blood, almond, and sugar. When you bake the blood with sugar and almond, the blood ﬂavor disappears. And the color transforms to that darker, chocolate-like color. It’s then ﬁlled with a game-bird cream. So you believe you’re being o≠ered chocolate and all that connotes. And we let you enjoy it for a few minutes or so. But after, we tell the story of this particular macaron…and then, well, okay. We’re inviting you to overcome your prejudices, because we know that alone, you might not be able to do it. So sometimes we are here as tutors, you know, to help you begin to overcome some of these ideas. “In fact, at Mugaritz, it’s our obligation to transform ourselves, too, to leave our comfort zones, because that’s what we’re asking of you—and someone needs to walk you there.” • • • the cataclysm of re-creation more intimately than they might care to, owing to a disaster that almost ended the restaurant. And yet the infamous day is part of their history, too—and their newfound freedom. The moment came in February of 2010, in the early-morning hours shortly after Valentine’s Day. Monday was an o≠ day, and Andoni was asleep at his house twenty minutes away, with his family—his boy and wife— when he was awoken by a call from Dani. “What’s this?” he said. And he threw on his clothes and left in such a rush he forgot his glasses, driving with a hand over one eye in hopes of not running o≠ the road. When he arrived, ﬂames were licking the windows, and he could see through the kitchen walls, and the roof was being eaten by ﬁre, and he had a thought: There it is, every plate and piece of silverware, every bowl and glass—all the years of meetings, e-mails, trips, and prototypes—all of it gone. Just like that. You go home with your world in perfect order, and a few hours later it’s being devoured by a monster. Andoni remembers having another crystalline thought: Every day I look at this or that element of the restaurant, thinking, I hate it. I love it. It’s beautiful. I don’t even pay attention to it. “But it was part of another 500 details that we’d worked out over a dozen years,” he says. “Every single one of them— this shelf, the books, the chairs—everything had its purpose. And had been put there just so.” He saw two ﬁre trucks soaking the building with water, and he thought, Everything’s THE MUGARITZIANS KNOW
gone to hell now. And then he saw the naked man streaking across the lawn while two ﬁremen axed down a door. The naked man was one of the cooks, who lived upstairs. With Monday o≠, he’d gone down to San Sebastián and gotten loaded. All he wanted to do now was sleep, and he’d struggled with the police who woke him and removed him from his room, ﬁghting them to get back to his bed. When they’d turned him out once and for all, he went zagging for the woods, to sleep there—at which point a few of the Mugaritzians gave chase (no one was going to die from the ﬁre now, but this guy was going to end up in the river or frozen solid) and got him bundled into someone’s car, where he was soon snoring away. For Andoni, it was like a movie where the depressing moment never hits because you’re actually worried about the naked guy and the guy breaking down your door. Of course, there was a despairing thought: Is this the end of Mugaritz? And this thought was neutralized by one more overpowering: There is no Plan B. Standing there watching the ﬁre, he already knew. He went home—and to bed. Went through the next day’s appointments. Saw the physical therapist for his bad back, and the therapist asked, “How’s it going?” “Fine,” said Andoni. “You don’t seem so convinced.” “Well, my restaurant burned down.” Even his wife hadn’t understood the severity of what had happened when he’d crawled back into bed. The electrical ﬁre took more than two hours to subdue. It melted the metal microtome in the kitchen, leaving a disﬁgured lump, and devoured the wood, while the smoke contaminated the dining room. The images were broadcast on that evening’s news, and the restaurant, with its international stature, received an outpouring of encouragement from around the world. “There are three big emotional moments from my life,” he says. “My father’s death, the birth of my son, and the burning down of Mugaritz.” But for Andoni, it was akin to someone in your family having an accident, and you being suddenly possessed with this huge surge of adrenaline and extra strength. That’s what happened. That next day even, the Mugaritzians, led by their chef, were meeting to plot the rebuilding and reopening of the restaurant. There would have to be a newly designed kitchen, new plates and cutlery, a reconceived dining room, called-in reinforcements. Everything, all over again, but a little di≠erent. They made drawings, contacted suppliers. They ticked and tocked as one. Four months later, they hosted their ﬁrst guests—a seemingly impossible task. There was still much to be done, and looking back, the process was very long and slow and di∞cult. But what makes Andoni proud even today is the reﬂex, the horse kick back at fate. No, we write the script on this mountain. After they’d come that close to losing it all, their philosophy shifted. “If because of our own prejudices we did not give you what you deserve,” he says, “then it would be our loss, too. So we let ourselves be exactly who we were from the beginning—we found ourselves again—and from that moment everything changed again once more.”
with its stonecolored cloth, on a midafternoon in November, the meal starts with an envelope bearing an urgent bright-red wax seal, as if delivered here by the queen’s footman, to be devoured by candle ﬂame after reading. A wooden envelope opener is set above it on the table, a dental-tool butter knife to the right, a silver inkwell of butter substance nearby. Inside, the letter reads, “Satiation eludes / Bread and olives.” Then the waiter happily adds, “Eat the paper,” and retreats. The idea of eating paper is, of course, a ﬂashback to childhood, when you were maybe willing to suck on Play-Doh or wet sand, munch a Milk-Bone, pop a fresh booger in your mouth. It evokes that weird abandon. Butter it—and the paper tastes a little like the Host at Catholic Mass (intentional? political? an auguring? the body and blood of Mugaritz…), a little cardboardy at ﬁrst, the tongue and teeth working on sharpish shards. But then everything suddenly melts into a thick olive cream and disappears. (After all, this is not a facsimile but a foodsimile of paper.) Next comes “carrots and their smeared ﬂowers.” And this is an exercise in the timehonored Basque-Mugaritzian quest for simplicity: eating two or three ingredients, in season, the three baby carrots (but even babier than that; Lilliputian…tiny!) set on a block of wood with a little salt and a thick, orangey jus made of carrot-juice cream and a few carrot ﬂowers on top to devour. If Andoni is reminding you that sometimes taste really does matter, it’s right here, in the curation and nascent essence of carrot, in the miniature bittersweet devastation of taproot pulled from the Basque earth so ahead of its time that it’s ahead of its culinary time, too. (“We’ve taught the farmers that they don’t always make their money by the pound,” says Andoni. “We’ll pay a lot for these carrots, but it was hard at ﬁrst for them to pull them up as early as we wanted. They were operating on the old model.”) Next comes grilled toast of bone marrow with herbs and horseradish ash, a dish you might suppose to be di∞cult—that would perhaps put you face-to-face with some intimation of mortality—but then, it tastes so strange, sweet, and illicit, with that radishy ﬂare at the end, that you inhale it with abandon before realizing how quickly it’s vanished! And there’s another gorgeous miniaturized vegetable event, this time mushrooms—chanterelles, to be speciﬁc—clustered and sprinkled with Vietnamese coriander, the softness of tuber, these tiny heads with ﬂower petals, colliding with the small nutty rocks of spice, but then deep-fried beneath for a satisfying crunch at the end. This opening ﬂight of dishes—including a cockle in a dough crust to mimic its shell, an oyster with homemade honey mead, a surreal, strawlike tagliatelle in “silky juice of roasted tomato and squash,” and a hazelnut-andbean stew in which the hazelnuts deliciously pose as beans, bicuspids cradling them perfectly until with pressure they explode—is about texture and unexpected ﬂoods of rich consommé and aroma that overwhelm the palate. And when you get to the duck-tongue salad (roasted and dark, crispy and salted), you can’t quite tell what to make of that little B A C K AT T H E TA B L E ,
tongue-tower of Babel accompanied by spinach shoots. Is this a joke, the silence of the quacking? Or maybe not a joke, maybe something a little macabre. If you really think about the duck-tongue salad, you’re contemplating the essence of Mugaritz again, these gestures to the possibility of what food might be, the duck tongue as bacon perhaps, a concentration of saltiness and sweet fat that is more duck than duck. In fact, in Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking, there’s a recipe for the dish so one can prepare it at home, as if we all might be clamoring. (“Remove the cooked tongues from the bags,” reads the recipe, “and remove the cartilage that runs down their centres. Cover them with olive oil.…”) Andoni remembers another dish, from near the beginning, that resonated in this way for the Mugaritzians. “It was a big plate, very hot. In the center was a hollow in which soup was poured,” he says. “When it was presented at the table, we said, ‘You’re about to eat a cold crab soup. Please be careful, the edges of the dish are very hot.’ Then we would pour it. And it was magical, because many times people would grab the spoon, take the soup, and blow on it, trying to cool it down, though they’d just been told it was cold. “So the ﬁrst spoonful was of a very cold soup. Second spoonful: not so cold, warmed by dish. Third spoon: room temperature. Last spoon: warm. Who can appreciate this? Well, only someone who’s paying close attention, because the nuances are so subtle that unless you’re paying attention, you’re not going to realize it’s happening. This soup was good, maybe not. But the e≠ect was amazing. This world, the world of high-end gastronomy, is used to pornography. So if it needs to be shocking, it needs to be very shocking. But this was only shocking if you were paying attention.” No—both the duck tongues and the cold soup, one realizes, are more than a frivolity or even a fetish. They’re as important as Andoni’s edible stone or the tuna pulled from the sea by the hallowed Basque ﬁshermen. If the dish gives pause, so much the better. Let the Mugaritzians provoke anger and acquiescence, love and hate. Let them take your prejudice and make of it something productive, consuming, encompassing. If you’re capable of empathy and expansion and a higher communal life, if you care what the gardener thinks of you and are knit to others by the decision of where you gather and what goes into your body, what passes through your head as thought, what makes your heart beat, then, yes, sit at this table on the mountaintop, in the nation-state of Mugaritz, as the next dish arrives, and let the food provoke it. • • • O N E D A Y — in
summer this time—Andoni took me on a ride down to the sea, a drive he’s made many times before. And yet his delight at being out of the kitchen on a sunny day was infectious. We stopped at the 500-year-old market in Ordizia, where other Mugaritzians could be spotted hurrying some of the abundance to their van, and then we carried on to a restaurant named Elkano, run by the Arregui family, that he described as “the highest of all cuisine.” APRIL
T H E W O R L D ’ S M O S T A D V E N T U R O U S R E S TA U R A N T C O N T I N U E D
The greeting was warm, the wineglasses ﬁlled. The ﬁrst plate arrived, containing three pieces of squid, and Andoni said, “Just squid— and the spice is the type of charcoal it was barbecued on.” The restaurant had been here for nearly ﬁfty years, started by the father, Pedro, and the grill ran along the outside of the restaurant. Everything was cooked in the open air. It couldn’t have been simpler—and yet even in this, Pedro had experimented with how far the concept could be pushed. In the ’60s, he’d taken to grilling the whole ﬁsh in its skin, so that the skin became an essential part of the culinary experience. “Maximum respect to the raw material and seasonability of the elements” was how his method was characterized on the restaurant’s website. Pedro’s son, Aitor, a pro soccer player, brought grilled turbot on a platter, the whole ﬁsh, and carefully portioned the ﬁllet to each plate. We ate happily until Aitor came back. Normally, for most, this would have been the end of it, the buttery ﬁllet, but Aitor held up a ﬁnger as if to say, To the contrary. Then he started carving again. “He’s going to show us the real gastronomy now,” said Andoni, pleased, while Aitor divided out the cheeks and gills, the throat and head, the tail and even some translucent bones, one of which Andoni held up and inspected with a childlike expression of awe on his face. “This is a master class in texture,” he said. Each element of the turbot brought a new taste to the mouth, a new approach to consumption—more chewing or less; the unconscious shifting of each bite to the front or back of the mouth—some of the meat surprisingly more dense and ﬂavorful, some melting even as it touched the tongue. Andoni was wideeyed as he ate, and speechless. Eventually, after we ﬁnished, he wanted to make a point about this cuisine and his own, speaking softly again: “At Mugaritz, we’re fascinated by the presentation of subtlety as the loudest voice, by the way intensity is guided by subtlety.” It was the same with the grilled turbot, he said. What we’d just eaten, the experience of it, could take you very far and deep, but you had to be willing to eat the cheek and the throat; you needed to respect the turbot’s translucent bones. It was dangerous, but you weren’t really tasting that ﬁsh—and its life force—until you were willing to eat it all. • • • the gardener worked the garden, the cows mooed, and the cut hay lofted its loamy perfume. Somewhere the goose lady sang to the geese, the mushroom hunter found a cache of chanterelles, and the shepherd milked the sheep for cheese. In the kitchen, the Mugaritzians ticked and tocked. It was time to eat again. In this new season—summery June—the menu was new again, too, strange and bright. It was startling to see a rush of original dishes just seven months after my winter meal. As if they’d entirely erased the chalkboard and started again. The oak tree in the garden was in full bloom. And the mood on the mountain was benevolent, airy, almost euphoric. It was a feeling of yet another resurrection—and it reminded me of another Andoni-ism. “They say the cells of your body change every ten years,” he’d said. “But the cells of B A C K U P O N T H E M O U N TA I N ,
your tongue change every twenty days. So an organization like Mugaritz—I’d say we’re changing 60 percent every year. People come and go, ideas ﬂip. We must accept the change even if we’re left clashing against what we thought last year.” The frenetic rage to accept that change, or to make it, was the heartbeat here. And sitting at their table, I was convinced of two things: that I was alive and that I was going to die. And I wasn’t alone. But it wasn’t a morbid thought at all. The wind was blowing along the edge of the mountain, ru±ing the glossy leaf-plume of the towering oak in the garden. Between this moment and the end, there’d be many more borders to cross, if one were willing. Change, both psychic and entropic, was inevitable and coming this way—and now it started with a meal. The waiter came bearing “ﬁsh bones” with lemon and cayenne, fried tendon in dipping ash and honey mead, red mullet in a butter of its own liver. There were scarlet shrimp ice shreds, and shark-ﬁn soup without any shark ( just roasted cauliﬂower). All of it sparking sweetness and salt, smoothness and prickles, hot and cold. Everything seemed to mimic and expand everything else. The ﬂower in tempura mimicked the ﬁsh bones, which mimicked the dark branches of the oak tree in the garden. Hunger may be the loneliest pursuit—and the most communal, too. We are joined to one another by these patterns and emotions, the wine that tastes like the slate and granite of the clouds, the plumed leaves of the dark tree we sit under, eating dessert together. In Andoni’s world, we are greater when our hungers combine and we act communally. In order to do that, we must greet one another in the kitchen with a hale hello and a “how are you?” Mugaritz isn’t just another high-end restaurant trying to convince you of an empty gimmick. And it’s not some lost Atlantis ruled by a half-mad genius and his compatriots. Once you’ve lived here awhile, it’s the most logical place on earth—and one of the most inspiring. Eat the food and you ﬁnd yourself on a new path through the thicket, joined by the others around you, either ﬁghting to turn back to the comfort of what we know or slowly unmending what lies between us and some new destiny. Whether the Mugaritzians can change the world, the script may indeed already be written that they won’t. But that doesn’t stop them from trying. Later, in the shed, after grilled sponge cake and candy caviar, I asked Andoni how it was that this food, in some ways so much about mortality, felt so comfortable to eat. Which is when he stopped me. “Yes, I know what you’re saying,” he said, his eyes dancing behind his rectangular glasses, which reﬂected the huge oak tree in the garden, “but I’d like to reframe that idea.” He steepled his ﬁngers and thought for a moment. “What we’re trying to do is not make food about life and death,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here at Mugaritz is make this about life—and more life. We’re trying to feed you all the food that we hope will leave you the highest impression of life itself.” michael paterniti is a gq correspondent.
MA LE MA KEUP
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feel a little bit human again. And if nobody else notices it, great, I don’t want anyone else to notice it.” Were you hesitant to use guy makeup at ﬁrst? “There was a little bit of a hesitancy, and I’m like, Ohhh, this isn’t what dudes do, but how many times have I applied camouﬂage to my face in order to hide from people?” Did any of your friends give you shit for using it? “Some of my friends might give me a little bit of a hard time, but they also know that if I had to, I’d punch ’em in the throat.” Along with free makeup, Mënaji also gave Douglas an additional bonus: “It’s funny, I actually used the mirror on the compact just the other day to hook up the digital ﬁberoptic cable.” Because that’s what men do. They can’t help but add a bit of manly spirit to whatever it is they touch. One day we’ll ﬁgure out a way to bottle our Skin Revitalizing Concentrate in the handle of a bowie knife. • • • D AY 3 1
is long over, and I’ve let my routine sag. Sometimes I throw on the bronzer. Sometimes I do nothing. My brief ﬂing with guy makeup is pretty much a thing of the past, despite Probst’s encouragement to stick with it: “The face is the ﬁrst thing people look at. Take care of it—that’s all we’re saying. It’s not that hard!” Ah, but it’s just one more goddamn thing I’m too lazy to bother with. And once the free supply runs out, I’m stuck buying it on my own. Again, that Tom Ford miracle circus tonic is $150. So I slip. But I have a trip to New York coming up and a party to attend. Other human beings will be looking at my face—that open sewer— and I should probably obey my dad, Tom Ford, and look my best. So I throw on the bronzer, and I look in the mirror once more at Pretty Drew. There is no doubt. I look better. I look cleaner and healthier. Why, I had no idea I was so beautiful. I step out of the bathroom and show o≠ for the missus. Sometimes you are self-conscious when you wear these products. You do feel as if you’re wearing something. But if you forget… If you let it slip from your memory and just be yourself, you do ﬁnd yourself walking taller and feeling better. “You look good,” she says. Even? “Oh yes.” I beam with pride. “But your ﬂy is open.” MY TRIAL RUN WITH MAKEUP
drew magary is a gq correspondent and a sta≠ writer for Deadspin.