18/May, 2016 por Loreak Mendian
Making the most of our collaboration with the Mugaritz restaurant, we could not pass up this opportunity to turn one of our little chats with Andoni, one of its foremost ‘architects’, into an interview. So we got down to business, and here’s the result:
Something quite unique we share in the worlds of fashion and fine dining is that we not only design and create, but then we also produce and sell. Which one of these stages do you least like?
You’re right to say that this is a feature we share with you. We are crafters in the sense that we even design the crockery. As far as I’m concerned, there is no stage that a priori I like less, but it really irritates me when we have a very good creative idea, from the perspective of its concept, and then the product side lets us down. When we can’t define it as we imagined it because something is not working: the product’s quality, the quantity, or even the public’s actual response. And then, obviously, when it comes to selling it, it’s also very frustrating when we don’t know how to tell the story so that people understand it with the same passion or energy that we have put into it from the start. In the end, each one of the steps we take is creative. Thinking something up, developing it, telling a story, carrying it out, and selling it.
You actually started off from scratch.
Yes, we did, and with a problem that always comes up in fine dining: when you want to carry out a project full of personality you know it’s a project for the world. So the more personal, free and creative you are, the smaller the target audience will be on average. You cease to be a product for a local audience and become a product for a global one, but a minority one at that. So then what do you do? Cuisine here works in the following way: you do something new, it interests someone, and that someone asks you to feature it in a magazine or they introduce you to a congress. That’s your opportunity.
And when you opened the restaurant, did you think you would follow the model of what is now Mugaritz in terms of its concept?
What I was clear about is that we should have a product with value added, but I didn’t know how to go about it. So then what you basically do is clear the way ahead, investigate and try things out until you find a place in which you are comfortable and you find something that you think you can contribute. It’s often the case that you fail to see the importance of what you are doing. You don’t know whether it will come to nothing or set a trend. When you are committed to creativity, it’s very difficult to judge in real time whether you are breaking new ground. Having said that, I relied a lot on intuition. I was very interested in simplicity, and we wanted to cook in a pure and organic way in the sense that the produce would find its own expression. Objects suddenly ceased to be objects, but instead elements that represent other things. And that’s when you realise that a dish may have shapes, textures, tastes and temperatures, but suddenly you notice that it conceals other things: a story, feelings and a purpose. A critic once accused us of bordering on blandness, and so from then on we decided to work hard on that. We said: is that a fault? Well let’s turn it into a virtue. For a long time Mugaritz was a real groundbreaker because after centuries of repeating the mantra that taste is the most important thing in cooking, we began to question that. We are on the threshold of blandness because we understand that textures are as important, or more so, than taste. What lay behind that blandness was in fact the championing of textures.
The truth is that you are doing something that you were not educated to do, but now you really are teaching the kids you have here.
Yes indeed. This is very complicated, because in the end we have to build a reality and convince people that this reality exists. We have to be very good at thinking, very good at doing, and very good at convincing. How do you explain to a kid that comes here that behind this there is a vocation for excellence? What we do ultimately is reinforce values. That’s something I learnt during the Balkan War. I was shocked to see how people so close to us could do such terrible things to each other. As in all wars, creativity was placed at the service of evil, and that’s when I understood. I thought: how about creating a context in which we foster positive attributes? That has to be my ecosystem. I tell the youngsters working with me that within ten years the techniques will have changed, their local produce will be different, there will be another audience, other recipes, but values are the one thing that will not change.
Were you in any doubt at the start that you would not be able to implement here what you had seen in other kitchens?
I had been running kitchens with maybe twenty or thirty people, and here we were six. I had to adapt what I wanted to do to those six people and to a local clientele. The problem is how to make that transition. How you go from a product that pleases the locals to reaffirm yourself more in what you want to do, which means you move away from a local perspective, although you have still not reached out to an international audience.
And have you got to where you wanted in that transition?
To be honest, Mugaritz now has one of the world’s five most creative projects, although most creative does not necessarily mean best. The next step would be: Can we become acknowledged as the world’s best restaurant? Well I don’t know, but we may well be wrong to think along those lines, because if we have chosen creativity and avant-garde, a lack of understanding may be inherent to our choice. Just imagine that when we opened, we were considered too far away for people in Donosti-San Sebastian. For them this was like the end of the world. The irony is that people of more than fifty nationalities now travel long distances every year just to eat here. It’s as if I said to you: desire makes the distance between Australia and Mugaritz shorter than between Donosti-San Sebastian and Mugaritz. The fact we are far away has a kind of pilgrimage effect. And that difficulty in getting here is part of the necessary ritual for providing what we provide.
Thank you very much for everything. For everything.