As he receives the Icon Award 2023 as part of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz reflects on quarter of a century at the helm of his relentlessly innovative San Sebastian dining destination
“All logic says we shouldn’t still be here,” says Andoni Luis Aduriz, 25 years on from opening his world-renowned restaurant, Mugaritz. In its lifetime, the restaurant in Errenteria, just outside San Sebastian, Spain, has faced everything from a difficult start with barely any customers to a fire that burnt it down and a pandemic that closed it, all while countless other restaurants shuttered forever within a few years of opening.
Not only has it remained in business, but Mugaritz has won accolades galore, not least featuring in every edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants since 2006, including a remarkable 14 times in the top 10. So what’s the secret?
“There’s a saying among engineers that, according to the logic of aeronautics, beetles shouldn’t be able to fly,” he says. “But beetles can fly. The secret is ‘ingenuousness’ [childlike curiosity]; it’s 25 years of believing in what we’re doing and pushing forward, even when the wind is going in the opposite direction and everything is against us. We’ve always had the absolute conviction that we will get to the other side.”
From left to right: Bunch: chives and butter and Sweet Jubas (photos by Jose Luis Lopez De Zubiria)
Indeed, Mugaritz is a restaurant that constantly pushes the boundaries. Open for a six-month ‘season’ each year – from 29th April to 29th October – the restaurant perched on a hilltop in the Spanish Basque Country reinvents itself annually, with a tasting menu of some 30 courses featuring different textures, tastes and sounds. Iconic dishes have included edible stones made from potatoes and a beef-like carpaccio made from smoked watermelon.
Aduriz makes a point of not following the established rules of restaurants, shunning the bread course and traditional order of the meal, and playing with textures and temperatures. Where typically dishes are served either hot or cold, in his latest menu the chef champions the state of warmth – something he says is thought of as ‘pejorative’ in terms of food temperature, but needs to be further explored. It might be controversial to serve dishes warm, but that’s exactly the sort of challenge Aduriz is known for.
“[Reaching 25 years of Mugaritz] brings me a lot of satisfaction and a lot of responsibility,” says the 52-year-old, who was born in San Sebastian, a 20-minute drive from where the restaurant now stands. “Mugaritz has been a very difficult project because we haven’t adjusted to the rules of the game; we’ve made our own rules. When you veer from the rules, it’s hard. There’s no bread course, no dessert. Getting to this point has been like walking on a tight rope. It’s almost a miracle we’re still here.”
The interior of Mugaritz, which first opened in 1998 (photo by Jose Luis Lopez De Zubiria)
Memories of the future
But Mugaritz is still here, and stronger than ever. In early May, Aduriz and his team launched their new season’s menu, Memories of the Future, which asks diners the philosophical question of what they ‘remember’ from the future. As provocative as ever, it includes dishes like Ama (which means ‘mother’ in Basque), where diners suck sheep’s milk from a breast-shaped mould as if feeding from their mother’s teat as a baby.
“This will be one of our most controversial, poetic and most-photographed dishes,” he says, explaining that it arose from a collaboration with the French artist Prune Nourry, who turned her experience with breast cancer into art. “The temperature itself is an ingredient in this dish, and it’s more important than salt. It’s warm and almost human-temperature.”
Aside from the thought-provoking breast milk course, the new menu also includes dishes like Green Tears, made from the famous Basque tear-drop peas, as well as Contrasts of Beef, which plays with different textures, and Bestiary, where the oyster mushroom is king. All of this is eaten over three to four hours in a series of spaces from the kitchen to the dining room, a cosy space with wood-panelled walls, surrounded by Basque greenery – the name Mugaritz comes from muga, meaning the ‘edge’ or ‘border’ of the two towns between which it sits, and haritza, or ‘oak,’ after the huge tree that grows on its land.
Face to face: the skin I live in, an edible ‘skin’ made with psyllium and cider (photo by Jose Luis Lopez De Zubiria)
Freedom to create
“At Mugaritz, we’ve always been in the future,” says Aduriz, who opened the restaurant in 1998, when he was just 27 years old. “The only time you can be in the present is when you’re experiencing pain. When we dream, we dream about the past but also about the future. Memories are an appropriated version not of what has been before, but of what we would like to have happened.”
If this sounds confusing, it’s because Mugaritz is not an easy restaurant to get one’s head around. Diners often emerge wowed, but unable to describe what they’ve just experienced. Aduriz refers to the Basque institution not as a restaurant but as “a creative space where many things happen, and where you can even eat”.
The idea of evolution and constant questioning is at the heart of Aduriz’s ethos. After several decades as a chef, he remains committed to moving with the times, making his menus healthier and more sustainable, while adapting to dietary requirements. In recent years, his kitchen staff have experimented more and more with fermentation, and the latest menu plays with crossing techniques like freeze drying and nixtamalization, where corn is soaked in alkaline solution to improve its flavour and texture.
“I would like Mugaritz to still be here in 25 years,” he says. “But I don’t want that ingenuousness to be diluted; that innocence that makes us fail and doubt ourselves. I want us to keep getting things wrong. I want to believe we’re going to discover a new technique or a new project. I’ve spent 25 years staring at a blank page and we always manage to resolve things. It gives me vertigo to think there’s no more.”
Fortune, a thousand leaves of plenty, a new dish created by Andoni Luis Aduriz and team (photos by Jose Luis Lopez De Zubiria)
Aduriz relishes a challenge. With more than half of customers now stating they have an allergy, intolerance or dietary requirements for ethical reasons, Aduriz and his team are finding ways to take those needs into account. In particular, the chefs work hard to create new vegan dishes, so that at least two of the 30 courses are vegan for all customers, without diners even needing to know there’s no animal protein on the plate.
An army of followers
Part of Aduriz’s boundary-less, always-questioning nature comes from his time at El Bulli, the five-time World’s Best Restaurant where he worked for two seasons under legendary chef Ferran Adrià. “At El Bulli, I learned that the human conviction is like steel,” he says. “Ferran taught me to be free. He taught me to question things, to approach everything with humility and prudence. If I hadn’t worked with Ferran, Mugaritz would not be what it is. I needed someone to open my eyes.”
In a similar way to how Adrià inspired Aduriz, the latter has influenced the global restaurant world immeasurably. Mugaritz alumni have opened restaurants around the world, from Lasai in Rio de Janeiro to Brae in Birregurra, Australia. Aduriz’s dishes have spawned copycats around the world, and young cooks and would-be chefs clamour to be selected for a stage at Mugaritz, knowing it will open their minds and allow them a foot in the door.
Mugaritz is located on the border of the two Basque towns of Errentería and Astigarraga (photo by Oscar Oliva)
But the chef is modest when it comes to claiming credit. “It’s pretentious [to say that Mugaritz has influenced the gastronomic world], but people do say it has been necessary in changing the way people see things. It has given people freedom.”
The ultimate accolade
Outside the restaurant’s doors, Aduriz passes on his wisdom in other ways, writing columns for Spanish national newspaper El País, as a patron for the Basque Culinary Center, in his talks for Harvard University and in a series of books including Mugaritz: Vanishing Points. But a quarter-century of graft has taken its toll on the chef, who says he feels like ‘an injured soldier’. The restaurant has affected his health and mental health over the years, and he is slowly paving the way for a new generation to take his place.
“I’d like Mugaritz to still be here in 25 years, even though I won’t be,” he says. “But Mugaritz isn’t me – there are 60 or 70 people working on the project. More than 2,000 people have passed through it over the years; it belongs to many people.”
That said, he has no plans to leave just yet, and will be sure to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary over the course of the year. With budgets hit by the pandemic, the party might not be quite as lavish as the one held on Mugaritz’s grounds for its 20th birthday in 2018, but Aduriz has plenty of characteristically unconventional ideas up his sleeve to celebrate across 2023.
As for winning the Icon Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, he acknowledges the significance of being voted for by his peers and by global gastronomes.
“It’s one of the most incredible awards one can receive,” he says. “It puts you in a situation where you’re no longer competing; you’ve arrived and you’re a reference for others. I will continue fighting because it’s in my nature to do so, but the award makes me feel I’ve already arrived. It’s very beautiful and it fills me with satisfaction, thought it makes me sad that my parents weren’t here to see it. It’s very, very special.”
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The 21st edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on 20th June 2023 in Valencia. Tune in to the livestream of the awards ceremony on YouTube or Facebook from 20:40 local time. To stay up to date with the news and announcements ahead of the ceremony, browse the website join the community on Instagram, find us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.