There is no phoenix in the Basque mythology, no firebird rising from its own ashes. The Basques do have a god named Sugaar, a serpent-like deity responsible for storms, who occasionally takes the form of a burning sickle. You have to wonder if, in the early hours of the morning of 15 February 2010, Andoni Luis Aduriz was thinking of him. Because to understand the chef of Mugaritz, to truly get who he is today, you have to start with the fire.
It's quite tempting to use that word metaphorically, to explain how - long before Aduriz's restaurant Mugaritz in Spain's Basque country came to be considered one of the very best in the world - he was drawn to the stove as a means of expression. Or to describe the flame of passion ignited when he first encountered the radical creativity of his mentor, Ferran Adrià. But in truth, the really important fire - the one that remade his professional life and personal outlook, that helped him take his restaurant to number three on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and that led him to write a book titled Mugaritz, a retrospective of the 41-year-old's already remarkable career - couldn't be more literal. That fire occurred two and a half years ago, and burnt his kitchen nearly to the ground.
Seated on Mugaritz's patio at sunset, as waiters bring snacks they gently challenge you to identify, it's hard to believe that something violent could ever have taken place here. Mugaritz, some 30 minutes outside San Sebastián, is tucked into an especially verdant corner of Spain's green countryside, amid apple trees and oaks. It is one of the quintessential landscapes - the other is the rolling coastline - that Basques imbue with near-mystical sentiment. It's not hard to see reflections of that scenery in Aduriz's plates; some of his most striking dishes, such as a herb-strewn fish soup that resembles a pond dotted with fallen leaves, or scored and charred white asparagus spears that look like logs fallen in a forest, are composed meditations on landscape. And the chef himself, who, in his spare time, prepares dinners for stagings of Shakespeare's bloody tragedy Titus Andronicus and engages linguists to help measure his diners' pleasure, often speaks in terms of intuition and communion. Which helps explain why the Spanish press, in particular, like to portray him, with his boyish face and his intellectual demeanour, as a monk.
He is not a monk (in fact, he is married, with a two-year-old son). But throughout Aduriz's career, from his first job in a San Sebastián pizzeria, through stages in most of the Basque country's heavyweight kitchens - Zuberoa, Akelarre, Arzak - through his transformative years at Ferran Adrià's El Bulli and beyond, to a stint at the helm of Martin Berasategui's Lasarte, he has brought to the task of cooking an intensity so sharp and inward-looking as to strike many as religious. Yet it wasn't until 1998, when he and his business partner Bixente Arrieta finally opened their own place in an oak grove on the hilly border between Astigarraga and Errentaria, that his intensity found a focus. In its early days, Mugaritz had no customers, and Aduriz remembers standing around with the rest of his staff, waiting for the phone to ring. In the meantime, he stared out at the countryside. "It was a green that could only be described as total, categorically and undeniably green," he writes in his new book. He goes on to describe how eventually, with enough staring and meditation and simple osmosis, that total, inscrutable green eventually resolved, like a photograph coming into focus, into a field of trees and grass and herbs, of plants edible and not, that would provide the essence of Mugaritz's identity.
There is a lot said these days about terroir, the idea that wine and food should taste of the place, of the very soil, that gave rise to them. But when Aduriz and his crew began using the landscape around them to supply their cooking, they had no overarching philosophy for what they were doing and certainly no one to label their actions with the trendy name of foraging. They were just doing what Aduriz's creative training and the view outside the window compelled them to do. "We were always doing very technical cooking, working closely with science," Aduriz recalls. "But because we were so tightly tied to the environment, it was camouflaged on the plate."
There is perhaps no greater example of that camouflage than the chef's now-classic potato stones. They look, well, like stones, grey and minerally and lightly smoothed by an unseen river. They are the size of walnuts, and just as solid, which is why it takes more than a little trust to bite into what looks to be a tooth-shattering exterior. But inside, they reveal themselves to be nothing more than lightly sweet, boiled potatoes; a dip in kaolin gives them their remarkable exterior.
In a country whose cuisine is most closely associated with the gee-whiz abstractions of Adrià and his ilk, that naturalism seemed a radical departure, and it helps explain why young cooks from around the world - including from top-ranked Noma in Denmark - streamed to Mugaritz, eager to absorb its unique blend of intense innovation and landscape-based attention to product. Aduriz is frequently referred to as a chef's chef, and directly or indirectly, an entire generation of them has been shaped by the quiet naturalism of his cooking, its understated but persistent insistence on a sense of place. The only person who didn't recognise his own importance was Aduriz himself. "I didn't always have a clear sense of myself," he says. "I was too worried about pleasing other people."
And then, at 2am on 15 February 2010, a wire at Mugaritz short-circuited. Within minutes, the entire kitchen was destroyed. The refrigerators were rendered useless, the stovetop melted, an entire wall was reduced to ash. "My first impression," Aduriz recalls, "was despair. I didn't know if I'd be able to go on." By morning, the news had made the national press, and by the end of that day, condolences, offers of assistance, and even donations were pouring in from around the world. Aduriz closed the restaurant, and, after a brief period of time spent grappling with the funk brought on by so much loss, moved into action. Four months later, Mugaritz reopened.
Somewhere along the line, an already great restaurant turned into an even better one. Although Aduriz and his staff took advantage of the opportunity to redesign the kitchen they had inherited so it was more conducive to the kind of highwire creativity Mugaritz is known for, it wasn't the tangible changes that had the greatest impact. "Learning how much people loved us gave me confidence," Aduriz recalls. "Before, because of my character, I was always worried about being judged, or compared to El Bulli. But the fire taught me that was just fear, and that it disappears. Now, we're doing what we want."
The post-fire dishes still combine nature and science in a way that masks the latter so as to better emphasise the former, and they are still replete with the exquisite, delicate beauty that is one of Aduriz's trademarks. But there is now a confidence to his cooking, evident in what looks like (but often isn't) greater simplicity. A plate of camellia leaves, for example, their waxy flesh removed with the mineral lime so that only the lacy spines remain, comes to the table dusted only with a bit of spice powder. "I could never have done a dish like that before the fire," he says. "I was too fragile."
Pulling off this seemingly radical simplicity requires beautiful produce, of course, and Aduriz is no different from any other chef in his quest for perfect ingredients. Yet if those ingredients most frequently come from the landscape around him, it is less as a result of preconceived ideology - he is not wholly comfortable with the "kilometre zero" mentality, as it's called in Spain - than wit. There was a carrot farmer, he recalls, who got up while it was still dark to pick his baby carrots before the sun came up. "At first you think, 'Who is this Martian?', but then, when you start to understand why, it changes you, it changes your values," he explains. That's why, Aduriz says, he felt it so important to include his suppliers in Mugaritz. "When you have the chance to tell your own story, you realise you are the accumulation of many circumstances. And for me, one of the most important circumstances is what, and who, is around me. My purveyors are part of my personal landscape."
Aduriz is also giving freer range to his markedly whimsical sense of humour. This, after all, is a man who puts on a panda head costume when it comes time to think creatively. "People always think he is so serious, because of his philosophical side," says Per-Anders Jörgensen, the photographer who shot the portraits and landscapes in Mugaritz. "But he's extremely funny, extremely playful. His creative team is like the Monty Python of cooking." Indeed, one of Aduriz's favourite dishes from last year, included in the cookbook, comes to the table as a tangle of dry, almost hay-like strands dotted with flowers. The threads are chewy, with a deep umami character, but you'd never guess they were made from beef tongue. Never, that is, until your server tells you the dish's name: Shhhhhh… cat got your tongue.
"I almost feel like it's my responsibility now," Aduriz says. "Because there aren't as many people doing this kind of creativity." And it's true: a "cheese" made from soaked linseeds that comes to the table looking for all the world like a wheel of St Marcellin; thin slices of foie gras "cured" with kaolin so their texture changes to that of high-fat butter; a sheet of "paper" made, apparently, of nothing more than the best apples and cardamom. And although Aduriz says he no longer feels the same pressure as before to make all his dishes delicious, the truth is that they all are.
Many chefs would take the occasion of a retrospective like Mugaritz to indulge in a bit of laurel-resting. But not the born-again Aduriz. He and his crew served 98 new recipes last year, and they've already come up with another 100. "Are you kidding?" he responds, when asked if he is done reinventing himself. "There's so much left to do."
Reflecting on his subject's transformation, photographer Jörgensen, who has known Aduriz for nearly a decade, can't resist referring to the fire that changed everything. "In terms of its impact, it was like one of those Australian wildfires," he says. "Some plants are designed to burn, because that way the whole environment comes back stronger."
*Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking* by Andoni Luis Aduriz is published by Phaidon, $69.95.