Josean: Master of Minimalist Cuisine

by Caroline Hatchett
Antoinette Bruno
January 2011


Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain


Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain


Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain


Roasted Red Onions and Green Lentil Broth
Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain

Roasted Colt Chunk with Red Garlic Casein
Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain

Tomatoes Filled with Aromatic Herbs and Caper Broth
Chef Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain

Outside Restaurante Guggenheim—a temple of molecular gastronomy perched in the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain—modern works from Richard Serra, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol line the halls. Inside, the artist is Chef Josean Martínez Alija. Each table is a blank canvas, draped with heavy, luxurious linens. There are no candles. No flatware or bread plates or flowers. The art is in the food—which appears equally spare, garnish–free and without sauce—and how diners connect with the dishes.

The Luxury in Simplicity

Alija boils his dishes down to their most essential ingredients, a process he compares to writing Japanese haiku, where no syllable can be wasted. And like haiku, the simplicity doesn’t lie in Alija’s method; it’s in the clear, uncluttered translation of his ideas on a plate.

Like comfort food chefs in the United States, Alija strives to connect diners with familiar elements in food. But instead of leaving their memories in the safety of Grandma’s kitchen, Alija coaxes diners further. He presents unassuming ingredients and changes their textures, flavors, and aromas.

For example, the tomatoes in his Tomatoes Filled with Aromatic Herbs and Caper Broth look like innocent, garden-variety produce, but the tomatoes taste instead like bombs of rosemary, mint, chives, or lemongrass. To achieve the effect, Alija treats the tomatoes in lime, inserts a hypodermic needle into each, and injects them with herbal filling. He then coats them with a skin–like green pepper or Morrón pepper “polish.”

“To surprise with the familiar is difficult, as it is inherently a challenge,” says Alija. [Simplicity] transports us to the essence: the earth and its bounty.”

Where Haute Cuisine and Health Merge

Health, it seems, is a welcome side effect of Alija’s stripped-down cuisine. And while “good and good for you” sounds more like a slogan for Lean Cuisine than the calling card of high gastronomy, Alija makes healthy sexy. “The most interesting pursuit right now is to be able to cook with absolute freedom in search of pleasure, without excluding good health and well-being,” he says.

Without sauce on his plates, there’s no extra butter or cream. He minimizes the role of meat on his menu—for health, creative, and environmental reasons—and instead, elevates the humble, but low-calorie, high-fiber vegetable. Take his masterful, healthful play on surf n’ turf: instead of lobster and steak, he pairs an earthy (otherworldly) grilled beet with a mussel broth- and wine-soaked hunk of bread.

It’s not easy to make a beet sexy, but Alija pulls it off, largely thanks to the hours he and his team devote to developing and honing new techniques.

Exacting Technique

Alija is a man who does things his way, because they naturally are the right way. Comprende?

The most important tool in Alija’s kitchen is RD&I: research, development, and innovation. He compares this work to a little boy “who is always active, changing, and growing.” But the little boy who is innovation is closely guarded by a chef who dispenses crystals of sea salt onto dishes with tweezers and whose middle initial may as well stand for “Meticulous.”

But even a meticulous chef like Alija doesn’t work alone. “I am invested in building a team whose work methods are so precise that they touch perfection,” he says. And with a ratio of 23 perfection-chasing team members to 35 fortunate diners at dinner service, his world inside the Guggenheim museum is as close to artful perfection as fine-dining can get.

A Prodigy Matured

Alija’s methods result, in equal parts, from persistence, personality, and pedigree. Alija trained since the tender age of 14 to take on his role at Restaurante Guggenheim; he is a prodigy matured.

At an age when most American teenagers struggle with pimples and high school biology, Alija enrolled in Escuela de Hostelería Leioa, a culinary school in his hometown of Leòn. Before long, he found himself caught in the wave of the Spanish culinary revolution, working at El Bulli under Ferran Adrià and at Lasarte with Martin Berasategui. In 2000, Alija won the 6th Annual Spanish Championship of Author Haute Cuisine for Young Chefs at Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia—the award that spurred his invitation to step into his current role at Restaurante Guggenheim. He was only 22.

In the 11 years since, Alija has paid homage to his mentors and collaborators, like Chef Bixente Arrieta, by nurturing his own team of talent. “The most important thing is to count on the people who stick with you over the years, to create a team, which is like a family, and to indoctrinate people with your philosophy and way of life, so they all form part of our gastronomic culture. This collective awakening is marvelous,” says Alija.

And for all the team spirit, Alija compares his growth and trajectory to Darwinian survival of the fittest. “My cooking has matured and adapted itself to my personal evolution and surroundings,” says Alija. “As Charles Darwin said, ‘it is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’”

Change is a common thread in Alija’s cuisine—whether it’s transforming a piece of bread, adapting his style, or shaping his diners’ perspectives. “To cook is to transform; change; provoke; and conjugate flavors, textures, dreams, and appearances,” he says. “To cook is to give life to ideas and share unique experiences by taking on new challenges.”

At the Cusp of Spanish Cuisine

A major challenge for Alija (and others at the center of the molecular gastronomy movement) is continuing to find new culinary boundaries to break, and in turn wow guests. StarChefs tasted with Alija at Restaurante Guggenheim in 2003. At the time, he cooked for us an egg sous vide that blew us away (“us” includes Wylie Dufresne, who accompanies us on the trip).

Eight years later, home-cooks use sous vide technology to slow cook their own eggs to silky perfection. Molecular gastronomy has gone (relatively) mainstream, and El Bulli—the epicenter of it all—is closing, sort of. Despite the changes and copycats and general watering down of the movement, Alija still believes in the Spanish model and its aptitude for producing beautiful, groundbreaking cuisine.

“I’ve been both witness and protagonist to that which has occurred in the national gastronomic panorama over the last two decades,” says Alija. “The truth is an important change has come about: Spanish cuisine has bet on innovation, without tossing aside local, seasonal products.”

Alija is still betting on innovation and its ability to catapult Restaurante Guggenheim into the top 50 restaurants in the world. “I confess that I love to build on prestige, and to see my name in high places, tied to glamour and quality. If you want to call all that success—I’d love it!” says Alija. “In five years, I see myself completely absorbed in trying to surprise my guests with new things.”

And we can’t wait to taste them.

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