Interview with Josean Martínez Alija of Restaurante Guggenheim – Bilbao, Spain

January 2011

Jessica Dukes: Describe your philosophy on food and dining.
Josean Martínez Alija:
My philosophy is a work in progress, which, during nearly two decades, has grown to harmonize with the things with which I most closely identify: basically, the authentic and the natural.

In some way, the value of my output will be in the eye of the beholder, but I aim to bring my diners to a world in which everything is special. Perhaps the work consists in discovering where it is exactly—the magic that makes it special. The aromas connect you to memories and create an infinite number of imaginary ideas that invite you to travel and play. It’s where sensitivity and instinct come face to face with consciousness and permit access to a world of endless possibility.

To cook is to transform; change; provoke; and conjugate flavors, textures, dreams, and appearances. To cook is to give life to ideas and share unique experiences by taking on new challenges.

A dish approaches wisdom when it provokes emotions and promotes good health. To surprise with the familiar is difficult, as it is inherently a challenge; it transports us to the essence: the earth and its bounty.

Currently I’m preparing a work which I will present in Identità Golose in Milan under the theme: “The luxury of simplicity,” in which I reflect on the pure essence of my cooking as though it were a brief Japanese poem, or haiku.

JD: How has your cooking evolved over the years?
I may be young, but I have a long professional arc behind me. And in the 17 years I’ve been working, my cooking has matured and adapted itself to my personal evolution and surroundings. As Charles Darwin said, “those species that survive will be not the strongest, nor the most intelligent, nor the fastest, but those that best adapt.”

My evolution has also passed through “selection” and has been accompanied by different professionals and experts who contribute ideas to a project, like Chef Bixente Arrieta, for example, a partner who has bet on my talent and with whom I’ve worked side by side at [Restaurante Guggenheim].

JD: What’s the most important tool in your kitchen and why?
JMA: The most important tool is “RD&I”: research, development, and innovation, because this department helps define me and develop my dreams. In reality, it feeds the team, and it allows us to introduce new things periodically. It’s the little boy at home who is always active, changing, and growing.

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. The cuisine of Josean Martínez Alija connects—via aroma—with the echoes of memory: it is full of flavor and emotion, and the body and soul accept this conjointly in a perfect meeting between pleasure and health.

JD: What are you most proud of?
The truth is that I have reaped numerous awards and both national and international recognition. It seems to me too complicated to choose just one, since from each one I’ve appreciated both the motivation it lent me and the affection of its being offered. 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—your team and the people who come and eat—with your philosophy and way of life, so they all form part of our gastronomic culture. This collective awakening is marvelous.

JD: How has Spanish cuisine evolved over the years?
I’ve been both witness and protagonist to that which has occurred in the national gastronomic panorama over the last two decades. The truth is: an important change has come about: Spanish cuisine has bet on innovation, without tossing aside local, seasonal products. It has adapted to the times, and it has converted itself into an international reference point, both for its chefs and its products. In some way, chefs are ambassadors to the world and of their gastronomic culture, even though the world is becoming more and more globalized.

JD: Where would you most like to go for culinary travel, and why?
JMA: I love travel … it’s so beautiful, so passionate! I would begin by going to Paris and lose myself in its streets and museums, and then visit the great chefs. I would continue on to Italy where pleasure reigns and you can enjoy tasty and simple dishes like pasta, pizza, farinata, and panna cotta. I would also love to discover the sobriety and creativity of the Nordic countries. From there I would go to Japan—an undiscovered world where cuisine is ritual, a cult, and an art—[and witness] the luxury of the tea ceremony. And I couldn’t miss the Big Apple of New York, a city in which all cultures are concentrated. There’s diversity, wealth, and passion. This trip would make me very happy! Of course, I’d probably gain a kilo or two!

JD: Where do you see yourself in five years? In 10?
Time flies, and I see myself working and creating hard, and taking care of my team while continuing to do love what I do.

In five years, I see myself completely absorbed in trying to surprise my guests with new things. I’ll take joy in relating to my guests in that way and in earning my restaurant a spot on the world’s 50 best list.

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!