"2020 is all about ensuring the ship doesn’t sink. In 2021 we’ll set sail again. This is about survival," Aponiente's pioneering chef tells Tina Nielsen
Every year Aponiente, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Cádiz in southern Spain, helmed by Ángel León, closes for four months during the low season. The area is quiet with few visitors anyway and the team uses the time to focus on innovation and research and development for the next menu.
At the end of the winter, in March, they reopen the doors to the remodelled mill, standing on the edge of the Guadalete River in El Puerto de Santa Maria outside Cádiz. This year León never got to open in March – Covid-19 made sure of that.
Spain has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19 and went into strict lockdown on 14 March. Now, little by little, regulations are starting to be eased and, in some regions, bars are open for outside serving.
Aponiente won’t open until 2 July when the borders within Spain reopen and diners from across the country can visit. Until then the doors will remain shut. “We won’t have national clients until July and we can’t sustain the business just on the business from the local area,” says León.
He is clear that 2020 is all about survival and nothing else. “This is a time where we need to focus on our project and believe that there will always be people who want to come here, forget about the world and have a different experience,” he says.
Staying the course
Many other chefs have spoken of a need to change approach after a crisis that has wreaked havoc on Spain’s economy.
But León is reluctant to change his singular approach to seafood. “I am not going to change; I am who I am and I have spent my whole life preparing to be where I am now,” he says. “I think that the person who sells the best omelettes in the world, will continue to sell the best omelettes in the world. The rest of us will continue to do what we do. We’ll continue to evolve, create and tell our story of the sea as we have done so far.”
At this time there will be question marks about many high-end restaurants. Without the external investors that others have, León has the creative freedom in the good times, but in the challenging times the financial foundation might appear slightly flimsier. “I always have that fear, of course,” he says “But it is not a fear that says ‘we have to reinvent ourselves and change approach to something we have never done before’. That’s not where I am.”
That Aponiente will survive is not in doubt. “Of course, it will survive, I’ll make sure of it,” he says. “I spoke with the team and I said 2020 is all about ensuring the ship doesn’t sink and in 2021 we’ll be able to set sail again. This is about survival, I don’t care about the rest.”
It will be tough; in pre-pandemic times 45% of the diners in Aponiente visited from abroad. This year, he has accepted, few if any people will travel from overseas. “So far, we have seen people catching a plane to visit us, now we’ll be hoping that Spanish people will get in their car or catch a train to come and see us,” he says.
“My hope is that we’ll get through 2020, the pandemic doesn’t have any setbacks and in 2021 we will reopen the borders to the world.”
Choosing to be positive
In addition to Aponiente, León also has a more causal set-up in town, the bar La Taberna del Chef del Mar, which in normal times can hold up to 150 people. From mid-June the bar will open for take away and dine-in services for 35 people at a time, with two sittings per night. “We do have it all planned, I am putting in place a reservation system so people can get organised. We’ll reinvent ourselves a bit and it’ll be good,” he says.
Tough times thought this may be, this enthusiasm doesn’t falter. “The whole world is so negative, so I want to be positive. I am so tired of the negativity,” he says. “I do think that how we get through this will in part depend on people’s attitude.”
Whether we will learn anything from this time is a different matter. León is not so sure. “I think human beings are good at forgetting these things; look at the big pandemic from 100 years ago, it is all written in the books but we haven’t learnt much from it. If we do find a vaccine for Covid-19 we’ll soon forget about all this.”
While the restaurants have been closed, León has joined in with the efforts of World Central Kitchen, the non-profit organisation founded by Spanish American chef José Andrés. Working out of the kitchens of Aponiente, León’s team was joined by many volunteers from the area who came to help to feed the vulnerable during the pandemic.
“There was a real need for help in our area and this was a good reason for me to get out of my armchair and stop thinking about my own tragedy. Just forget about myself and work for other people,” he recalls.
This is one of the main things he’ll take away from the pandemic. “So many people were so ready to give up their time and volunteer to help in our efforts to support those in need,” he says. “So, for me there is a really positive message about human beings here – it is very impressive what you can achieve when we all unite to work together.”
Photos: Sefora Trujillo