David Munoz: Deep diver

2014 has been a busy year for three Michelin-starred Spanish chef David Muñoz, but he’s not slowing down, as Elly Earls finds out

Madrid-based chef David Muñoz, the holder of three Michelin stars for his flagship restaurant DiverXO, has always been known for his energy and dedication. Since opening DiverXO in his home city of Madrid in 2007, he hasn’t missed a single service and the incredibly rapid turnover of ideas in his head means the menus, known for their unusual combinations of ingredients, at any of his restaurants, could change at any time.

But 2014 has really put his seemingly boundless energy to the test: July saw the re-opening of DiverXO after its much-hyped relocation, and the rest of the year will be just as hectic. Late 2014 will see the opening of a new casual, street-food restaurant in London under his second brand StreetXO, and around the same time, the re-location of his first StreetXO outpost, currently on the 9th floor of a Spanish department store. All the while, the committed 34-year-old won’t miss a service at DiverXO.

The biggest news for Muñoz and the restaurant he started together with his wife and partner Ángela Montero Díaz in a tiny space in an obscure location in 2007, is that he’s finally found a spot where he believes he can bring out the true potential of DiverXO: in the NH Collection Eurobuilding. The NH Hotel Group, is already renowned for its focus on gastronomy. With the addition of DiverXO to its restaurant portfolio, NH Hotel Group now boasts a total of eight Michelin stars.

The move to NH Collection Eurobuilding in central Madrid is the third location for the restaurant. In 2009 DiverXO moved from its original location to a nondescript street in a working class district of the city. It had only a 220 sq m footprint, which in reality was far too small for the 30 staff he employed to look after the same number of covers. Yet, the space limitations didn’t stop Muñoz and his team garnering extraordinary acclaim across the culinary world – not only for DiverXO’s food, but also for the unique experience the tiny restaurant offered.

Diners could expect combinations of ingredients as diverse as strawberries and squid or piglet and white chocolate, and it wasn’t just the food that was always surprising. Eating implements were certainly not restricted to the traditional knife and fork, meals could eat up hours and hours, servers might rush to add an ingredient to a customer’s dish when they’d already started eating, and the décor was anything but ordinary. Think black butterflies on the walls, sculptures of pink flying pigs with wings on the tables and a line of huge metallic ants leading the way to the dining room – all on a background of understated grey and chrome.

The arrival of the Michelin stars

Despite – or perhaps because of – the extreme nature of the restaurant, especially when compared to the traditional feel that has historically typified the dining scene in Madrid, success in the form of worldwide recognition and three Michelin stars came quickly (the third was awarded in 2013), and a table at DiverXO is now one of the most sought after in Madrid, with a six-month waiting list.

But progress waits for no man, and Muñoz couldn’t be more excited about the changes that will be made at DiverXO’s new, much larger location in central Madrid, which opened its doors in July. “The main idea of the restaurant is going to be the same, but so many things will change,” he says. “I wanted to make a completely new and unique gastronomic experience, even on the decoration side, so we are making a restaurant that is going to be just everything about the imagination; more than ever, it’s going to be like a ‘cirque du soleil’. The service, the food, the decoration – everything is going to be totally changed.”

The new DiverXO is white and beige, as opposed to grey and chrome, and occupies a space of around 500 sq m, more than double the size at the previous location, but its capacity has only changed slightly with the addition of a couple of extra tables to give it around 40 covers. Its design is as eclectic as it’s ever been, thanks to interior designer Lázaro Rosa Violán, with features including wooden panels on the walls with papier-mâché winged pigs, white leather armchairs and a platform right in the centre of the dining room where all the plates receive their final finishing touches.

Crucially, the changes that have been made, as well as those that are still ongoing, are not at the behest of Muñoz’s new partners, the NH Hotel Group. The chef still operates his restaurant independently, just with a bit of extra support and space, which he says was absolutely necessary to take DiverXO to the next level and bring into being everything that is happening in his mind.

Hugo Rovira, managing director of the NH Hotel Group for Spain, Portugal and Andorra, confirms that the restaurant concept will remain entirely in Muñoz’s hands. “This is an agreement that has never been seen before between a hotel company and a restaurant, from which both parties will make profit due to a splendid synergy. As equals,” he says. “DiverXO works together with NH, and apart from the fact that David and his team will move to our facilities, David will continue in his role as the emblem and the stronghold of his restaurant and his brand. From NH Collection Eurobuilding he will continue to offer gastronomy without boundaries – distinctive, unique, cutting edge and very radical.”

In a nutshell, Muñoz explains, the deal struck means that NH only charges him low rent for the space and has made all the investment for the new location. In exchange, the NH group gets a three Michelin-starred restaurant, the only one in Madrid. “Now that we can count on DiverXO under our label, the only three Michelin-starred restaurant of the capital, NH is directly associated with the exclusive and the extraordinary,” Rovira remarks. “The fact that David and his team will be based in our hotel will also help us to be more creative and innovative, and to enhance our determination to offer our guests unique and unforgettable experiences and an incomparable gastronomic offer.”

Madrid and the Michelin guide: evolving fast Muñoz believes it’s not just DiverXO and the NH Hotel Group that are going through a period of evolution; his hometown is, too. “Everything has changed,” he explains. While Madrid has always been a city with a huge variety of restaurants, the restaurants that used to be successful were generally expensive and traditional.

Not any more, or indeed for the past five or six years. Now, increasingly, young, promising chefs have started to get their just desserts. “The restaurant and gastronomic scene is totally changing,” Muñoz says. “People are starting to understand that everything happens with a big talent and not necessarily with big money.”

DiverXO is an example of this. The restaurant hasn’t been profitable since its launch in 2007. Food costs have typically accounted for about half of the restaurant’s overhead and all the rest has gone on rent and payroll. Against this backdrop it managed to really catch the attention of the famously conservative Michelin inspectors, becoming the only restaurant in Madrid and the eighth in Spain to achieve a third star in 2013. Muñoz thinks it may not be the last restaurant of its kind to do so. “The Michelin guide is probably starting to be something different,” he grins. He adds that he wouldn’t presume to be able to predict the future. “We should ask the Michelin guide!” he laughs. “We’ll see!”

Nonetheless he does think both the food and the service offered by DiverXO are different to those that would normally be awarded a third Michelin star, and that, in fact, it may have been just this – the uniqueness of the offer – that swung it for them. “A restaurant deserves a trip from the Michelin inspectors because it is something unique,” he explains. “And DiverXO is more unique than ever – there is nothing similar to DiverXO. I don’t think DiverXO is much better than anyone else, it’s just that what we’re doing in DiverXO only happens in DiverXO.”

London calling – and beyond

Muñoz’s next project – the opening of street food concept StreetXO in London, where he lived for five years earlier in his career – will be similarly singular. Although it will have the ‘cirque du soleil’ feel that has made DiverXO so popular, Muñoz emphasises that it will be a concept and brand in its own right. “It’s not the second man of DiverXO,” he says. “It’s another main brand in the XO family.”

StreetXO, which is much more casual than DiverXO, began its life in 2012 in the heart of Madrid, where Muñoz opened the first branch in the gourmet food hall on the 9th floor of high-end department store El Corte Inglés on the Plaza de Callao. Essentially a street-food café, the Madrid branch, which will be re-located at the end of 2014, is designed so diners sit on stools around a small open kitchen area, where they listen to house music and watch an enthusiastic team of young chefs cook Asian-inspired meals to order.

The soon-to-open London outpost of StreetXO will be a more extreme, much larger and crazier incarnation of his original street food concept. Set in a 400 sq m space, there will again be a central open kitchen where the chefs will interact directly with the diners while they’re cooking. But there won’t be any waiters at all. The restaurant’s team, a handpicked selection of 20 of the best chefs from Muñoz’s team in Madrid, will both cook and serve their customers from a menu consisting of 12 to 14 dishes that will change regularly. There will also be a huge bar serving cocktails and champagne and a roving trolley stocked with one-off creations. Incredibly, Muñoz plans to spend as much time as possible at the new StreetXO in London, all while continuing to be present for service at DiverXO in Madrid.

It is an undeniable fact that this year has already been the busiest of Muñoz’s life. “The day has only 24 hours so is quite tough to be doing everything at the same time,” he admits, adding that he’s only been getting about four hours sleep per night since winning his third Michelin star. “We’re very busy with the restaurants and on top of that we are trying to attend to media, reviews and everything else.”

It’s still not enough for the young, ambitious chef, however. “The plans I’ve told you about so far are just for 2014,” he says. “Now, we’re trying to reach an agreement about taking StreetXO to Asia at the beginning of 2015. We’re still not sure if it’s going to be Singapore, Hong Kong or Macau, but it will be one of those cities for sure.”

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