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Out to sea: Chef Ángel León in profile

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Driven by a love for the sea, Ángel León has promoted sustainability at his restaurant in the south of Spain. He tells Tina Nielsen how following his own path has led him to three Michelin stars 

Anyone visiting Aponiente on the far south-western coast of Spain soon realises that all is not what it seems. A plate of charcuterie might include chorizo, salchichón and pork loin. Or so you think. The meats look and taste like the real thing, but they are in fact all made of fish.

Similarly, the suckling pig, that classic Spanish dish, appears to be just that, but what the diner actually eats is a piece of seabass belly topped with a shard of crisped skin of moray eel. The eel tastes uncannily like pork crackling.

They are examples of the inventive way that chef Ángel León plays with our palate and perception of food. In the case of the charcuterie, he assures me, it is all about the spicing. Once you get that paprika hit right in the chorizo there is no difference. The dishes are part of chef León’s celebrated tasting menu in Aponiente, awarded its third Michelin star in 2018, and behind the trickery is a serious message.

Driven by a love and concern for marine life, León is on a mission to open our minds to eating different species from the sea and encourage sustainable behaviour. He cooks fish and uses ingredients few of us have heard of let alone eaten before. Here diners are offered more abundant, but often overlooked species such as ling and herring.

Working with a team of biologists and scientists on investigation projects, he has discovered new ingredients such as marine sugars. He is surely the first fine-dining chef to successfully incorporate marine plankton in dishes. “It took many years of investigation before we could cook the plankton,” explains León. “Whenever I tried it I thought it was unlike anything I had tasted before and I was sure that sooner or later people would value such a pure flavour of the sea.”

From the sea to the kitchen

Diners have to make an effort to visit Aponiente. Few can fly directly to the nearest airport in Jeréz de la Frontera, so the trip mostly involves a flight, followed by a train ride to El Puerto de Santa María, León’s hometown. But recently, due to what the chef dubs “the Michelin effect”, plenty have made the trip – between 50% and 70% of visitors are international.

They travel to the former tidal mill, dating back to 1815 and once a vital part of the area’s flour industry, but abandoned since the 1970s. The chef poured his love and money into it when he converted it into the imposing building that has housed Aponiente since 2015. “I was in love with the mill when I was a child,” he explains. “It was completely destroyed and we have got it back in shape.”

León once confessed to a journalist that he felt like the ugly duckling in the world of gastronomy. Reminded of this, he explains that what he meant was he felt like an outsider among his peers; he didn’t have the right narrative. “Their story was always, ‘I was inspired to cook with my mother and my grandmother taught me when I was a little boy and so on’, it was always such a romantic story,” he says.

His own story, he adds, lacks that romance. “I never wanted Michelin stars. What I love above anything else is the sea.” More than cooking? “Yes. For me the kitchen is my loudspeaker where I can talk about my passion for the sea. It inspires me.”

León grew up in El Puerto de Santa María with dreams of becoming a fisherman or a marine biologist. Failing that he thought he might open a bar. His father opened his eyes to the sea as a boy, the two spent entire summers out on the water, sailing and fishing. “That’s really where the story starts, it began in the sea and ends in the kitchen,” he says. “I went to catering college for three years, but even then I wasn’t sure I’d end up working in a kitchen.”

After college, he travelled to France where he spent seven years learning the trade in Le Chapon Fin in Bordeaux. This, he says, was where he became a proper chef; it provided him with structure and discipline. “I was a hyperactive person, it was hard for me to focus and the experience helped me to channel that energy,” he explains. It was also a time when he started to consider how his cooking would be – that it would be focused on the sea was a given. “I started to think about how I would cook the fish that nobody wanted. I have gone out on boats many times and seen them throw out so much fish,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why nobody wanted it and that became an obsession for me.”

On his return to Spain he opened a casual bar first, later a tavern and finally came Aponiente, which he opened in 2009. The first location for the restaurant was a tiny site, measuring 180 sq m, where he achieved “surreal things”. Nobody expected, he says, that they would receive two Michelin stars for their out-there project in a tiny restaurant in small town Spain.

Free as a bird

With marine plankton and similarly unusual ingredients on the menu, Aponiente would have been a tricky sell in any big city in Spain, but in El Puerto de Santa María it was almost impossible to start with. For the first four years the restaurant teetered on the edge of closure. “People would come into the restaurant and we would give them food that nobody understood, they didn’t get the concept in a country that had only recently acknowledged sustainability,” he explains. “Everybody said I was a swindler because they would come to my restaurant and I gave them food nobody else wanted and on top of it I would charge them €100 for it.”

Fast forward to 2018 when we meet in Aponiente, its new home a vast building standing on the edge of the Guadalete River, a short distance from the Bay of Cádiz. The entrance large enough to hold a second dining room, the ceilings suitably high for a man who thinks big. A long corridor, resplendent with custom-made sculptures and furniture, take visitors past the wine vault and the open kitchen and finally into the cavernous dining room, which seats just 30 diners.

It is an indulgent project and an expensive one. In a seemingly high-stakes move León decided to go it alone with the bank and has no outside investors on board. “I didn’t want to prostitute myself to anyone. This is a project that money doesn’t understand. Yes, it would have been a lot easier with the investment but I feel free as a bird – that is priceless,” he says. “Of course, it is scary and doubly so when you are on your own, but equally it makes you doubly happy when things go well.”

He still has his original crew with him, something he is clearly thrilled about. “We have had many tough times and now here we are on top and able to tell the world about our work and people around the world catch a plane to come and visit us. We are lucky.”

It makes the moment he is living now even sweeter. “Of course. I no longer have to justify what I am doing. These days I do my thing, people visit and they leave happy.”

Today León is a big draw at gastronomy congresses and chef meet-ups; he travels to events around the world, sharing his message and gets the VIP treatment afforded chefs of his status these days, something he seems conflicted about – his mantra is feet on the ground, head in the sea. “We live in a time where gastronomy has become this big deal and when I visit places the way they treat me makes me quite embarrassed. I am not Freddie Mercury; I am a chef who cooks croquettes,” he says.

Being so far from the culinary hot spots of Spain, the hallowed grounds of the Basque Country and Catalonia – León never spent any time working in the kitchens of the famous restaurants such as elBulli – might have been isolating for some, but he sees it as an advantage. “We exist in this micro world and we do our own thing, the way we like, not because other people do it. You have to make your own path to create your own history.”

Besides, living and working in his hometown was always the plan. “I always wanted to live here, surrounded by the people I know and with whom I have grown up,” he says. “This is where I am from, where I can go and have a coffee and people know me and where the beach is five minutes away. When you have travelled the world, those are things that you value so much more.”

A serious mission

With the Michelin stars and recommendations from the The New York Times – four years in, the US newspaper included Aponiente in a list of 10 restaurants worth travelling for – it is easy to forget that behind the restaurant is a serious mission: to fight for the ocean. “What I have done during these years is attempt to look at the kitchen as a marine biologist, not a chef. Just trying to learn and to understand the sea better,” he says.

“The biggest challenge is to make sure people understand the message behind what I do; that they don’t just get what is put in front of them on the plate, but understand the story behind it,” he says.

It has not always been easy to communicate this, but over time he has learnt to moderate his message. “We used to be very radical, almost aggressive, in our approach. I used to overload people with my ideas, but I’ve now learnt to tell people in a different way,” he says. “Now I understand that people come here to enjoy good food and wine.”

León describes the cuisine at Aponiente as based on tradition and technique, but in the menu he attempts to show how the sea can surprise if we allow it to. He returns to the issue of the large quantities of fish that we discard. “I think we can eat everything in the sea, but we choose to eat the same things,” he says. “There are millions of tons of fish in the sea, but we don’t want them because they are unknown and we don’t trust them. As human beings, we are very strange – and this in the 21st century when we are supposedly advanced. The ocean will punish us. Not now, but it will punish us.”

Creating good things

He makes no bones about the crisis facing marine life. The origin of the problem is a familiar foe – plastic. During investigative trips at sea, León and his crew have discovered that plankton is nourishing itself on plastic.

“The plankton consumes the plastic, which has broken down over time. The problem is that being at the start of the feeding chain, the plankton sets in motion a catastrophic process. Ultimately, it will be consumed by a mackerel, which in turn might get eaten by a tuna and the chain goes on.”

He is pessimistic about the future. “The sea will punish us. I think there will be a moment when we go to the fishmonger and we won’t be able to choose,” he says. “Everybody loves bream, but for every kilo of bream that is caught, six kilos of other fish are thrown over the side. The fishermen are not interested in bringing in the fish that nobody knows or wanst to eat and this happens everywhere,” he says. “We have to accept this, but as human beings we have everything, so right now it doesn’t matter to us.”

Last year León brought together more than 70 chefs from across Spain to discuss sustainability away from the media glare. “It was a party, but it was also a forum for us to talk honestly about this, without any congress, no other people, just a space for us to share our shame. We say we are sustainable but how can we be genuinely sustainable?” he asks. The attending chefs signed a manifesto and committed to raising standards; León was satisfied. “A movement was born out of those days, it is a wonderful thing,” he says.

For a chef who never strove for Michelin stars or stardom, what comes next? “My dream is to make the most of where gastronomy is right now to create good things, rather than just appearing on TV,” he says. “I feel that [as chefs] we should be responsible and use our position to call attention to this issue.”

No longer the ugly duckling, though the kitchen may not have been the first ambition for the young boy who dreamed of the sea, León has managed to construct a career that indulges his number one passion.

You suspect the chef, never entirely at ease in the spotlight, wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is a lot busier now, with three restaurants in the Cádiz area and another in Madrid alongside the commercial activities to fund it all, but León still takes to the water four or five times a week. “I need to,” he reflects. “That is where I lose mobile coverage, where I can sit in silence, watching it all go by in this mad world in which I have ended up.”

Tina Nielsen