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Madrid Fusión offers a holistic view of circular gastronomy

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The first major event in the gastronomy calendar to take place in person after the pandemic, saw chefs sharing their vision of a responsible future

Last week, Madrid Fusión, among the world’s leading gastronomy conferences, celebrated its 19thedition, welcoming 15,000 delegates in person, 183 exhibiting companies and chefs from across the world.

This year’s event was a genuinely global affair, as the hybrid model allowed viewers from around the world to watch the full programme, which was streamed from the auditorium in Madrid’s Ifema exhibition centre.

After a year like no other, the conference was never going to be the same as in previous years – capacity in the main auditorium was capped at half the usual capacity and adhering to Covid regulations applied elsewhere across Madrid, meant face masks were required – but organisers Vocento Gastronomia took advantage of the situation to reinvent the congress and presented an engaging programme.

Seeing the world as new

Under the banner of circular gastronomy, chefs shared their solutions for a better and more responsible future in a post-pandemic world. The re-opening, after a long period of closure was seen as an opportunity to re-think, as presented by Andoni Luis Aduriz, the owner of Avant Garde restaurant Mugaritz. His 2021 menu, entitled The first time, is the result of his musings during lockdown and an attempt to look at everything again as if it were for the very first time.

“Everything is different,” he said. “It is my wish that we can start to look at the world again in a new and different way.”

A positive impact

Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur restaurant in the south of France, currently ranked the world’s best, presented his new menu, guided by biodynamic principles and inspired by the lunar cycles. The concept, conceived during the long period of lockdown last year when he spent most of his time working the vegetable garden, means that guests book for one of four menus: leaf, root, flower or fruit depending on the position of the moon and the restaurant changes the menu up to four times a week.

“As chefs we have an opportunity to have a positive impact on the environment; we can raise awareness and I believe this is an important time to take care of life. This is what the planet needs and it is what future generations after us are demanding,” he said. “This is why I say that the future is today. Nature is at the core of our kitchen, we should be respecting its life cycles and we must never lose sight of this.”

Ángel Leon, the chef of Aponiente in Cadiz and pioneer of marine exploration, chose Madrid Fusión as the stage to unveil the result from his latest investigation, the marine grain. Working with a team of marine biologists Leon has uncovered the cereal, found in the sea grass zostera marine, that has the potential to be cultivated and serve as a solution to food poverty while recovering biodiversity.

From Spain to the world

Elsewhere Spanish chef Rodrigo de la Calle outlined his 20 year mission to promote a plant forward approach to his kitchen and chef prodigy Flynn McGarry shared his innovative take on the use of vegetables in his New York City restaurant Gem, on stage in Madrid.

Joining via video link, Joshua Niland demonstrated the fish butchery that he has pioneered from his Sydney restaurant Saint Peter while Asia’s best female chef DeAille Tam, from restaurant Obscura in Shanghai described how she used the local ingredients from the small producers she had met on her travels around China.

The conference was also an opportunity to learn how the non-profit organisation World Central Kitchen (WCK) had rapidly set up a Spanish operation in the early stages of the pandemic. Javier García from WCK outlined how the team had engaged chefs whose restaurants were closed to feed people in need.

Putting people first

While all of the chefs have carved a path of sustainable practices in the kitchen, pioneering an environmentally responsible approach and being mindful of elements such as energy efficiency and food waste, many chose to turn the focus on the human factor.

Diego Rossi who travelled to Madrid to speak about his modern take on the Italian trattoria Trippa in Milan has implemented a strict eight-hour work day. “When we talk about sustainability we must talk about human sustainability,” he said. “I understand that my team have a life and this way they work better. If we spend 18 hours in the kitchen we can’t think about what we are doing, we don’t know what we are doing.”

And Joan Roca, the head chef of El Celler de Can Roca spoke of his hope that the end of the pandemic won’t mean a return to business as usual. The curfew imposed on hospitality during Covid, meant guests had dinner earlier and the restaurant team finished the work day earlier too. He hoped to challenge the convention of traditionally later dinners in Spain and said the restaurant would continue to ask diners to reserve earlier.

“During the pandemic our guests had to eat dinner early and now we are going to continue with this schedule to give our staff a chance to have a better quality of life.”

His brother Josep, the sommelier and front of house director at El Celler de Can Roca, added to this by reflecting on the importance of emotion in the dining experience, as he outlined the initiatives his team have launched to create a better environment.“Looking after the team is the best kind of investment a restaurant can make,” he said.

On its return, Madrid Fusión offered a hopeful view of the future of gastronomy bringing to the fore a clear perspective of reinvention and reflection.

Madrid Fusión will return in January 2022 with its 20thedition.

Tina Nielsen

As he unveils a new sea discovery, chef Angel León tells Tina Nielsen about what he calls “the most beautfiul project” he has undertaken

Ángel León, the man behind Aponiente restaurant in Cádiz, may be the holder of three Michelin stars, but he has always insisted that he is a man of the sea first and chef second. A childhood spent fishing with his father in the waters surrounding his hometown in southern Spain, set him on a path of exploring the sea and advocating for its preservation.

Determined to uncover less well-known species and persuade the dining public to enjoy the seafood we may ordinarily consider unsuitable for consumption, he included unfamiliar dishes on his restaurant menu from day one.

Innovations such as the use of plankton in cooking or charcuterie made up of fish offcuts are just two of his notable projects that have surprised guests who return to Aponiente for the ingenius use of seafood.

Beyond the restaurant plate

His latest discovery appears to have more far-reaching impact, culinary, environmental and social – after four years of investigation he has unveiled a sea grain that can be cooked in a way similar to rice. In 2017, following previous projects, he decided to get more serious in his pursuit of the undiscovered treasures of the sea.

León put together a team of biologists and divers and the group started scanning the sea bed. “We set out to find any tubercle vegetables or fruits that might be there,” he explains. “During this search we came across a seabed that looked like a wheat field, made up of plants and we realised that the plants had a seed inside that looked like a grain.”

The plants were eelgrass growing along the coastline meadows and León sent the seeds to be investigated by a scientific committee who confirmed that the seed was the first grain to be discovered underwater.

Exponential growth

Describing it as a hybrid of rice and quinoa, he says it is the first grain to contain Omega 3 and analysis found it to be highly nutritious. It is absolutely sustainable and excellent for bio diversity.

As an ingredient it is hugely versatile and and can be used it in any way that you might use rice – cooked like pasta, used in risotto, ground to a flour for baking, baked or roasted. It can be eaten hot or cold.

But he insists that at this point he is not even thinking about cooking it or serving it to guests in Aponiente. “Right now I am thinking about how we can grow this exponentially to obtain the amount of seeds we need to plant it along African coasts, for example, and make it a vital ingredient to nourish people,” he says.

León’s sea grain is being touted a a new ‘superfood’, but the chef says this is more serious. “The term superfood is fashionable, but I understand that this is different,” he says. “It is a paradigm shift in our understanding of the sea as an opportunity to open a much wider path ahead than we ever thought.”

A door to the future

To discover the genuine potential of the sea grain, he set about planting it to grow in a controlled environment. Four years on from the initial discovery, he is confident the seeds can be grown extensively – pretty much anywhere that has a coast is suitable – and the discovery brings with it huge potential.

“We have demonstrated that this can be a forward-looking project that goes beyond serving guests in the restaurant,” he says.

Of all the projects he has instigated and all the discoveries he has made underwater, this, he says, is the most beautiful.

“Finding a grain underwater is something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams,” he says. “We are aware that we have discovered something more transcendent than anything else we have done before. We have opened a door to the future.”

Tina Nielsen

 

 

 

As the foodservice sector emerges from a year of disruption and devastation, Tina Nielsen speaks to professionals around the world about priorities and possibilities for the new year

To many of us the start of 2020 seems like a different lifetime. Last year was like none before and certainly nothing that any of us expected. This time last year, few would have even spoken of any sort of lockdown; as we approach the New Year, it has been named the word of the year. Societies, all over the world, have taken a battering – with (at the time of writing) more than 85 million Covid-19 infections recorded and a staggering 1.84 million deaths worldwide.

The foodservice and hospitality sector has been particularly hard hit, as governments have imposed strict rules on its practices and behavior. Reduced capacity, smaller group numbers, curfews and an apprehensive dining public have combined to decimate the sector as tens of thousands of operators have had to close completely. The pandemic continues to cause the postponing or scrapping of industry conferences and trade shows across the world.

But there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel – a vaccine has become a realistic prospect and with it the hope that we may soon return to a more normal life. As we enter 2021, we have asked professionals from across the foodservice spectrum all over the world for their thoughts on the priorities for the next year.

The big picture

Claudia Johannsen, business unit director at Hamburg Messe & Congress, who organizes the Internorga trade show in Hamburg, says little has changed in terms of priorities for the industry. “Topics such as sustainability and organic practices are still major drivers in the catering industry, but they are certainly in even greater demand now,” she says. “And, of course, digitization is not new, but it now needs to, and will, be developed even faster. No restaurateur can escape the need to invest in digital processes and measures.”

As operators are starting to embrace new ways to market – setting up temporary grocery stores, offering delivery and take out services – manufacturers are looking to diversification too. Steve Hobbs, the chair of Foodservice Equipment Association (FEA), says adaptability is key. “Manufacturers are already looking to diversify through new channels, new opportunities and areas that are showing recovery and growth, such as the grab-and-go market, convenience stores and independent pubs,” he says.

While the issues top of the list have not changed, the conditions in which operators work for them have, according to Colleen Vincent, vice president of community at the James Beard Foundation (JBF).  “Restaurants are trying to survive. They are focused on keeping staff employed and safe while building structures to provide outdoor dining, distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) for guests and staff, pivoting business offerings to include to-go or delivery, and continue to provide good quality food. It is an extremely trying time,” she says. “Prior to Covid, the industry was already paying attention to important issues across the spectrum, from employee healthcare and paid leave to the big tipping debate and general cost of food.”

Now, she says, is the moment to take stock, identify the inequities and try to fix them as restaurants come back. “Changes to pay disparity, racial and gender equity, basic human resources’ needs – all of these things should be examined as we move forward.”

People

Across the world thousands of workers in foodservice have lost their livelihood. Operators who have been lucky enough to hold on to their teams have an opportunity to solidify during an enforced quiet time.

Anticipating another wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring, Alexander Hofer, CEO of H44 Team in South Tyrol, Italy, believes by that point the worst might at last be behind us. He says this time could be used well to focus on employees. “In the current business there is now enough time and resources to train the employees and bind them to the company and its identity. From my point of view that’s a unique opportunity that will not come [again] anytime soon.”

Adding quality to the lives of his staff is also on the mind of chef Ángel León who plans to go from a five-day week to four at his three-star restaurant Aponiente in the south of Spain, giving his team three days off. “I understand that having three days instead of two can be life-changing and it will allow my team to smile throughout their weekend,” he says and adds that just because things have always worked a certain way, it doesn’t mean we have to keep them that way. “This has always been the sector where people put in most hours, but we have to change the paradigm. Making this change will allow me to demand more from my team and, importantly, we’ll all be happier and have more time for our lives,” he says.

A renewed focus on equality

Vincent of the JBF, points to the “disheartening’” situation experienced by black and indigenous Americans as a consequence of the pandemic. “The impact of Covid-19 on the industry as a whole is devastating, but it is often found that businesses owned predominantly by black and indigenous Americans are disproportionately underfunded,” she explains. “What’s more, since Covid hit, more businesses led by these communities have shuttered and revenue fell more starkly than their white counterparts.”

JBF has launched its Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans to provide financial resources for food or beverage businesses that are majority-owned by black or indigenous individuals. The grants make up part of the Open for Good campaign that was put in motion in April to rebuild a more resilient and sustainable independent restaurant industry. “We believe it’s time for us to take intentional and aggressive action to help create a more equitable industry for communities that are disproportionately impacted by systemic racism,” says Vincent.

Ricardo Chaneton, chef owner of Mono restaurant in Hong Kong, agrees. “All eyes are now on the economy and the profit margins and it’s so easy to overlook the more human and social factors of the fall-out. Discrimination was prevalent in the past, but the gap has widened significantly with the pandemic, people have become less kind.”

Financial stability

The industry may have been caught unprepared by Covid, but there’s consensus that a priority for 2021 and beyond must be to prepare for this to happen again. “It may not be possible to anticipate the nature of the next macro-threat, but one underlying factor that helps the operator beat the odds for survival no matter what is thrown at them is holding a strong financial position. Going forward, a top priority should be strengthening the P&L and balance sheet,” says Don Fox, CEO of the American sandwich chain Firehouse Subs.

Denis Daveine FCSI, general manager of Alma Consulting in France is straightforward: “Without hesitation, the priority is to avoid bankruptcy and closure of restaurants,” he says “If these do not present a risk in public foodservice (institutions such as schools and hospitals need to be open), commercial catering, corporate catering and all activities related to events and cultural venues are in the red and must find alternative ways to make money, at least for a while.”

Before the pandemic, restaurants were often based on flimsy financial foundations and this is set to change. Those who make it through the year will count themselves lucky. Others may rethink the way they fund their restaurant ventures.

As Hans Neuner, executive chef of Ocean Restaurant at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa in Algarve in Portugal, says, this is not an industry that puts aside money for a rainy day. “Many of us have not experienced a pandemic before, so if you have money left over you invest – in new chairs or in the kitchen. You are never going to keep half a million to one side in case Covid strikes,” he says.

“Many restaurants have not been built on super stable financials and people take out loans from the bank and then they open the restaurant and if they can’t pay back one month they are finished. That is a problem worldwide.”

Sustainability

Before Covid-19 hit, the drive for sustainability was already building momentum. From this sharp focus on eliminating single-use plastic and reducing food waste emerged clever solutions – this is set to resume as the sector, acutely aware of environmental challenges, moves on. Chaneton predicts sustainability will go from a nice-to-have to becoming a business imperative. “There has been a surge of single-use plastic in disposable packaging as restaurants pivot to the delivery/take-out model,” he says.

In recent years, chefs launched zero-waste restaurants – London’s Silo and Amass in Copenhagen being two examples – and the public embraced a new approach to eating what would usually be considered off-cuts destined for the kitchen bin.

But Covid-19 and the increased hygiene restrictions as well as the surge in delivery and take-out have brought along a new wave of single-use plastics. “Recent years had seen incredible momentum in reducing the use of disposables for foodservice in contract catering environments, but Covid has seen an overnight reversal of this at many operations as they move away from self-service to pre-packaged product,” says Ed Bircham FCSI, director at Humble Arnold Associates in the UK.

He predicts one of the mega-trends that will become more dominant in future years is so-called net zero targets and these will affect how operators and designers plan operations. “We are at the embryonic stage of companies and organizations divesting themselves from fossil fuels as part of ‘net zero’ targets. This laudable environmental initiative will present operators and designers with a real challenge to fulfil the consumer demand for authenticity for certain cuisines,” he says. “The theater and flavor associated with open flame cooking such as grilling and wok cooking is compromised by ‘all electric’ solutions so this might start to influence development of concepts in some environments.”

Sustainability and economics will require a sharper focus on equipment, according to FEA’s Steve Hobbs. “There’s been a seismic shift in understanding the importance of sustainability. Thus the focus has to be on energy efficiency and labor saving, through advanced technologies such as connectivity,” he says. “With a glut of second-hand equipment likely to enter the market, the temptation may be to buy cheap rather than invest in the long term. However, it’s new, modern equipment that will deliver the productivity and running cost savings that foodservice businesses will need. Operators who are doing relatively well at the moment will wish to further leverage their market position, and will be likely to invest in the new technology.”

A renewed drive on combating climate may see restaurants implementing changes to their menus. Neuner in Portugal took the opportunity to eliminate meat from the menus at Ocean during the pandemic. It was something he had wanted to do for a while, having reduced his own meat consumption considerably in recent years. Covid provided the perfect moment.

“I am from Austria and when I was a kid we’d eat meat every day, but the last two or three years if you look at the planet I think everybody has to start with himself,” he says. “The whole world has to change the way it eats.”

Local responsibility

At Ocean restaurant, the practice has been to buy regional and local produce for several years now. “I don’t want my products flying all over the planet and I think today more people think like this,” says Neuner. “It was a trend before but I think Covid made it more a priority. I think many restaurants will change.”

Chaneton in Hong Kong says the entire sector needs to increase the focus on the local market and community on all levels and throughout the entire domestic supply chain, including suppliers, producers and the artists. “When you lock down the borders, it throws a wrench into the works, especially for places that are used to exporting their produce elsewhere, like South America,” he says. “So even if it means choosing to source from local purveyors by 10% more, partnering with small businesses to support them, every bit helps. There is strength in unity, and we have a collective onus to support the communities that need to be rebuilt in the wake of the pandemic and create a sustainable economy.”

This resonates with Javier Olleros, chef owner of Culler de Pau, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Galicia in northern Spain. He says it’s time to move away from certain aspects of gastronomy. “We don’t want to go back to the excess and that disconnect with nature,” he says.

He prefers to talk of being responsible more than sustainable. “I think we need to get back to committing to nature; we had got to a point of anything goes, where we forgot where our produce came from and importantly we stopped looking after our small suppliers,” he explains. “If we can take anything positive from this time, it is that it has forced us to look closer to home at our local communities.” This, he adds, is where we start to build a better society.

It is a philosophy that has been developed during the past 11 years at Culler de Pau, that focuses on people, environment and finance – and responsibility for the world around them. “We are still learning, but we see our path clearly.”

Rebuild customer trust

A year is a long time in the relationship between restaurants and customers and many diners may have formed new habits – delivery to their home might seem more convenient or safer. Fox of Firehouse Subs, warns that customers will be cautious in their approach to dining out. “Restaurant brands where on-premise business is more important to the success of the concept will need to stay in touch with the needs of the consumer relative to the dine-in experience,” he says.

Sanitation will have a major part to play. “Establishing an environment that offers the guest a sense of protection from Covid-19 will be paramount. Some of the steps required – especially maintaining social distancing in the dining room – may work against the restaurant’s recovery to pre-pandemic levels.” For some, he adds, 2021 will still be a year of being in survival mode, with no prospect of meaningful recovery until 2022.

Where hygiene is concerned, double down on the basics. It’s time, says Daveine, to ask: “Were things done properly before? This crisis has brought fundamental notions of hygiene back to the forefront.”

“Now more than ever, customers’ trust needs to be boosted by restaurateurs making sure that a visit to their premises is safe for their guests, and also becomes fun again. A comprehensive, well-thought-out hygiene and safety concept provides the basis for that,” says Johannsen.

Bircham believes foodservice is already in a good place. “Arguably, after healthcare, foodservice is the most conscientious and attentive industry when it comes to matters of hygiene. Operators are required to document processes to demonstrate hygienic processes are followed,” he says. “There may be benefit in trying to emphasize this point to the general public to regain confidence in dining out. This aspect has led to an accelerated adoption of touch free equipment including connectivity with devices of some customer facing equipment; also of kitchen technologies such as air sterilization equipment.”

While foodservice is a leader in hygiene, Bircham says it will have to be more obvious in the future. “The nature of food displays is reverting to more enclosed styles with a move back to fully enclosed sneeze screens rather than open displays with suspended decorative heat lamps that were becoming more prevalent to achieve more residential feel, less institutional solutions,” he says, but adds there are benefits to be gained from this too. “The positive is that these solutions by necessity will be assisted service, offering operators an opportunity to improve guest experience through engagement with customers, albeit at an increased labor cost.”

Digital and diversified

The wisdom of adopting a multichannel approach to any operation is beyond any doubt now. When the pandemic hit and foodservice operations were forced to close across the world, new sales channels including take-out and delivery made the difference between permanent closure and survival.

“Mastering off-premise channels and having a solid digital platform have risen to the top of the priority list,” says Fox. “This was a trend that was in play well before Covid-19, but the pandemic greatly accelerated it.”

Sam Ward, managing director of Umbel Restaurant Group in the UK, says diversification has been key to the group of restaurants, headed by chef Simon Rogan. “We launched Rogan at Home from day one, starting off with £5 lunches and then we built it from there and now we are doing £95 Christmas lunches with five courses nationwide,” he says.

There are extensive plans to keep this new business channel open and expand it after the pandemic. “We are only just getting started,” he adds.

This means embracing technology, according to Juan Matamoros FCSI, CEO of Food Gurus in El Salvador. “Customers use more apps, order online and look on the web for information from restaurants. Technology helps foodservice teams work faster in kitchens and decrease the cost of labor,” he says. “The profitability of a business is now focused on a new reality with fewer customers and fewer locations available. My advice is to focus on innovation in packaging and technology. Right now it is important to make decisions quickly and strategically.”

In the drive to put out an appealing offer Ward adds it’s crucial to keep brand values top of mind. “Diversify, but at no point sacrifice brand values,” he says. “I have seen a lot of places that in normal times send out world-class products and then all of the sudden you are doing something very basic and you are not representing yourself truly. You still have to do something that you would stand by whether it is during a pandemic or not.”

This means looking for smart and sustainable solutions for packaging too. “We can use plastic to pack things up, but there are so many great businesses out there who have come up with great sustainable solutions to stop the sector using the plastic. I have seen amazing businesses with great brand names sending stuff out in polystyrene and plastic and I think ‘you can do better than this’,” he concludes. “A little bit of thought is important; you can come up with ideas and still represent yourself well.”

Thriving long-term

Inevitably a seismic event such as the Covid pandemic will leave lasting change on society and the foodservice sector. Things will have to evolve. Being at the mercy of a variety of dining restrictions, has thrown into sharp relief  restaurants’ need for agility and adaptability and this will be of great benefit, says Chaneton. “We’ve had to take a magnifying glass to every aspect of our restaurant, from menu, guest relations and what we put into the takeaway bag to how we behave as employers and employee welfare etc. It has provided a time for introspection, as we’ve had to examine and be considered about every cog in the restaurant, because it will affect the end result in a tangible way. The silver lining is that we’ve learned to always look forward and appreciate life a bit more. We are in a moment of humanity that will make history.”

“The biggest long-term issue is the impact the pandemic has had on the operator’s view of restaurant size. Conventional wisdom has been that operators can downsize, or even eliminate dining rooms all together,” says Fox. “The wisdom of this decision remains to be seen. It could be that over the longer term, pent up demand creates greater use of dining rooms once permitted by the government. Brands that over-reacted to Covid-19 by greatly reduced dining rooms may end up regretting it in as little as 18-24 months.”

This adaptability will be crucial to everybody across the sector, according to FEA’s Hobbs. “Wherever you are in the supply chain, manufacturer, consultant, reseller or operator, adaptability is key. There may be difficult decisions to make for the long-term benefit of your business and the colleagues who work with you,” he says. “Analyze your operations and shed the elements that don’t add value. Take a strategic view of your position in the industry and think disruptively – as we’ve seen over many years, disruptive ideas and unconventional strategies lead to innovation and opportunity.”

Onwards and upwards

For all the challenges Covid-19 has brought the foodservice sector, it also offers restaurateurs an opportunity to stay competitive and capitalize on new opportunities. “In the future, the delivery service sector will play an even greater role for restaurants, and it will have to be expanded and further developed in order to retain existing customers and appeal to new ones,” says Johannsen. “The focus should also move to a well-functioning database and communication with guests – that means customer loyalty programs.”

Will foodservice as we knew it before Covid return? Daveine believes so. “If different models – take-away and delivery – have progressed, I think that catering where the customer comes to live a culinary experience is going to last. Health issues will not last forever,” he says.

This, after all, is a sector that is propelled by collaboration and collegial support.

“This is a hard time, but the bottom line is that it will make us stronger,” says Hofer. “Stay true to yourself, persevere and retain your team as much as possible. The time will come when things will get better, at least that’s what I wish everyone in our sector.”

His words of advice for colleagues is to stay positive and agile. “Remain optimistic so that you can respond flexibly to the challenges of these times. And don’t be afraid to stray from the paths you have become familiar with, rethink things and find creative solutions for your business,” he adds.

Above all, says Bircham, don’t lose sight of the purpose of what you do and how to achieve this: “The key requirement is unchanged – to remain focused on customer experience. The experience requirements may have changed slightly to ensure comfort of guests, but ultimately repeat business and strong recommendation levels will be led by this.”

Tina Nielsen

"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.”

Tina Nielsen

 

Photos: Sefora Trujillo

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