Full immersion with Josean Alija: avantgarde is not over. As for the creative process...

Pills of wisdom from the chef of Nerua, who prepared a marvellous dinner at Identità Golose Milano. And then did an encore, with Camanini

22-05-2019
Josean Alija, born in 1978, chef at Nerua in Bi

Josean Alija, born in 1978, chef at Nerua in Bilbao. A few nights ago, he served a masterful dinner at Identità Golose Milano. Followed by a four-handed encore with Riccardo Camanini

«A line we follow is that of flavours and memory; we convey this through broth, juices that allow us to make a very tasty yet light cuisine. And then there’s a visual line too, the aesthetics of the dish, which must always have no more than two or three elements. These are dishes you must eat with a spoon; indeed, a spoon is the element that allows you to fully notice every note when tasting a dish: the ingredient, the story, the texture, the taste... See: it’s like a real caress».

With these words Josean Alija ends his interview, in which we covered many topics that deal with contemporary cuisine. These are pills – or rather caresses – of gastronomic wisdom. Here’s what he said, with no comments because they are precious gems that are worth keeping.

Alija in the kitchen of Identità Golose Milano, the first international hub of gastronomy

Alija in the kitchen of Identità Golose Milano, the first international hub of gastronomy

THE CREATIVE PROCESS - «The menu is like a journey with multiple legs: the final destination is telling a story, illustrating a sensorial narrative that starts from flavours and depicts what stands next to them, the culture of a place. It’s a complicated process: we need to think out and choose among many different roads. It’s like when you have a rough stone in front of you, and you must make an artwork out of it: you have the basic ingredients, but you must work hard to create that journey that will later become the next recipe. We mostly work with local products, and especially with those that are less used, so as to find new roads. Another very interesting work is to understand how we can approach concepts and techniques we come across while travelling to other countries; these are small discoveries we then want to adapt to our style in the kitchen, based on only a few elements that, however, are filtered through many techniques and concepts. This is our line and we always remain faithful to this concept because it’s what characterises us; this is the cuisine we know how to make, it makes us happy and it’s what our clients want».

Alija with his wife and dining room manager at Nerua, Stefania Giordano from Savona

Alija with his wife and dining room manager at NeruaStefania Giordano from Savona

CHANGING THE MENU IN A RESTAURANT - «Every time we change the menu, we always base our work on the best seasonal raw materials. Now it’s springtime. It’s a very special moment, because we have some extraordinary, unique products available. We can find them fresh only in this season, like dwarf peas, asparagus, anchovies, mackerel... They’re truly special. Our offer encloses 28 strictly-seasonal dishes, which will change on July 2nd, with the summer offer».

WORKING ONE YEAR AHEAD - «We’re studying the menu for the next spring… right now! Our job involves constantly selecting products to give shape to new dishes. In the menu we presented at Identità Golose Milano, for instance, there were two courses that are now classics, Foie gras, carrots and makil goxo, an iconic dish now, and Cod kokotxa with pilpil sauce made with sea hearts, typical of the Basque culinary tradition. Then we had a new dish, from this year, Oyster, egg yolk and rice brittle;Besugo with rhubarb cream was included in the menu last winter; Strawberries, apple and fenugreek is from last year, while White asparagus, beetroot and horseradish was designed last year for 2019. Finally, Artichokes, fond of leek and anchovies and Scallop, cauliflower and broth of seafood are at their debut. We have worked on them for the past few months and we will include them in the menu at Nerua next year». 

 

Artichokes, fond of leeks and anchovies 

Artichokes, fond of leeks and anchovies 

Scallop, cauliflower and seafood broth 

Scallop, cauliflower and seafood broth 

THE CHANGES IN ALIJA - «Is there any difference between today’s Josean and the one from 10, 15 years ago? Look, I was simply younger, thinner and faster, and with no grey hair! Joking aside, I believe the only difference in the kitchen is that, with the same talent, it was much harder for me to reach my goals. Today, with 15 years of experience on my back, I find things easier. Otherwise, I think Josean has remained the same».

THE IMPORTANCE OF VEGETABLES- «Vegetables are based on the region, which means seasonality. Our region is scattered with vegetable gardens, it’s a real heaven for vegetables, which are always featured in our dishes. In other culinary traditions – like in Asia, the Japanese, Chinese and Indian, as well as the Arab – vegetables are part of the culinary tradition. Here, in the West, it’s accidental. The don’t have a main role. I love using them because in Europe we know many varieties but we don’t know how to cook them! At Nerua, over the years, we’ve developed many techniques to cook vegetables. The results have been spectacular because these products are colourful, they have texture, flavour, they are very different from one another, which allows for many different techniques. There’s a world of opportunities that stimulates my creativity and has a positive impact on health and digestion». 

 

White asparagus, beetroot and horseradish 

White asparagus, beetroot and horseradish 

FISH AND MEAT - «Our other strong point is fish, which we interpret with a focus on seasonality and proximity. We select the products based on the sea’s “moment”. Indeed, the sea has many different phases throughout the year. It’s different with meat, which is always the same, 365 days a year».  

Cod Kokotxa with pil pil sauce of sea hearts 

Cod Kokotxa with pil pil sauce of sea hearts 

Besugo with rhubarb cream 

Besugo with rhubarb cream 

Foie gras, carrots and makil goxo

Foie gras, carrots and makil goxo

THE FAMILY MAN - «I look for raw materials with an exceptional character, which comes from variety, from the attention paid to their production and from proximity, which allows us to collect these ingredients at the very moment when they can be fully enjoyed. It’s like what good parents did in the old days, when they fed their family with the best they could find in the pantry, day by day. We’ve recovered that approach».

From the Instagram profile of Paolo Marchi, Josean Alija with Franco Pepe. The pizzaiolo from Caiazzo participated in the dinner with the chef from Nerua at Identità Golose Milano

From the Instagram profile of Paolo MarchiJosean Alija with Franco Pepe. The pizzaiolo from Caiazzo participated in the dinner with the chef from Nerua at Identità Golose Milano

AVANTGARDE IS ALIVE! - «There’s no before and after the Spanish avantgarde in the kitchen. There’s simply been an evolution, but the creative process that started many years ago was not interrupted. There’s been a boom in the past, it’s true; right now, instead, there’s a settlement phase, but always based on high quality. Restaurants have sound foundations now, and they can offer even stronger messages, and just as important as the previous ones. Avantgarde is not over, it evolves with people; avantgarde and creativity continue their journey, hand in hand. They’re dynamic; today we cook with much more technique and awareness than 10 years ago; before, ideas were considered more important. Today, it’s the meeting of ideas and saber hacer, know how. What has increased, it’s variety: in Spain, there are many restaurants that are extremely different from one another, both in the same town and across the country, with very interesting culinary offers. Especially here, in the Basque Country, there’s a remarkable concentration; we’re all different from one another, we show different points of view but we always base our work on the same values that draw from our region. Speaking of avantgarde cuisine, I believe there’s no richer country than Spain in terms of original offer with different identities. All this is based on the same products and the same techniques. Are some people speaking of post-avantgarde? I believe there’s no such thing as post-avantgarde. I think it makes no sense».

TRENDS AND YOUNG PEOPLE - «Today opening a fine dining restaurant is quite hard, all around the world, because it’s very expensive – so it also depends on the capital available at the beginning: you need millions of euros! – and the profitability is limited. If any, there’s a tendency to open "alternative" places, of extraordinary quality, but not necessarily what we’d call fine dining. And this because of costs. So the most interesting new places are mostly small restaurants, with no frills, but capable of telling a story. They show the great passion of the cocinero, and present dishes with excellent techniques and raw materials».

Strawberries, apple and fenugreek ice cream 

Strawberries, apple and fenugreek ice cream 

KEEP AN EYE ON THEM - «On top of the already famous chefs, in Spain there are many other talents that are standing out. There’s Pedro Sanchez, born in 1977: he cooks incredibly well at Baga Espacio Gastronómico in Jaen, in Andalusia. Then there’s Javier Olleros, born in 1974: his Culler de Pau in Galicia is sublime. And as for the following generations, of course I must mention Juan Luis "Juanlu" Fernández, with his LU Cocina y Alma in Jerez de la Frontera, also in Andalusia; he was born in 1984, and worked with Ángel León at Aponiente. Finally, there’s Víctor Membibre, only 25, third generation at the family restaurant Membibre in Madrid».

Oyster, egg yolk and rice brittle 

Oyster, egg yolk and rice brittle 

The photos of the dishes are fromTanio Liotta.

Translated by Slawka G. Scarso


Sections

Identità Golose Milano

Tales and photos from the first International Hub of Gastronomy in Via Romagnosi, 3 in Milan