Josean Alija will take care of it

During the celebrations for the 50Best in Bilbao, the patron-chef from Nerua stood out. As a cook, as well as the perfect host

06-07-2018

Josean Alija, chef at Nerua, inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, relaxing on the terrace of his restaurant after the hectic days of the World's 50Best (photo from Instagram/JoseanAlija)

In the days before and after the World’s 50Bestevent, it seemed that there were as many as three Josean Alija. A visit to the Basque Culinary Center? Here’s the chef in the front row. Dinner for Cantine Ferrari? He’s the one in charge. Gala dinner at the Euskaduna? He’s on the stage. A relaxing (for the guests) day-after buffet on the terrace of the Guggenheim? He’s setting the rhythm of the service. Dinner after dinner at Nerua? He’s always in the kitchen and in the dining room, for the pleasure of the many colleagues who paid him a visit (most of them in the 50 Best). And when he was not to be seen, he was hidden somewhere, being interviewed, solving unexpected issues, talking to his assistant Naiara Ortiz or organising the next steps with his Italian partner, Stefania Giordano. Both women were as ubiquitous as the boss.

«Before it all began», the cook says, now relaxing after the game, «we had a plan: we wanted to welcome everyone, one by one. We felt a big responsibility. We made a gigantic effort but we’re happy because everyone was happy».

Alija between the external relations manager Naiara Ortiz and his partner and maître, Italian Stefania Orlando (photo from instagram)

Alija between the external relations manager Naiara Ortiz and his partner and maître, Italian Stefania Orlando (photo from instagram)

With Alain Passard, one of the many chefs who visited Nerua on the occasion of the 50Best

With Alain Passard, one of the many chefs who visited Nerua on the occasion of the 50Best

After all, it was the perfect opportunity: in just a few days, he could present to cooks, journalists and foodies from all around the world an offer developed over 20 years, ever since the famous restaurant opened. This remembering that the area of Bilbao, is very different from nearby San Sebastian, celebrated for 20 years now as the hotbed of the Basque avant-garde.

«These two cities have a different soul», points out Alija, «San Sebastian is rather classic in its beauty and has an important fine dining scene. Bilbao is a younger city, which is enjoying a strong generational change, quickened by a strong cultural mix. Many cooks open here: today it’s easier to do, compared to a decade ago, when the money was there, but nobody wanted to spend it».

Tomates en salsa, Alija’s now super famous dish

Tomates en salsaAlija’s now super famous dish

White beans with pearl of spherified calamari, one of the neatest dishes in the tasting menu at restaurant Nerua in Bilbao (16 courses)

White beans with pearl of spherified calamari, one of the neatest dishes in the tasting menu at restaurant Nerua in Bilbao (16 courses)

As a result, today Bilbao has 5 starred restaurants: ZarateEtxanobeMinaZortziko and Nerua (which incredibly only has one Michelin star, since 2011). As for the 50Best, the names mentioned by the voters are Asador Etxebarri, 40 km East of Bilbao, 10th; Azurmendi in Larrabetzu, a 15 km drive, 43rd, and Nerua, 57th and moving up quickly. Next year, you can bet on it, they will all climb up the list, thanks to the positive effect that the hosting country usually experiences: ask Eleven Madison Park, first in 2017, the year after New York, or Attica, which has just jumped from 32 to 20 after last year’s Australian finals.

Whatever the outcome, Josean will continue to do his part, serving dishes with his personal style, following nature, constantly developing the invisible potential of a vegetable (as we’ve often mentioned in these pages). He’ll continue to update his travel and food column for local newspaper El Correo, to tell his opinion on Onda Ceroradio channel, to present his ideas in Singapore, Istanbul, London and all the cities where he’ll find an audience.

Fried hake with txoricero pepper

Fried hake with txoricero pepper

And when you ask him if he wants to open a Nerua restaurant somewhere else, he goes straight to the point: «I’d love to, but you must have people you can trust. This is why I have never accepted any of the many offers I’ve received so far».

«You cannot replicate Nerua somewhere else, because our work cannot be separated from our land», but this doesn’t mean it cannot happen, because «we can apply our knowledge and our know how to different cultures. There are places like Turkey or Italy that have magnificent products. One day, I’d like to take on this challenge».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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