Ángel León, the chef who cooks with light

The chef from Andalusia, voted best chef in Europe at Madrid Fusión, surprises with bioluminescence. Soon he’ll be in Milan

by Gabriele Zanatta
Earlier this week Ángel León, chef at Aponiente

Earlier this week Ángel León, chef at Aponiente near Cadiz, was nominated "best chef in Europe" at Madrid Fusión. In the picture, he’s sipping a glass of marine bioluminescence, made with proteins from a special type of phytoplankton. This was the topic of the lesson he gave this week at the Spanish congress. He’ll cover the subject also at Identità Milano on Monday 6th March, at 5.15 pm

The lesson given by Ángel León was one of the most awaited and followed of the 15th edition of Madrid Fusión. The chef del mar, reinvigorated after Aponiente’s complete renovations, is enjoying a moment of glory that reached its peak this week with the title of “Best chef in Europe” given by the patron of MF José Carlos Capél thanks to the sustainable-oriented project he’s conducting near Cadiz, in a mill wetted by the waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The fact the title is not platonic is proven by his predecessors in the gold book: Belgian Gert de Mangeleer, 3 Michelin stars, and Massimo Bottura last year, awarded thanks to his manifold Refettorio project.

Can you cook with light? León has been asking himself this for over 4 years now. «The sea is my big obsession and I lost all my hair because of this project», he debuted with a joke in front of the crowded audience. It’s called marine bioluminescence. «It’s a magic light I first saw when fishing for calamari in front of the beach in Bolonia. I grew up with ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ by Jules Verne on my bedside table and Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries on television. The abyss always fascinated me. Even more so, that light ploughing the dark».

Luminescent toast

Luminescent toast

What was it exactly? Finding out wasn’t easy: «I wondered: given I’m a chef who cooks croquettes, how can I get a deeper knowledge of such a scientific topic?». After a long research beside marine biologists, the chef understood the luminescence is caused by a type of phytoplankton that contains an enzyme called luciferase and a protein called luciferine. This catalyses the oxidation in a substrate that emits light. Now he needed to understand what species of plankton were edible and how he could extract this protein and perhaps reproduce it in an environment close to home, having set characteristics of temperature, salinity, PH and nutrients».

Then came the intuition: «We discovered there’s an island in the Pacific Ocean around which lives a crab rich of luciferine and luciferase. At wartime, they even used it to light up the maps on the ships. A stroke of luck as this crab perfectly adapts to our habitat. From these we create a biomass of luminous plankton which is then frozen at -15°C, dehydrated and cooked». The discovery was so appreciated León was called to present it at Harvard: «A dream come true», he recalled beaming.

But what does this light “taste” like? «It has no taste, but it depends on the chef cooking. It usually goes well with citric flavours». In Madrid he called on stage critic Rafa Garcia Santos, Basque chef Juan Marì Arzak and 18 more people from the audience. He handed them 20 glasses with the luminous proteins extracted from the crabs with a little alcohol and asked that all lights were turned off. When they rotated the glasses, the bioluminescence appeared. «Chef, you brought the light», someone said in the audience.

The ponencia at Madrid Fusión

The ponencia at Madrid Fusión

References to the Bible continued as after the title of best chef in the continent, León wanted to recall the early days at Aponiente: «Eleven years ago nobody understood us because our way of interpreting the sea was too maverick. Then God sent us the first Michelin star and when the second one came we realised we were on the right track». But he doesn’t feel he’s the Chosen One: «I’m a humble apprentice of the sea, but I still miss 95% of the information regarding my beloved ecosystem. Every single thing we use in the restaurant comes from the sea». His inspiration is entirely founded on this ‘ignorance’. «León is a chef who makes you dream», commented French-Catalan critic Philippe Regol, «and this is his great strength».

See also
The review of Aponiente by Julia Perez
The wind of Aponiente by Julia Perez
Meeting Angel Leon by Philippe Regol


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