Andoni Aduriz: “To create you have to believe”

“Creativity is based on that distinct look or that unusual flavour, but, in turn, it is based on something that was already known and which, in addition to being new, has to be good. The exercise of creativity is a combination of the new and the good.”

That is creativity for Andoni Luis Aduriz.He says this atMugaritz, his restaurant, on a spring afternoon on which he is going to talk to Jorge Martínez, Toni Segarra and Enrique Gracián.The team from The Table has gone this time to San Sebastian in search of more clues about the creative method.

Segarra kicks off. And goes straight to the point.

Toni Segarra: In our research we have discovered that you chefs create algorithms.A recipe is an algorithm.

Andoni Aduriz: Well, I failed mathematics. So, please explain it to me… (laughs)

Enrique Gracián: If you have an algorithm, you know what you have to do, and if you don’t, you don’t.

T.S.:   Ferran Adrià discovered that the restaurant was not helping him much in creating the algorithm for his cooking so he created a laboratory. He started making a series of decisions that went against the concept of the restaurant until he decided to close it. At the very end, he even removed the diner from the equation. There was a moment when he discovered that the customer is very important. He or she adds ketchup, salt… Orders steak rare or well done… The menu itself gives diners an extraordinary central role.At elBulli and here at Mugaritz, you offer a model in which diners are not involved in the experience beyond enjoying it and expressing theirfeedback.But if it’s not a restaurant, what is it?Your work actually affects gastronomy more than the world of the restaurant.

A.A.: In a conventional restaurant, the diner is much more involved than in a more sophisticated restaurant. Sometimes a person travels half way around the world to have an experience and not to make changes to what the chef is offering. He becomes an observer. It changes the way you think because you are entering a different scenario. And the near-revenge of the chef is: ‘That’s fine. But I’m going to make you participate consciously. I’m going to give you the script on how to eat each dish.’From the outside it may seem that places like elBulli go against what we understand by a restaurant because decisions have been taken which are so contrary to what logic seems to dictate, but I don’t believe he’s gone against anything.

T.S.: I believe that even in his business model he has always acted differently. The revenue never came from the restaurant.In the case of Ferran, it came from his own image or his idea of ​​selling patents.

E.G.: I think that a restaurant, among many other things, is a business, and the aim is to make money. This idea in the case of elBulli doesn’t work.Would following his model mean that the person would have to operate like a company?

A.A.: A company has its business activity and needs to generate revenue. But you also have to consider the life model you want. There is a lot of this in Ferran’s decision. The business project is a lifestyle project and this is reflected in the result. Sometimes you wonder what a certain restaurant has and the answer is that those who work there are extremely committed to it. I learned this at elBulli. I had worked in many restaurants where the chef made you participate in the problems but never included you in the good results. At elBulli I never heard any criticisms. Not even in the most difficult moments. Quite the contrary.What we had to aspire to was excellence.

The key point was given to me by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. He said to me: ‘Yes, you’re all very creative, but the best thing you do is make the diners creative’. Your job is not to be creative, but to make the person in front of the plate creative.

The best thing you do is make the diners creative

That day changed my mindset. I thought Damasio was spot-on. We don’t feed people. We offer a training centre at all levels. This for me is a restaurant understood from a demanding and cutting-edge perspective. This is what elBulli set in motion. And Mugaritz would not exist if it had not been for elBulli.

Our obsession is to blaze more trails with all the costs that entails. Nobody says that creativity gives satisfaction in itself. This is what you see from the outside. Creativity is actually very painful. Because, if you’re at the cutting edge, you are bound to suffer from the effect of bad reviews or people who do not understand what you’re trying to do. But you view this as part of a lifestyle rather than just a business. If you are involved in creativity and R&D (research and development), you realise you accumulate a lot of information that you can use to get resources and this allows you to keep doing what you love. Deep down there is a need to ask more questions and provide some answers.

Jorge Martínez: What did you come across in the creative department at elBulli and how much of that is now used at Mugaritz?

A.A.: I believe that things happen when someone believes in them. To create you have to believe. When I arrived there, I found a space filled with freedom and the desire to do new things. I experienced the process of incomprehension that elBulli suffered for a long time. Now it is seen as a model of success but there was also a large back room filled with sacrifice. It was creativity and commitment. And we were going all out for it. Even if we failed. No one wanted to leave it at the idea stage.We were going to bring it all down to earth, to the real world.

J.M.: Is the attitude more important than the method?

A.A.: No. In the end everyone works on a set of systems and uses every weapon at their disposal to win their particular war.But, of course, part of it is attitude.

E.G.: Your speech was more about the artist than the entrepreneur. A painter, when he works, is not thinking about pleasing anyone. He is expressing himself. Here there’s a kind of twist. The restaurant, as a business, wants to please the diner. The chef, when he becomes an artist, is no longer thinking like that. He is thinking about expressing himself, and from that time the diner is like the person who goes to an exhibition to see a painting. Throughout history, artists have needed a patron.Now, many restaurants, since they are not planned as a business but as an artistic expression, could end up needing sponsorship.

A.A.: The projects I know that make truly cutting-edge cuisine really go through hell. There are two models. Those who are doing things with very few resources and, since they are not well-known, end up dying along the way. And the chefs who have laid a foundation of sustainability and, at a certain time, want to set up their dream project. These latter projects don’t usually work. Those which work are the ones that are true to themselves from the beginning. Today we can do what we feel like and it would be dishonest not to.There are people who travel half the world to eat here.

It would be dishonest of me not to work with a kind of purity

This only happens after working for several years and gaining credibility.  What we offer now is more of aperformancethan ever.We feed people knowledge. On the plate is everything we have learned, everywhere we’ve travelled to… Here is my mother, my culture, my prejudices, my counter-prejudices, the thousands of hours of work that go to waste… It’s all there and it’s all necessary. Our work is about contextualising and explaining. That is what really has value.We are mixing utterly objective factors, such as knowing how to fry well, with highly subjective elements.That is why it’s important to know how to contextualise everything.

T.S.: Speaking of contexts, one of our reflections is that elBulli was a laboratory, that is, an intelligent context. An example of the importance of context is war.These circumstances can turn you into a very good or a very bad person.

A.A.: I learned that at elBulli. From happy people you learn to be happy. From unhappy people, to be unhappy. From creative people, to be creative. And dull and clumsy people contaminate you. I remember being very shaken by the Bosnian war because I was used to seeing wars between people who did not look like me, but there were people like us in that war. That was where I discovered that human nature contains all attributes and values. All it takes is a context to make some people rise up against others. You, without any baggage, could become a serial killer in a given context. And another could bring the very best out of you. The first thing I wondered was whether sensibility can be cultivated. It probably can. Then we should create an environment that encourages sensibility. What about creativity? And critical thinking? And solidarity? This has been the goal. To build contexts that help to bring certain specific attributes to the surface.All working groups do this.

E.G.: Do you think it is possible to form a working group without a leader? Can a three-star chef just join a team or is the name of a single person necessary?

A.A.: In principle I would say that a leader is necessary. But it’s important to understand that leadership, afterwards, is shared and that the true leader is the one who governs himself. This is one thing I’ve learned over time. Ferran has one extraordinary virtue. He is tremendously inspiring and motivating. It’s not so important what you yourself are capable of, but what you are able to inspire in others. And he is a man who governs himself. He has an extraordinary capacity for work and self-sacrifice. Having got to where he has, he could afford to relax, but he doesn’t. He is relentless. That’s what you’re trying to bring together in your context. I’m surrounded by leaders. The people who work with me are all experts and we all learn from one another. We have been working together so long that we no longer know whose ideas they are because we all think the same way.There is a moment when those who are my students are, in fact, my teachers.

E.G.: Do you think at any point you could be expendable?

A.A.: Yes.I would like to think so.

Andoni Aduriz

J.M.: At The Table we are trying to Bulli-ise an agency. Do you think it is possible to Bulli-ise a project that is not a restaurant? And if so, what is the most important thing to consider?

A.A.: elBulli was a very intense experience. We worked very hard and Ferran was relentless. It was always us saying: ‘better and better, more and more’. We had a lot of knowledge to work with. Ferran is pure memory. A true chef is not just skill. It’s not the one who knows how to carve ice or juggle a knife. He needs to know how to identify what he is seeing. I always say that when we work we set ourselves a goal. But really, that’s a bit of an excuse. The important thing is that along the way you know how to make use of everything that comes up. There are very few people who can do this. It takes memory and a creative vision. And this also needs to be trained. The elBulli team in the last few years was like that. It was unbeatable. They were sharper than the sharpest knife. It takes intense practice, that curious and trained vision and memory. These are encyclopaedic people. Why do they make the best tempura? Because they have tried all of the best examples. And they are still looking to see if they can do better.This is transferable to all disciplines.

J.M.: Why do you think that gastronomy has reached these heights of innovation?

A.A.: There are many answers. One is because the market is allowing us to do so. I manage to get people to come from all over the world and they require me to be real and honest. We have educated a market but at the same time, you see that the more you progress, the more distrust you generate in some quarters. Some people even consider it to be a joke. But when we make a dish, we are bringing together not only our knowledge, but that of all cultures. Now you can see what is being done in other cuisines in real time. And also you travel and try the things they are doing. And you contrast the new with the traditional. And you ask questions.When you put all these ingredients into a cocktail shaker you get what is happening now in gastronomy.

E.G.: There is another reading of this. Culture arises when you have left your comfort zone and you are moving in the superfluous. Food is a basic need. A person does not go to a restaurant like Mugaritz to meet this need. And here we enter another dimension. Where the superfluous is fulfilling a cultural need. You, as an artist who creates culture, are you aware of satisfying a cultural need? Is it satisfactory for you?

In curiosity there is almost a model of learning

A.A.: For many years we felt uncomfortable because we did not know to resolve this issue, but let me return to Damasio. Our creativity is important, but not that important. What really matters is that we are changing the people who are participating in this experience. The question is: what is the diner looking for? What are they looking for in an experience like this? In curiosity there is almost a model of learning. Every day I see people who allow their creativity to take a leap through us. We are placing them before unknown concepts. Maybe it’s what they are looking for intuitively but if you ask them, I don’t think they would say that they come to develop their creativity. I don’t think they have asked themselves this question. But this experience has to move them. It must say something to them. And we know this is the case because we get so many messages from people to tell us about their experience after coming to Mugaritz. We work with neurolinguists and we know that if someone sends you a message, whether it’s positive or negative, it’s a very important thing.Someone has dedicated their time to you.

Years ago we did the exercise of translating the emails that we were sent into emotions. The neurolinguists translated the most repeated words and their context to turn it all into an emotional map. We realised that what they valued most was the experience, not the food. And that makes a lot of sense. We are immersed here in a temporary oasis where we are going to build an experience. Understanding this helps a lot. Cooking is just one tool. One year we use some recipes and another year we use others. If the dishes are well contextualised, it works. We use chilli or we use a strawberry. But the important thing is we manage to move the diner so he or she learns something. This is where the leap occurs. In a fine dining restaurant things happen that until recently were unimaginable.

E.G.: When will you have a design run through a 3D printer in your most sophisticated dish?

A.A.: In that question I have to fight against my whole culture to say that you’re right and think that, deep down, it doesn’t matter whether it’s made by a cook or a machine.What matters is who thinks it up, not who executes it.