Chef Josean Alija: The Rhythm of Cuisine Is Marked by Nature at Nerua
Josean Alija’s cuisine is more than edible art; it is an intellectual rumination on the flavors and products of the Basque region of Spain. The 39-year-old chef is an alumnus of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, the epicenter of shear waves that forever altered not just Spanish food culture but gastronomy in general. Alija has conceived a unique culinary credo at his Nerua restaurant in Bilbao, Spain. This unique technique-based concept of working to create the future is the subject of his book Muina, published in 2013. In Euskara, the Basque language, the title translates into the “soul” — or the very essence, in his case, of his work.
Alija knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a chef. His culinary journey began when he was only 14 years old and has for the most time kept him close to home. He joined the Leioa School of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Biscay, following that three years later with stages and positions in the well-known avant-garde kitchens of Spain. He first arrived at the kitchen of the Guggenheim Museum restaurant in 1998. Two years later came an unexpected turning point in his life when he was injured in a motorcycle accident that left him comatose for three weeks, during which he lost his sense of taste and smell. Upon his recovery, he embarked on a quest to gradually regain those perceptions and sensations, going forward to formulate his own vision of cuisine. With determination and focus, he went on to win the Best Young Chef competition, which was a turning point in his career and led him back into the game. Alija has since focused on the purity of products, often with clinical investigations resulting in a cuisine that relies heavily on highlighting just a few flavors and ingredients in a single dish. In 2011 came the opportunity he had been dreaming of: a kitchen of his own at the Guggenheim Museum restaurant. The same year he also won the Chef of the Future Award from the International Academy of Gastronomy.
Nerua, his one-Michelin-starred restaurant, is situated in the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The architectural wonder that attracts millions of visitors with its complex yet captivating structure on the banks of the Nervian River has revived the old port city, turning it into a cultural and gastronomic destination. The city now attracts the hip crowd from all over Europe for its cultural festivals, giving an impetus to cutting-edge innovation by its talented culinary artists. The restaurant’s windows frame views of the lush green mountains and the river flowing by, spanned by the red arches of La Salve Bridge and the white linear Zubizuri footbridge by Santiago Calatrava.
A walk past a Louise Bourgeois art installation — a massive spider titled “Maman” — and Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” — a two-story topiary covered with multi-hued flowers on the plaza surrounding the imposing edifice — leads guests to a dedicated entrance into the restaurant. Nerua is adjacent to Gallery 104 of the museum, an expansive space displaying Richard Serra’s massive sculptural installation “The Matter of Time,” which provides a context to the spacious, minimalist dining room. The décor is spartan, leaving the spotlight on the works of art by major contemporary artists that surround the restaurant.
The muted hues of the interior and the white corrugated mesh overhead provide the backdrop for the chef’s sophisticated food. Alija is an erudite professional, painting his plates with a limited palette of flavors and products. If simplicity is hard to perfect, he comes close to it in his culinary endeavors. The immaculate open kitchen is well-organized, and the kitchen team works with orchestrated precision in view of the diners. Interestingly, in spite of Alija’s modernist approach, the cuisine of Nerua is deeply entrenched into its terroir, its deep roots planted firmly in the Basque culture.
Typical Basque dishes like guisante lagrima (spring peas) or the kokotxas de merluzza (hake cheeks) are featured on the restaurant’s seasonal menus but in the chef’s haute cuisine version. Foie gras with candied carrots from the conceptual chef are some of his well-known savory plates. A kitchen tour with small bites precedes the dining experience with both à la carte and tasting menu options. Three tasting menus offer a choice between nine, 14, or 18 courses with optional wine pairing. The sweet endings at Nerua are as ambitious as the chef whose desserts — like “Whipped Casein with Strawberry and Violet Ice Cream” and “Iced Bitter Cocoa Juice with Aniseed Ice Cream” — have won prestigious awards.
In celebration of the Guggenheim’s 20th anniversary, Alija is hosting a series of four-hands collaborative dinners with chefs Joan Roca of Spain’s El Celler de Can Roca, Mauro Colagreco of France’s Mirazur, Virgilio Martinez of Peru’s Central, and Bruno Oteiza of Mexico’s Biko. The series, titled “Ongi Etorri,” opened in February and will culminate in September. The twelve-course dinners are accompanied by gastronomic conferences in conjunction with the Guggenheim’s Toparte program. Awarded three prestigious suns by the Repsol Guide and No. 56 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List in 2017, Nerua is no longer flying under the radar. Fortuitously, the next World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards are to be held in Bilbao in 2018, and Nerua will get the attention of the movers and shakers of the international culinary scene.
A speaker and presenter at conferences like Madrid Fusion, Gastronomika, International Chefs Conference (ICC), Identita Golosa, Gastromasa, etc., Alija frequently collaborates with peers around the world for dining events. Constantly exploring ingredients with ambitious projects — like his investigation of “Applications of Coffee in Gastronomy” to study the organoleptic properties of coffee — he stays ahead of the curve.
A meal at Nerua is a great way to begin or end a tour of the museum, and the sheer volume of visitors necessitates a reservation to avoid disappointment.
In a recent conversation with the intellectual chef, we explored the abstractions of his intuitive, seasonal cuisine.
The Daily Meal: How long does it take for a chef to define a personal style, and does it then become an identity by which he or she is recognized in the industry?
Josean Alija: The time is relative, and there are no rules and it depends on multiple variables. In my case, I decided to train myself, to learn a trade, and then to create a cuisine linked with some values — a personal style of cuisine that made me different from other professionals and which contributed value to the discipline itself. It was an important decision that involved sacrifice. To have your own philosophy and style which makes your dishes recognizable takes years and requires you to be consistent and faithful to your own values and philosophy.
I use the term muina, which is the core, heart, essence. Muina has no literal translation in English. This is a term that best identifies my way of seeing things, including gastronomy. It is the word that best defines me. It refers to the soul, the substance, but also the brain and knowledge.