TORONTO (Reuters) - Basque chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, the culinary conjurer behind one of the top-ranked restaurant in the world, enjoys a good gag as he lets his imagination run wild at Mugaritz, set in the hills outside San Sebastian in northern Spain.
An early protégé of Ferran Adria at El Bulli, Aduriz, 40, is famous for tricks such as disguising potatoes as stones and watermelon as beef carpaccio, but his "techno-emotional" style of cuisine is also serious business.
Precision is an obsession at Mugaritz, which captured the No. 3 spot in the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2012 by Restaurant Magazine, from the meticulously tweezer-picked herbs and edible flowers that adorn almost every plate at the converted farmhouse to collaborating with university pathologists to create the perfect foie gras.
Aduriz, on tour to launch his new book "Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking," spoke to Reuters with a translator about inspiration and new beginnings two years after a devastating kitchen fire nearly destroyed his restaurant.
Q: How did the fire in early 2010 shape what happened next, with Mugaritz rising to the No. 3 spot on the Restaurant Magazine list?
A: "When a ship sinks, you see who wants to be the first to escape in a lifeboat and who wants to stay and help ... My team demonstrated to me that they were incredibly committed to the project, that they wouldn't abandon me either, so really the project got a lot of reinforcement because of it and it brought us closer to one another. And it changed our way of thinking. We said to ourselves 'We have a second chance here,' so we got rid of all our hang-ups, and we also did away with living a life that other people wanted for us. We wanted to just dedicate ourselves to doing what we desired."
Q: Why did you write this book? An everyday cook, even a passionate food lover, would be intimidated by this book, so who did you write it for?
A: "We don't intend for people to replicate the recipes because this doesn't matter to us. Perhaps the message is that it serves as inspiration in certain details or concepts, maybe certain techniques, but the general idea is that it should stimulate creativity in the people who read it. I feel that it serves professionals, and enthusiasts, and we also can't forget that today there are programs on television where they teach you how to build a skyscraper.
"Most people are not going to build a skyscraper, but people are curious about how it's made, and this happens also with cookbooks ... This book is a radiograph that really tells the story of the last 15 years of Mugaritz and it's a very daring book and transparent book."
Q: You weren't the most dedicated or interested culinary student. When did you decide you were going to start trying?
A: "I wasn't interested in anything that I saw, nothing, because it wasn't my decision to go to cooking school. My parents put me in cooking school because they didn't know what to do with me. And my mother thought that if I was in a kitchen, I would at least eat every day. But you have to understand it in context. My mother is 83 years old today. At eight years old, my mother lived through the bombing of the town of Guernica and the Spanish civil war ... she experienced a lot of hunger in her life.
"Because of her mentality at the time, she put me through cooking school and when two years had passed, I started to read cookbooks and magazines and I saw chefs who weren't cooking what I was being taught. These chefs were projecting their way of being, their way of understanding life, their worries, and they projected all of this in their dishes and that seduced me."
Q: How have your Basque roots influenced your cuisine?
A: "Something that's unique about where we are, where the restaurant is situated, is that there are many ingredients that have an important reference of texture over flavor. This contradicts what normally is understood about cuisine because I was taught that the importance in cooking is the flavor, and in my culture often the texture is more important. For example, an important fish in the Basque Country is hake, which almost doesn't have any flavor but it has an incredible texture, which is far more exciting."
Q: Aren't all of your dishes meant to be delicious as well?
A: "No. They are meant to be moving because the concept of delicious differs vastly from one culture to another. It's a cultural mechanism. For example, in Spain, a roasted suckling pig is delicious but without a doubt if I give it to a Muslim or Jewish person, it may be the most repulsive thing that they've ever seen. The world is filled with examples like that one. So the interpretation linked to the emotional elements is not an absolute truth, it's a process of culturization."
Q: Your remotely located restaurant has become a mecca for foodies willing to make the journey for a memorable meal. Is that a lot of pressure to live up to?
A: "It's a lot of responsibility ... and that relationship isn't one of 'you pay me and I give you something to eat.' When you come to the restaurant, you're giving us permission to do what we love and we are going to reciprocate this commitment by doing things that money can't buy, implicating ourselves in that relationship ... Sometimes we fail, but no one can say that we're not committed and we're not sincere."
Reporting By Claire Sibonney; editing by Patricia Reaney