Nerua’s chef renewed his commitment to simplicity as the effective formulation of the “ultimate complexity”. His cuisine is a paradigm “of minimalism, purity, knowledge and reflection”, claimed José Carlos Capel.
For Josean Alija, “less is always more”. At the helm of Nerua, Alija (Bilbao, 1978) is one of the greats of Spanish cooking. He is an apostle of simplicity who teaches us about ‘Eating time’. That was the title of the talk given by the Basque chef at the opening session of Reale Seguros Madrid Fusión 2020, the international gastronomy summit that is coming of age and where he cooked some of his super-essential dishes. Not surprisingly, José Carlos Capel, president of the event, presented it as the paradigm of essential cuisine. According to Capel, it is cooking that is “reflection and thinking”, which goes “far beyond its apparent simplicity”.
Alija wants us to know what is behind every spoonful: production time, thinking time and preparation time. But he also wants us to understand “how much time there is behind each product for it to be at its best; and here we are talking about days, weeks, months, years and centuries”. For example, the “ultra-essential” fried egg, “which makes me think perhaps about an age-old olive tree that gives us oil, about the metal worker who made the frying pan, or about the farmer who raised the chicken”. The same is true for langoustines, abalones, barnacles or tear-shaped peas. “If we understand the time it takes them, we will value these products more”.
“We invest our time in telling stories and transmitting values”, Alija summed up his work. The backdrops are the main element in your kitchen. “It is the connection with taste, with memory, and it helps if the diner is as happy after eating as they were at the start”, said the chef, who prepares “30 backdrops with taste, memory and smell” with his team every day.
“Do you cook ingredients or ideas?” Capel asked him. “I let the ingredients I have selected talk to me, and there is a process of learning and motivation, which at times is a challenge, with simple input to engage in dialogue with them”, Alija replied.
Routine versus talent
“Creativity is freedom”, for Alija, who changes his menu at Nerua three times a year. “Routine goes against talent, and freedom and creativity are the motivation; it is what makes us change and be better, to understand the language of creativity and develop it”, he said.
“If you’re not radical you’re boring”, added Alija, who believes that “you can be radical by keeping your balance”. “Balance is in the method and the rest is technique. Cooking without technique doesn’t work”, said Alija, who reiterated his minimalist vows. “Less is more is the basis of Alija’s elegance”, Capel confirmed. “Being called a radical is good; if you are innovative and not radical, it’s a lie. I innovate and I take risks. Being radical is about creating cooking that I enjoy. You learn to tame radicalism, which you can make flexible, to bring the concepts closer to the customer and make them enjoy it more”, he concluded.
As the movement is demonstrated by cooking, Alija served up a number of essential dishes after recalling his ‘Jack mackerel in olive brine’ and ‘Hake cheeks with cabbage and green sauce’. He opened with shallot in toasted butter, capers and caviar. That is a dish “of contrasts that characterises the cuisine at Nerua”, he said.
He continued with a barnacle – “the most challenging thing there is” – which, instead of boiling it with a little salt or sautéing it, as is done in the Basque Country, he braised a txakinarto maize juice to bathe it, which is “well suited to the Basque Country and with very special aromas”, and added a little lettuce heart.
He then prepared some shrimps heated with a caress of heat, and sea urchin. An “umami flavour that reflects the sea and the depths of the Bay of Biscay”, and he finished with a sea cucumber in a black sauce, a Cantabrian product that is larger than that from the Mediterranean. “With a delicate texture and taste like a cockle”, Alija candied the sea cucumber in oil at 62 degrees for two minutes, braised it for a few seconds and seasoned it with black sauce. “It’s absolutely essential. The best example of the concept of elegance and essence, and one of the dishes that has excited me the most in recent months”, said the chef. “These dishes are magnificent examples of minimalism, purity, knowledge and reflection”, concluded Capel, congratulating this apostle of simplicity for sticking to his guns.