Josean Alija, the master of minimalist cuisine.

Josean Alija, the master of minimalist cuisine.

The Basque Pioneer

Josean Alija is the chef behind the star pub Nerua in Bilbao. His signature is a kitchen based on tasty broths. We met Josean to talk about the importance of identity, the Basque sauces and the motorcycle accident where he lost his sense of taste and smell.

Cod kokotxa with pil-pil sauce.

Cod kokotxa with pil-pil sauce.

Josean Alija is in many ways a controversial cook. No, he isn’t a disagreeable guy - it's his cooking that is provocative. He is acclaimed for his personal style, but there are also those who think that Josean's dishes are difficult to understand. Like many Spanish chefs, he bases his cooking on traditional dishes.

“The point of departure is Basque food culture and its four basic sauces”

For Josean, the point of departure is Basque food culture and its four basic sauces – the black with octopus ink, the green with olive oil and parsley, the red with red onion and choricero pepper, and the well-known pil-pil sauce from cod. It may sound easy, but at the one-star pub Nerua, located in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the dishes are far from simple. Here are served, among other things, fermented coconut with shrimp consommé, salmon head with sardine broth and grilled oysters with a broth of pears and capers. The dishes are small and incredibly flavorful. The broths are complex and elegant.

— The broth is important in our cooking. The common denominator when talking about broths, fonds or sauces is the taste. All of these are full of flavor. I make most of the broths on vegetables, and the most important thing for me is the feeling you get when you eat the dishes with a spoon. The broth is the main character of each dish, and we create it with the help of various techniques. Sometimes we boil it over fire, sometimes we make it sous vide, sometimes through high pressure. The broths are light and can have an umami or even meaty taste, although 95% are made on vegetables and cereals only.

You talk a lot about your emotions. What is so intriguing with broths?

— The feeling is separated from the taste. What attracts me with a perfect broth is the texture, the elegance, the transparency, the purity and the velvety feeling. Density is important, that the taste remains long in the mouth; but above all that it is balanced.

There is an underlying thought to each dish please explain more about this.

— A dish should tell a story. I want the guest to be surprised. A big gift is exciting, but a small one makes you thoughtful. I want the dish to be stripped of unnecessary details. In some restaurants you can get an incredibly beautiful dish, but when you eat it, it doesn't tell you anything.

We are in the Instagram-age, where cooks cook for the eye instead of the taste buds. You don't care about appearances and would rather go your own way.

— The threat to gastronomy is the lack of good taste and knowledge. Many chefs copy styles and dishes without understanding what underlies them. Creativity nowadays means copying a popular dish, and it creates a kitchen without substance. A chef must reflect and feel. A kitchen without the soul of a chef is an empty kitchen. There are many chefs without knowledge. I do not want to criticize anyone, but we must preserve the culture through our cooking.

You use odd ingredients from fish, such as the neck and chin. Does it have a cultural background, or is it due to sustainability reasons?

— I see the perfect in the unusual. When I was a child we ate the whole fish, really everything. That is how I have learned the different parts of the fish. The neck of the hake is very tasty, rich in collagen.

Josean Alija is the youngest of five brothers, raised in a family who weren’t restauranteurs but where he spent a lot of time with his grandmother in the kitchen. As a youngster, Josean was a bit of a rebel in his teens, but when his father asked what he wanted to do after elementary school, he replied: “I want to be a cook.”

The time in grandma's kitchen had made its mark.

— I wanted to work with something that makes people happy, says Josean.

His path took him through restaurant school and jobs in various restaurants, including El Bulli. At age 19 he came to the Guggenheim and to Martin Berasategui.

— It was 1998 and they had just opened. I got an offer, I was young and had not led a team in the kitchen before. I would work with the bistro, bar and fine dining. That's when I decided to make food that I found appealing.

In 2000, Josean suffered a serious motorcycle accident that almost took his life. He was in a coma for 21 days, and when he finally woke up he could neither sense taste nor smell.

— I had to start over, discover everything from scratch. It took two years, and I think this has made my senses even more sensitive.

You define your cooking with a Basque word, “muena”. What does it mean?

— It's a way of understanding cooking. It is not possible to translate directly into Spanish, but the meaning is about the essence of the soul. That is how I would best describe my cooking.


Facts - Josean Alija

Kitchen chef at restaurant Nerua, located in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The restaurant has a star in the Michelin Guide. Josean is also responsible for the museum's other two restaurants, Bar Guggenheim Museum and Bistro Guggenheim Museum.
The atmosphere in Nerua is relaxing, elegant and bright.

The atmosphere in Nerua is relaxing, elegant and bright. 

Shallots in black sauce.

Shallots in black sauce.

Nerua is situated in The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Nerua is situated in The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Artichokes, black olives and anchovy broth.

Artichokes, black olives and anchovy broth.

Editor, Writer
Gourmet travel
Tove travels around the world to visit restaurants like Noma in Denmark, Saison in San Francisco, Fäviken Magasinet in Sweden and Narisawa in Japan. She loves fine dining, but just as much she enjoy streetfood in Seoul, hamburgers in Chicago and oysters in Tomales Bay.
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