When he started his stage, Josean Martínez Alija was just 20 years old, but had already been cooking for half a decade. Within a couple of years of leaving elBulli, he was running his own kitchen at the restaurant of Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, and winning prizes for best young chef. Today, the Restaurante Guggenheim, which is about to move into a new space within the museum, continues to earn praise for a cuisine that looks simplistic on the plate, but is technically innovative (and delicious).
While you were a stagiaire, were you assigned to a single station?
The first two weeks I was in the small kitchen, what we called the production kitchen back then. Then I moved through starters, meats, cold station. I worked in everything I could, because it all seemed so interesting to me, and I had so much curiosity…
Was there a task you particularly disliked?
I sure didn’t like cracking the coconuts. Although I have to admit I was fascinated by the cuttlefish ravioli with soy and coconut.
What was your impression of Ferran back then?
I think it was an important epoch where he was shaping the future of elBulli—it was a time to take risks. Ferran saw it clearly; he was beginning an ideological revolution, of concepts and analysis. All of us around him then were excited by it.
Any particular moments stand out in memory?
I remember one day, family meal was supposed to be a stew of meatballs and peas. And you know, there’s a recipe for it, and the cook who was in charge of preparing it was following it when he said, “Man, this would be great with red peppers.” And I just happened to have seen three cans of red peppers that morning. So I told him where they were, and he added them to the stew. That evening, when it was served, I was sitting next to Ferran. He put his spoon in, saw the red peppers, and just exploded. They were miniscule, but he was screaming, “Who the hell put red peppers in the stew?” Because Ferran hates red peppers. Everyone knows that now, but we didn’t back then. And even though it wasn’t me who cooked the stew, I’ve always felt guilty about it, because I told the cook about those three cans.
What was your favorite family meal?
No self-respecting chef would pick just one. At elBulli they took a lot of care with family meal. It was always good and healthy. Because Ferran knew that if a chef doesn’t care what he eats, he won’t care what he cooks for everybody else.
If you had to sum it up, what was the most important thing you learned at elBulli?
For me, it meant an important change in mentality that took me a long time to understand. There is the cooking you know, and another without references, and both are equally good. Also, elBulli taught me to think and also have a good time in a disciplined atmosphere.