Let's be clear. Ángel León is a madman. Because only a madman could come up with edible plankton by first ending up in a hospital because, it turns out, plankton, in its base form, isn’t strictly edible. It took him plenty of research and work with pharmaceutical companies until he was able to extract plankton spores (tetraselmis) that are now being raised and grown in controlled environment of the laboratory at his three-Michelin-star restaurant Aponiente.
Then there's the extraterrestrial-looking bright pink seafood mortadella, and gigantic, meaty tuna shin he turns into a veal shank, and the almost sci-fi cooking-in-salt that engulfs the sea creature in front of you with mesmerising snow-flaky iodine crystals.
So, Ángel León is obviously also a genius, and as we all know the line between crazy and prodigal is sometimes very thin.
León, ‘el chef del mar’ (the chef of the sea), set up Aponiente in the dilapidated city of El Puerto de Santa Maria across the bay from Cadiz in 2007, after returning to Spain following stints in France and Miami. With Aponiente, he wanted not only to set up a restaurant that would pay the utmost respect to the sea and everything it still has to offer, but also to give back to the community, to revive El Puerto de Santa Maria after the great Spanish financial crisis left it a virtual ghost town.
Photo credit Kaja Sajovic
Fast forward 12 years, and Aponiente is a multi award-winning restaurant at probably the most unexpected location for a fine-dining establishment. The new, much bigger and even more ambitious Aponiente, opened in 2017 in a former 19th-century tidal flour mill next to salt marshes, is a sleek and spacious complex adorned with marine-inspired decor, like copper seashells that cover one wall, or jellyfish lamps that dangle down their tentacles from the ceiling.
From the patio the views stretch to crumbling industrial compounds on one side, rusty railway tracks on the other, and vast expanses of marshlands right in front of you. León's eyes sparkle with excitement as he explains with so much passion how his project of marine revitalisation turned this area, which not so long ago was a literal dump, into a living, breathing ecosystem with sand crabs, herons and, on a sunny day, even pink flamingos.
What makes Aponiente so special isn't the fact it's a pretty darn good seafood restaurant. Or that León is a fisherman who every morning goes out to sea to fish, explore marine flora and fauna that could be used as food, and connect with the ocean.
It's not even about the edible plankton per se, the “flower of the sea”, as he calls it. It is the fact that Aponiente has managed to achieve that rare feat in the restaurant business - it has become a socially and environmentally conscious project. As a concept, it’s not only larger than a sleek white dining room with ready-to-pick-your-fallen-napkin servers. It’s larger than - for want of a better cliché - life. A whole new ecosystem created literally on ruins.
Photo credit Kaja Sajovic
León discovers and uses marine ingredients we would usually discard, let alone think of serving on plate, like invasive crabs, certain deep water algae or sea hare roe. Or sea vegetables, sea fruits, sea cereal. For the latter, he is still searching. In the next three years he wants to develop a seafood menu consisting of everything from the sea – except fish.
"Do you know we use only 20% of marine flora and fauna? Only 20%. There's a whole submarine world to explore,” he exclaims, almost jumping up and down in his lab, filled with tanks, jars of ferments and colourful powders, extracted from all sorts of marine creatures.
Sustainability has become an annoyingly overused term lately, a convenient selling point, but if there's one person who merits using it, it's León. Within Aponiente, the team of cooks, scientists and biologists, is collaborating with several research centres and universities to delve deeper into the science that makes up a big part of what they do.
Photo credit Kaja Sajovic
In order to raise awareness for environmental wellbeing and promote sustainable practices, León, together with his brother Carlos, set up ‘Despesques’, an annual debate platform that brings to the bay of El Puerto de Santa Maria world renowned chefs from all over the world, to discuss sustainable food practices.
At Aponiente they also host workshops and summer camps for children, teaching them the basics that have got lost in the fast-paced, capitalistic world of shortcuts and fake substitutes when it comes to food. Basics like how the sea smells, and introducing them to pure fish taste, not one diluted in fish sticks. León and his team also work with school cafeterias across the region, substituting regular pasta with squid pasta, for example.
"The greatest tragedy is that children nowadays don't know how the sea tastes because the only thing they eat are the stupid fried hake fillets. Here they learn about plankton, about salt marshes, about marine life,” explains León, who nevertheless admits it's really hard to make a city person really understand the sea. “The sea, you have to live it to get it. You have to wake up before dawn, you have to go out to sea to fish, you have to smell the sea, you have to feel it. I'm out there every single day, 6 am. The truth is, I could do just this, fish. For the rest of my life.”