“There is no such thing as a purist in the kitchen,” says Gonzalo Luzarraga. He’s talking about how even the most ‘authentic’ chefs of a particular cuisine are likely to have some ingredient that is not strictly from the country. It’s more of a statement that is used to help describe himself however, than it is a call out on others.
To understand Luzarraga, you have to first resist any urge to label him. The chef of RIGO’, London, is often referred to as a ‘modern Italian chef,’ but he has started our interview at the Identità Golose in Milan by talking about Korean fermentation techniques and his recent visit to Atomix in New York: “there I understood why I like Korean cuisine, it has a balance of flavours that is similar to mine.” (Atomix is a highly celebrated, one Michelin-starred contemporary Korean restaurant by chef-wife duo Junghyun and Ellia Park.)
“Mine,” is his very rich mix of cultures that finds an anchor in Italian cuisine, but takes on the flavours of the world. It comes naturally from his upbringing - Luzarraga was born in Chile to an Italian mother, Spanish father and raised in Italy, Switzerland and Spain - as much as it comes from his personal experiences. His career has taken him from training under Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in France to Hong Kong, the Maldives, Russia, Singapore and Austria.
A peek inside the kitchen at RIGO' is like taking a trip around the world: rice from Italy, wagyu beef from Australia, seaweed from the Scottish coast, plus a range of other ingredients he sources locally from England, as well as from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
Beef Tendons by Gonzalo Luzarraga
“MY PROCESS OF INNOVATION IS STRANGE.”
Innovation is inextricably linked to inspiration; inspiration leads to innovation. And for Luzarraga, it comes from everywhere, during a conversation, a small thought that has popped up in our interview, or maybe even the emotions he felt during the current congress may just trigger the creation process of a new dish, a new taste.
Once it was the sight of a street vendor in Hong Kong as he was walking back home late at night. “I was hungry and I stopped at a kiosk where a man was brushing fried pork rind with oyster sauce. I wanted to replicate that flavour in a dish, and I find the slightly irony flavour of rare meat goes perfectly well with oysters. After all, it’s a very popular pairing in Ireland!” It lead to his 'Iberian pluma' dish, where, instead of barbecuing the pluma as per the Spanish typically do, heages it for 30 days and serves it rare with oysters, broccoli and parsnip cream.
Needless to say, his cooking is deeply personal. He still recalls the taste of the first sea urchin he had when he was five, given to him by his father. It took him years of trying before he slowly started liking the briny, creamy ocean-flavour of sea urchin, but it’s an ingredient he picks as one of his all time favourites. The childhood memory eventually found a way into the menu at RIGO', where he serves it with Bagna Cauda, a type of hot dip from Piedmont, similar to a fondue, quail egg and fermented milk.
Iberian pluma with oysters, broccoli and parsnip cream by Gonzalo Luzarraga
Innovation on the other hand, is a result of an almost obsessive trial and error process. The rice dish Luzarraga presented on stage at the Identità Golose for example, featured black fermented garlic and nine types of seaweed. It resembled a risotto, but its flavours were nothing like an Italian risotto.
“It took a full eight months to develop. We starting with 25 ingredients and one by one they were eliminated, taken out, and rebalanced until I found the right equilibrium of flavours.” It’s delicious, with the black garlic that gives off a whiff of liquorice and has none of the usual pungency of the usual garlic.
Ever since the chef opened the restaurant in London in 2017, he has been trying to convince the diners who walk through the doors to throw away the preconceptions they have of Italian cuisine, or ‘any’ cuisine.
"There is a sort of mental barrier to doing something different, both for customers and chefs" says Luzarraga. As tiring as it is to constantly explain to people his way of doing things, he never stopped trying. His British customers took years to accept something as simple (simple at least for an Italian) as rice cooked al dente, and Italian customers have started to stop looking for “carbonara and pizza.”
And while London was not his first choice when he opened the restaurant (he was initially thinking Paris), it's the city that makes perfect sense right now. Despite the challenges in making people accept his innovative cuisine, it is a city that has space for creativity and newness that can't be found in other European cities, where "people tend to get used to the same habits and routines."
“To be flat is boring. My brain constantly needs something new, I need to feed it. I can slow down, but if I stop, I will go crazy.”
Note that RIGO' is currently closed awaiting the opening in autumn at the new location in central London. Stay tuned to be the first to hear about Luzarraga’s new venture as and when it happens right here on Fine Dining Lovers.