Quique Dacosta is a true food scholar. Throughout Diálogos de Cocina (Kitchen Dialogues) 2017, the food symposium in San Sebastián that brings together a small group of chefs, writers and food thinkers every two years to talk, evaluate, forge new friendships and connections, and party a little – this year, speakers included Joan Roca, Dominique Crenn and Ruth Reichl – the self-taught chef is noticably and constantly engaged – scribbling notes, his face etched in concentration. He doesn’t miss a minute.
"My kitchen is my language. My dishes are my way to write. I need to use everything I have in my hands to communicate to the people. I need to find that connection. I want to seduce with my language," he says.
And seductive it is. His eponymous restaurant in Dénia, Spain has held three Michelin stars since 2013, where his Modernist take on Mediterranean cuisine has helped fill a rather large elBulli-shaped hole in Spanish gastronomy. The latter's closure in 2011 was a bringing down of the curtain on a movement he concedes, but people were wrong to write off the actors. "Those who left us, and those who stopped believing in us and supporting us, are not going to be the ones who now tell us what to do or how to do it," he says.
Dacosta is unashamedly avant-garde in his approach – "To eat is one activity in the restaurant, but it’s not the only one. Avant-garde cuisine should be free from the responsibility of feeding people," – but, his primary role is as cook, he says: "Many years ago I had to teach to my guests what I do, but I’m not a teacher. I have knowledge about physics and chemistry in the kitchen, but I’m not a chemist. I have a very beautiful cuisine, but I know in my mind I’m a cook."
And boy aren't there a lot of fine cooks in Spain, whether it's Dacosta, the Arzaks, Andoni Luis Aduriz, the Rocas, or countless others, and this is just an observation from a short period of time spent in the company of some of these chefs, concentrated in one place (at Diálogos de Cocina), there's an easy camaraderie and shared professional respect between them all – a genuine affection. They project ‘We’re all in this together,’ which is not always the case elsewhere, and I wonder whether it’s this, primarily, that has helped propel Spanish cuisine to such exalted heights in recent decades?
"It’s been true for many years. We have many chefs with different interests, and at any time we can fight, but it’s true," he says. "The support from and the heritage of chefs like Juan Mari [Arzak] is bigger than the work of one of them. They teach values and co-operation. This is valuable for Spanish cuisine. There are not just two or three chefs with talent. We have four generations of chefs living in the same time."
So does he feel he’s representing his region and his country with every dish that comes out of the kitchen at Quique Dacosta?
"No, it represents me. It represents me in the place that I’m in, but every year I try to change ideas in the kitchen," he says. "Mediterranean culture is [a mix of] different cultures, so I build my kitchen with 70% products from my region, but I always leave the window open. I could cook only products from my region, but it’s not best for cuisine, for me, or for my kitchen. Leaving an open window is better, I can explore.”
This year, the chef, who joined a family-run seafood restaurant in Dénia aged just 17, working his way up to head chef, before renaming it in 2009, is taking the forgotten flavours that form part of the DNA of the region and it’s people as his theme. "I want to find animal and plant species that have been abandoned, lost, forgotten or cast aside by the snobbery of a society that wants everything packaged up, and that has stopped thinking for itself because the industry has impoverished its thought," he says.
The region is Valenciana – the restaurant sits perched on the coast halfway between Valencia and Alicante – and Dacosta, as we reported earlier this year, is planning to rollout a worldwide premium paella concept over the next five years, with London earmarked as the first location. He’s tight lipped on exactly where or when that will be – possibly because he is still trying to secure premises. So, I have to ask: what did he think of Jamie Oliver’s recent foray into paella making that so incensed many Spanish people? Traditional Valencian paella is of course laden with succulent rabbit and chicken, and snails, but definitely no chorizo, a la Jamie.
"Maybe he has to come to Valencia. For sure, I’ll show him the traditional paella!” laughs Dacosta. “But Jamie’s not at fault. I’m very fond of him for everything he does, not just for his success, but the things that he does for people." But even for a Modernist cook, are there certain dishes that are untouchable? "We eat differently now, we have lighter sauces, you put less garlic in the food. The kitchen is growing up,” he says. "So I can cook paella with chorizo, but I never, ever say ‘this is traditional.’ But I believe that cuisine is moving forward, even when it seems that it is taking a turn towards tradition, it is moving forward. Forward and in many directions."