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Only someone who is truly passionate about ingredients could spend an entire afternoon in a botanical garden selecting, after 40 different tastings, the perfect tomato for the dish he has in mind: “Los tomates en salsa con hierbas aromaticas y fondo de alcaparras”. His name is Josean Martinez Alija and he is of course Spanish: just over thirty, he has been managing the Nerua restaurant inside Bilbao’s Museum. Martin Berasategui first trained him to wash dishes and now is a fan of his talent.
Fine Dining Lovers met him in the Dolomiti mountains during the Cook the Mountain event (here the report) for which he prepared a dish with cabbage, white turnip and mustard.
What does a chef from Bilbao have to do with mountain cooking?
Ishare a lot of the same values: I believe in local 0 km ingredients, I can get to all my vendors with my bike. I work on my menus way ahead of time keeping in mind the seasons and preparing large stocks of primary ingredients. It’s like fashion when they study the collections in advance. Vendors know how much they need to produce for my kitchen and it stimulates the local economy.
What does it mean to do research for a chef?
It’s essential, at least to me. It marks the difference between those who do it with passion and those who do it for money. Part of the ingredients I order are destined to experiments. Some might see it as a waste, to me it’s an investment: a chef who doesn’t try new dishes is like a poet who stops writing.
How do you create a new dish?
There are three steps: selection, knowledge and final taste. We look for the right ingredient and try to figure out its possibilities and secrets, we cook it and try it. The best part of the job is when we share the experience. Everyone can have a say in what we do at Nerua. The shared experience is what drew me to this job in the first place.
You’ve collected your recipes in a book you’ve entitled Muina: what does it stand for?
In Basque language it means the soul, the essence. It best describes my style in the kitchen, it represents Nerua. Good cooking should create emotions. The name of my restaurant derives from Nervión, the river that runs through Bilbao alongside the Guggenheim, with the restaurant looking down on it from the top. I knew from a young age that going out to eat made people happy: 35 people on Nerua’s staff work to make this happen.
When not in the kitchen, you spend your time…
In nature, doing sports, going to the theatre, sports, music and lots of travel.
Many chefs complain customers don’t understand their efforts, their hard work and the quality of a dish.
Times are difficult for high cuisine, I believe a chef should help people understand what’s good and the work that goes into a dish. It’s a matter of being educated to flavors: we’ve explained the simplicity of sardines on our blog for example.