Fresh from feeding the world, a young Basque chef is making a name for himself, serving vibrant local creations within artistic surroundings
Unlike most Spanish boys who dream of becoming a footballer or rock and roll star, Josean Alija always knew he wanted to become a chef. As a chef—and owner of Nerua in Bilbao—he has risen to be one of the most celebrated chefs in Spain and indeed, the world.
In June, Josean fed the world as international chefs, journalists and industry peers descended on Bilbao for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards 2018. Talk about a challenge; or rather, for Josean, an opportunity to showcase the very best of the Basque Country.
“I love good, authentic food,” says Josean. “I’m interested in the history, the products, the ingredients, the techniques, and the significance of each dish,” he said. “As a chef, I saw a profession with power, someone who seduces the palate and the heart, making people happy.”
At 14, Josean studied at the Leioa School of Restaurant Management. Three years later he started his career, cooking traditional Basque cuisine and working in several avant-garde restaurants; including under Ferran Adrià at elBulli. Josean says, “I learnt at elBulli that thinking is important in cooking. You have to develop your thought structure, but the most important thing is to find your personality.”
In 2000, two years after working in the kitchens of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, he had a motorcycle accident and was in a coma for 21 days. He woke up without the sense of taste and smell—essential tools of any chefs. He had to learn how to taste and recognize flavours and aromas again. During the recovery, he took part in the Best Young Chef (The Best of Gastronomy Congress) competition and won. It motivated and restored his professional passion.
In 2003, Josean found that the key to success was research. He explains about his cerebral approach, “It’s essential to analyse the products in depth and to learn about their origins. The creative process and the fundamental part of my cuisine were born—analysing, reflecting, and adopting different ways. I have gradually perfected, over the seasons, my style of cuisine: Muina—pure, essential, and without disguises.”
In 2011, Josean fulfilled his dream by opening Nerua at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to offer a modern taste of Bilbao’s gastronomic culture with the Muina concept. “Nerua has its roots in the Basque Country. I combine local and seasonal ingredients, flavours from memories with harmony, knowledge and personal style. Our goal is to be at the cutting edge and to innovate without losing the flavours of our roots.”
He elaborates, “My cuisine comes in many layers. You can taste different flavours and textures, and the dégustation menu works like musical notes that go to a crescendo at the end. Each dish plays with diners’ emotions. I want to be remembered as an artisan, a craftsman who has perfected his techniques.”
During its first year, Nerua received a Michelin star, and the International Academy of Gastronomy awarded 3 Suns in the Repsol Guide and Josean the Prix du Chef de L’Avenir (The Chef of the Future Award). The restaurant also featured in “Nerua, the Flavours of the River,” a TVE documentary.
“I find influences from lifestyles, experiments, travels, and many great chefs,” says Josean. “Travelling is a good way to learn and taste a variety of food. Similar to Spain or Italy, Thailand has built relationships around food. It’s in every corner, in different regions and styles. I like countries with cuisines that have roots, creators, and authenticity. They haven’t lost their culinary heritage.”
He concludes, “We’re determined to share knowledge, research, projects, life experiences, and emotions. It enables me to participate in interesting projects like documentaries, my book and the blog (see Nerua website) where I explain about the products we use in detail. I also talk about our cooking experiences overseas and the produce purveyors who make Nerua possible. We keep documenting things so future generations will understand and continue the innovation. elBulli’s modernisation has changed the history of gastronomy. Many have copied Ferran’s style, but creativity and hard work lie in the conceptual development and with a chef’s personality.”