Andoni Luis Aduriz, the thirtysomething, Michelin two-starred genius at Mugaritz restaurant near San Sebastián, is a cult figure among Europe’s young avant-garde chefs, an innovator famous for collaborating with a medical pathologist to research the DNA of foie gras. Yet when I caught up with him recently, he couldn’t stop talking about potatoes. Potatoes!
Aduriz is not alone among Spain’s high-minded chefs in shifting his attention to vegetables. The current emphasis on tubers and greens is a new development in carnivorous and seafood-centric Spain, where fancy menus revolve around ibérico pigs and spiny lobsters. Last spring, the influential Spanish food critic Rafael García Santos convened an international culinary congress entitled Vive las Verduras, or Hail to the Vegetables. Luminaries such as France’s vegetable king, Alain Passard of Paris’s L’Arpège, Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and Spain’s Ferran Adrià of El Bulli outside Barcelona were all in attendance at the congress, which took place in Pamplona in the Navarra region. Alfonso Iaccarino of Italy’s Don Alfonso 1890 transfixed his audience with low-tech tips on canning tomatoes grown in his native Campania. Brazilian superchef Alex Atala provocatively discussed fermentation and how chestnuts could be transformed into an uncanny version of cheese. Spain’s wunderkind Quique Dacosta, of El Poblet in Alicante, chatted about embryonic sprouts. The post-congress buzz was all about vegetables as the culinary focus of the future.
Spain’s kitchens might be increasingly produce-crazy, but the country wouldn’t be the capital of progressive cuisine if its chefs were content to simply source an heirloom tomato and drizzle it with olive oil. Fascinated by method and scientific research, the post-Adrià generation is putting its own stamp on vegetables, proving that “molecular” and “locavore” aren’t necessarily contradictory terms. To check out this trend, I plotted a trip that began in San Sebastián and continued to Navarra, a fertile region south of Basque country that’s the epicenter of Spain’s new vegetable cocina.