October 3, 2018
The taste of memory
I first met Josean Alija at Conversaciones Heladas (CH), a casual meeting on gastronomy organised by the delightful Fernando Sáenz and Angelines González, owners of the ice-cream maker Obrador Grate. It was 2015, his restaurant Nerua had a Michelin star, and he had just been placed on the 50 Best Restaurants list, ranked 32nd.
At Conversaciones Heladas, the ‘talks’ are like TED talks, and his was called The Taste of Memory. Alija, who had dreamed of being a cook ever since he was a child, began studying cooking at the tender age of 14 when he enrolled at the Cooking School in Leioa. Three years later he began working professionally. Learning about tradition as well as avant-garde ideas led to an amalgam that shaped his personal style. In 1998 he started working at the Guggenheim in Bilbao. His preciousness aside, everything was normal until then. But in 2000, his life was touched by tragedy; a serious motor-bike accident left him in a coma for a number of days. He woke up with two handicaps: he had lost the senses of taste and smell. He didn’t wait until he had fully recovered to embark on the culinary path again. Choosing a challenging road, he entered the Best Young Chef competition. This prize gave him back his confidence and once again he returned to his childhood dream and his passion for cooking.
After meeting him at CH and hearing about his life, the title of his talk made complete sense to me. They weren’t empty words. In The Taste of Memory, Alija stressed how taste creates experiences, something that is reached by applying creativity to taste, but without forsaking smells as these, hand in hand with taste, form an evocative set of situations one has experienced.
Today’s Josean Alija is concerned about climate change. He sees how seasonality is being turned on its head. As there is no certainty about anything, it means that the profession is continually in flux. This extends to diners, too, as they do not always find what they were hoping for. But despite this, his cooking will continue to be based on local produce; Alija believes that hard work and sacrifice are the pillars for success, ‘Everyone always talks about the magic and not what lies behind it.’