Ángel León, just 35 years old, is one of the most prestigious chefs in Spain and abroad due to his firm focus on putting the sea's many flavors on display at his restaurant Aponiente (Puerto de Santa María).
With a menu that gives pride of place to products from the deep, such as plankton, León tells Wiki Spanish Food that he "feels connected to and identifies with" the sea. This has led to his participation in diverse research projects which aim to bring avant-garde techniques and cuisine together without sacrificing flavor. León, who holds one Michelin star and is considered one of the five best chefs in the world by international publication Food & Wine Magazine, describes himself as tenacious and reveals his favorite dish: rice with tomato sauce, prepared by his mother.
What does it take to achieve such success?
I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do what I love. That definitely makes things easier. Determination, perseverance, the ability to fight and a desire to improve are fundamental qualities for getting ahead and swimming against the tide.
Aponiente only serves dishes made with products from the sea. Do you think it's risky to ignore meat-eating customers?
There was a turning point in my career when we decided to cook only fish and seafood. That's what I identify with; it's who I am. We try to include dishes on the menu for customers who prefer meat. We prepare fish as if it were meat, we offer traditional meat dishes but with fish, and we try to surprise our customers.
Fish-based Ibérico charcuterie. Can you describe the flavor?
It tastes like charcuterie, but with all of the nutritional qualities of fish: less fat, more omega-3... it's healthier and ideal for people with high cholesterol and for children, and it retains all of the flavor, since the seasonings and other ingredients are the same.
How important is R&D in gastronomy?
Over the course of my career, all of the R&D projects I've participated in have contributed immensely to the development of my cooking philosophy. Plankton is a great example. It's currently a fundamental ingredient in my cooking. I believe that culinary research is necessary to remain on the cutting-edge. The two disciplines go hand in hand and complement each other, provided that the final focus is flavor.
As a chef who emphasizes sea-based cooking, is sustainability important in your work?
I was one of the first chefs to champion sustainability, years ago before it became fashionable. From the very beginning, I've believed in working with unwanted fish and on using those species, regardless of their quality, popularity and aesthetic.
How important are Spanish agri-food products in your cooking?
They are everything. I work with them every single day.
What role does social media play in the industry?
Social media helps us communicate with one another, it allows us to share, to be in contact with customers, to hear their opinion...
You have been named one of the top five chefs in the world according to Food & Wine Magazine. Does that title feel like a responsibility?
Indubitably, professional distinctions are a source of pride and also a responsibility. It's important to be persistent and to strive every single day to continue to meet expectations.
What's the dining experience like at Aponiente?
Our customers are in for a treat. They learn first-hand about 21st-century sea-based cooking and we serve a sampler menu through which they experience the most profound flavors of the sea, which are sure to evoke taste memory.
Is Aponiente suitable to all budgets?
There must be all kinds of restaurants to cater to all types of customers. But let's just say that you don't get rich by owning a restaurant.
Do you view cooking as business or pleasure?
They are one and the same. That's my life.
What is your favorite dish and restaurant?
Rice with tomato sauce, prepared by my mother. I could name several restaurants, but I would highlight in particular that of my colleague and friend, Quique Dacosta.
How do you view the future of gastronomy in Spain?
I see success ahead. It's absolutely true that Spain leads the way in the global avant-garde culinary movement.