Chef Mikel Alonso contains multitudes. The French-born, Spain-trained Top Chef Mexico judge is co-creator of restaurant Biko in Mexico City, recently named no. 10 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016.
This May, he took his talents off the small screen to offer a special pop-up event to diners at Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta’s Quinto. Here he shares the mistake that started his career, the unsung power of stew, and why criticism is the greatest compliment.
The Vidanta Traveler: The Basque region has an incredible gastronomic reputation, with San Sebastián alone boasting more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere in the world. What sets Basque cuisine apart?
Chef Mikel Alonso: To have a great cuisine, you need great products. In the Basque region you have the Cantabric sea, a mountain region, and farms with plenty of animals that produce milk (and therefore cheese). Up until the end of the 1960s, the Basque cuisine was still very traditional—good, but traditional nonetheless. I believe that the boom in Basque cuisine came in the 70s, with all the young chefs who were able to easily enter France to work or do apprenticeships, and then return to their hometowns to implement their new skills and knowledge with all that’s available in the Basque region.
TVT: You studied chemistry before concentrating on your career in food. How did cooking shift from a passion to a profession?
CMA: I was born in 1971, and was fortunate to spend kindergarten through high school in France, which was then in one of its best academic moments. However in these times, you had two choices: literature or science. No one ever asked if you wanted to become a butcher, a fireman, a charcutier, nor a cook for that matter.
I started chemical engineering because my brother studied the same thing. Something in me said that I wanted this, but another part said that I didn’t. After two years, I had to retake a course, which was going to make me have to study another year, and this was the best mistake I ever made.
TVT: Your restaurant Biko takes its name from the Basque word bikote, meaning “couple.” How does collaboration—between people, producers, ingredients, and even cultures—figure into your process?
CMA: Collaboration is very important. There is a concept that I believe is outdated, yet it’s what was commonly taught in most formal restaurants: egoism. To be chef you had to be the sun, and everything else—customers, producers, cultures—had to orbit around the sun. This is false. Happiness is the sun, and everything else must revolve around this sun: producers, investors, employees, and customers. Everyone must be happy with what they give and receive in this wonderful business.
I have seen many nasty things in the course of my career, and what we aim to do at Biko is the opposite: guarantee happiness for all. If this weren’t the goal, then there would be no reason to work in restaurants. We might as well all be politicians.
TVT: What culinary technique do you find most important, or underrated?
CMA: Easy. Both the most important and unfortunately the most underrated is a properly made stew (guiso). A good stew is the essence of generosity, family, patience, childhood, care, and love. It’s the epitome of gastronomy.
To prepare a good stew isn’t easy. Many amateurs start a dish with dry heat, they like to almost char everything, it’s more rude, more macho. A stew is much more than that. It’s more delicate. It’s like mother’s milk. It’s the most important technique, and it’s less used because it’s associated with poverty, but it’s the exact opposite. The person who can prepare—and better yet, enjoy—a good stew, is the richest person on earth.
TVT: What was the last thing—a flavor, texture, odor, or even experience—that truly surprised you?
CMA: Just a couple of days ago, Chef Alexis [Bostelmann, Executive Chef of Grupo Vidanta] presented me a fresh caught bluefin tuna. Chef Mitzuo of Gong restaurant prepared the tuna for me in many different ways: nigiri, sashimi, maki. He knew the precise, perfect way to prepare and present the ingredient. Just perfect.
TVT: You’re one of the most acclaimed chefs in Mexico. What is the greatest compliment a diner could give you? Who or what makes you feel most accomplished?
CMA: It comes in two ways: one, the compliment you feel, when they thank you from the heart and you can see it in their eyes. The second is when they admit in all honesty that they did not enjoy what they ate. When guests do this, they provide you with the tools you need to constantly be better and better. This is the goal of gastronomy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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