On the 23rd of May has Josean Alija, the chef patron of Nerua, organised a very special evening dedicated to a very special guest – Joan Roca, the chef patron of El Celler de Can Roca, and a small group of invited journalists and close collaborators. Joan Roca was in Bilbao to cook the day after this dinner together with Josean Alija in the occasion of celebration of 20 years of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The dinner cooked by Josean for the selected group of guests happened at the Guggenheim Bistro, which is located, just like Nerua, at the Guggenheim museum. This space was also Josean’s first solo restaurant from which six years ago he moved to a new space which he named Nerua.
The dishes we enjoyed this evening were not from his regular menu but represented the six years of Nerua. We tasted the past, the present and also some dishes which are not yet on the regular menu.
Josean strongly identifies himself with the word “muina”—Basque for core, heart, or essence—the soul of Nerua’s kitchen. He is a very sensitive chef and person and you can feel this very much in his cooking which is always very subtle but deep in flavours.
His main focus were always ingredients which are sourced from his selected farmers within 15 km from the restaurant. The quality, purity, honesty, subtleness and minimalism are words that best describe his cooking philosophy. He has never put many ingredients into one dish, and through time he became even more minimalistic. His new dishes are normally made with only two or maximum three ingredients. The dishes may look simple, but the essence is invisible only to the eyes. Taste his dish and your taste buds will start dancing from pleasure.
Whenever I taste or look at Josean’s dishes Tarkovsky comes to my mind, not only but also with his beautiful definition of minimalism: minimalism for Tarkovsky was not putting one or few single things into space – this would be empty and shallow. It was about collecting all the objects, associations, emotions, experiences etc together to fill the space till the last millimetre and then start “cleaning”. You clean away everything which is needless, until you remain with one or two things. But that one single object that remains is now not simple anymore, because it contains all the emotions and associations that were previously there. For me, Josean is Tarkovsky of the chefs. A great master who beautifully serves on a plate one or two objects, which contain a rich universe of flavours within them, caught in the juices and broths that in this period of his cooking accompany practically every dish. A beautiful example of this was also the first dish where he infused each tomato with the essence of one of the aromatic herbs. I could have only that one single dish and die from pleasure – so much freshness and intensity with such a subtle approach, everything else was a bonus – a beautiful journey through the typical ingredients of the region through Josean’s beautiful interpretations.
Nerua was and still is one of my favourite restaurants. This was my second visit there (the first has been in 2015) and I am already looking forward to returning.