Josean Martínez’s career has been meteoric. Seven years after starting cookery school at the age of 15, he became head chef at the esteemed Restaurante Guggenheim Bilbao.
“It hasn’t been easy. It makes you tough. But it’s quite a romantic profession. The day-to-day satisfaction comes from seeing people made happy,” he says.
Josean spent his childhood in Leon, where his family had their own kitchen-garden and livestock. Still a great nature-lover, he often retreats to what he calls “the wildest environments,” the mountains and the sea. “Childhood does shape your taste,” he comments. “I think there are more important simple things we forget – the aroma of carrots, say. Aromas are the first thing that come off a dish.”
It is wonderful to imagine the aromas as you glance through Martínez’s menu. There is a fillet of hake with roast spring-onion tears, kuzu (the Chinese root starch) and kumquat, a dish of borage stalks with essential oils of hazelnut and lime-zest, served on a bed of aloe vera and grasses, and a third one of cocido, or pot-au-feu, of Canarian Golden Yolk potatoes with foamy salt-cod stock and Parmesan whey. Carefully balanced and apparently simple, they are full of complex tastes and aromas.
As Josean recognizes, his training was a privileged one. “I was very lucky,” he comments. “I had really good maestros. The technique is just a means to an end, but it’s also the basis of the magic. Evolving dishes are the most enriching part of the work for me.”
Yet flavours and aromas may be more distinctive than technique in his cooking. One trademark is his use of ingredients from a’ health’ context – aloe vera, kuzu or gomasio, for example. “Health is the most important thing in life,” he notes, “We poison ourselves a little every day because we are hedonists, but it’s possible to eat very well and healthily.”
While avoiding the clichés of fusion style, he is inspired by a very broad geographical spectrum. “For good cooking you need a good larder. We spend a lot of time looking for good produce. That does not mean luxuries – just exceptional potatoes, yams, spices, fruits, and other produce from around the world.”
However, when it comes to the bottom line, Josean’s emphasis is firmly on values. A few days after interviewing him, he wrote me a follow-up email. “You asked me about an ingredient that is essential in the kitchen and I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well, but the best and most important one is affection.”
Favourite ingredients: “I love everything in its context – everyday ingredients like good olive oil and milk with friendly, rather than strong, flavours.”
A recipe from the Spanish chef Josean Martínez
Roast turbot with slightly spicy-hot tuber purée and acidulated wild-mushroom stock
“This recipe grew out of research into tubers. I love their flavour and depth, even though they have travelled so far. The bitterness of the yucca, sweetness of the sweet potato and peppery nature of the yam, mix together into a good purée.