Mikel Alonso: "Making a Diner Happy is Priceless"
A chat with the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 mentor for Central America and Caribbean region, about his cuisine that fuses Mexican and Basque cooking traditions.
Biarritz-born chef Mikel Alonso has won fame in Mexico City for his thoughtful and sensuous food. Special partnerships form the core of his philosophy, which is why his Biko restaurant, co-owned by fellow Basque chef Bruno Oteiza, is a marriage of cultures and flavours from Mexico and his homeland. Ever the enthusiastic collaborator, Alonso will act as mentor to young Mexican chef Jose Oscar Casimiro Segundo at the Central America and Caribbean region at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018. We spoke to him ahead of the final.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles you overcame to achieve your dream?
It was a decision I made kind of by mistake, one of those beautiful mistakes that guide you in life and sculpt your path. I couldn’t follow my dream of being a chemical engineer so I decided to follow a path full of life and logic. The logic only became clear when I realised I had always been involved with cooking as part of my heritage. My first goal was to become a great cook. Some goals are reached quicker than you imagine. I don’t want to boast about cooking being a hidden talent, but if you consider that practice makes perfect, then anyone can become a great cook quickly. Have high goals and work towards them. The lessons lie not in the destination but the journey.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
There are many triumphs. The biggest one is to make a diner happy, which in turn becomes contagious and makes me happy. That is priceless. The biggest failure would be to spend so much time working, but not receiving joy from it.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer him?
On the technical side, I hope he understands the materials to perfection so he can apply the best technique and obtain the best flavour, aroma, colour and texture without losing the ingredient’s essence. On a personal level, I hope he has fun as if he were a kid in the kitchen.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
It would be the biggest reward for all their hard work and dedication -a type of gastronomic hug that feeds the fire that keeps us passionate about this profession.
In your experience, what particular skills, attitudes and attributes do female chefs bring to a professional kitchen?
Gastronomy is female. Therefore, women will always connect more with the kitchen. Actually, a male chef must be in tune with his feminine side in order to work well. I’ve had the good fortune of working with many women and that has helped me become a better chef. They have taught me how to fight, to hold on, to pamper, to love, to be consistent.
Working together is a key component of the Biko concept. How important are partnerships in your work, and in food in general?
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go accompanied. If we choose a profession for life, then we must surround ourselves with likeminded professionals. This way everything becomes easier and you can reach your goals together. Teamwork in the kitchen is much more fun.
How do Basque and Mexican cuisines complement each other, and how do they differ?
Basque and Mexican cuisines have many similarities and they complement each other. For instance, what would Basque cuisine be without peppers, tomatoes and potatoes? If we search deeper, one of the characteristic cooking techniques of both cuisines is stewing. It is one of the hardest techniques to master. Behind every great stew lies a great story. Also, Basques and Mexicans enjoy eating while standing and have made finger foods a lifestyle.
Tell us about some Basque and Mexican ingredients that constantly inspire and surprise you.
Mexican herbs are always a pleasant surprise. They perfume and add depth of flavour and give meaning to dishes. The Mexican technique of tatemado (roasting in a clay oven) puts a signature stamp on all preparations. I love it. The seafood in the Basque country is my standard. It reminds me that the freshness of the product translates to success in the kitchen.
Why is it so important that eating your food at Biko is such a sensory experience?
All human beings experience art under these parameters: aroma, flavour, colour and texture. This is the palette that is used consciously or unconsciously to determine whether a plate excites us or not. At Biko, these concepts are analysed in all dishes. If any element is missing, the dish doesn’t leave the kitchen.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
We just closed our first stage of Biko. After 10 years we want to renew ourselves and change our location. Apply all knowledge with new materials, colours, textures and flavours. The new Biko will reopen at the end of 2018. Also, 8 months ago we opened Lur, a restaurant that honours home cooking, just like dining at grandma’s. And we are working on a new concept: a playful space with gastronomy, cocktails and music. It will open in a few months in Mexico City.