Josean Alija – The Chef, Reborn

Housed in the sacrosanct looking art house that is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Nerua easily holds its own as a showcase of artistry in food. Chef Josean Alija, the mastermind behind the restaurant, started his culinary journey since 14. His story isn’t a typical one, especially since he was faced with a life threatening accident that left him in a 21-day coma. Being not one to be beaten, he returned with a deep desire to rediscover food like no one before. And it’s clear he’s succeeded for Nerua, which is on the Michelin guide, as well as, The World’s Best Restaurants list.

Aspire Lifestyles: Chef Alija, could you please describe the type of cuisine that diners can look forward to at Nerua?

Chef Alija: Nerua features Basque cuisine marked by the seasonality and exceptionality of its produce. We work directly with our producers and we are so lucky because we have a great larder in our compound. We have all the produce we need, within 15km of where we are and is a luxury that we are very proud of.

It’s quite a botanical cuisine and the broths and bases we make allow us to create something essential with very few ingredients. The oceans also supply us with a lot of extraordinary products. We change our menu three times a year: spring, summer and autumn-winter and we usually start to work on the new menu one year before serving it to our customers.

The term that best identifies my cuisine style is muina. It is a Basque word that has no literal translation in English but it means returning to the root of all things, finding the core of it. Muina is the way in which I interpret a complete gastronomic experience, the unique result of focusing attention on the purity of things.

Aspire Lifestyles: We’ve heard the amazing experience that you went through after the accident to rediscover food and how to work with them. Could you tell us more and your recent food discoveries?

Chef Alija: The accident was something terrible, not only endangering my life but also my ability to continue to cook. I lost my senses to smell and taste, the most important tools for a Chef. I was very lucky because I managed to recover, and I liken it to a rebirth. Because of that experience, I became more sensitive I think. The accident helped my cuisine and made me work harder at being a great Chef.

Our recent travel to Russia was an opportunity for me to be inspired by a cuisine that I wasn’t too familiar with. We created a dish with the concept to unite two nations: Basque Country and Russia. We did it through an emblematic traditional Basque sauce, a black sauce that is a stew of squid with vegetables. We then provide a “texture” to the broth with ‘sopako’ bread to enhance the dining experience. This is a very traditional bread that is quite hard to find and make. Its name actually means ‘bread for soups’! Lastly, we seasoned it with caviar to create a contrast between the sea and the river, symbolic of two diverse cultures coming together perfectly.

Aspire Lifestyles: Are there any other exciting dishes or ingredients that you are looking forward to experiment with in the new season?

Chef Alija: We are now starting to select produce for the new season. There are many proposals on the table and I think that we are becoming more demanding each year in the selection. I’m tempted to look back and use quotidian produce. At the same time, I’m always on the lookout for products that tell stories – stories about the environment and seasonality of where we are.

Aspire Lifestyles: Who has been the greatest inspiration in your career so far?

Chef Alija: The mix between nature, culture and the world. I like to get carried away by the feelings and by the happiness that brings me that mixture. I am a passionate of everything that makes you feel good. Over the years I have realized that it is important to have fun in the process of making and sharing, there is no greater success than seeing a happy person after trying one of your dishes. This is hard work and persevering, but very rewarding. It is the magic of this profession without which you cannot live.

Aspire Lifestyles: Seeing that the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 will be held in Bilbao, Spain. What would you recommend visitors to see or do in this city?

Chef Alija: Bilbao is a marvelous city, it is one of those places where you can go anywhere with total freedom. A neat, clean, safe city with a great standard of living, a city that has been able to adapt and evolve through the years. The people from the city and their way of life gives visitors a good idea of what to do and the No.1 culture here is one of food and drink!

Sometime ago, I actually started thinking about the places I would recommend to somebody visiting Bilbao and I did a guide that told a story about our roots and identity. You can find the guide in this link here and it will recommend you bars, restaurants and shops that will certainly make your trip unforgettable:

Aspire Lifestyles: And, do you have any aspirations or hopes for the coming World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018?

Chef Alija: I think every chef likes being in the best position. For me, the fact that I get to celebrate the ceremony in my home city is a success in itself. The World’s 50 Best is a very revolutionary guide and is adapted to the current gastronomy standards, this allows us to get to know many interesting and talented Chefs around the world. My hope is that I will have the opportunity to welcome a lot of colleagues and friends at home in Bilbao and I hope to be as good a host as they were!

Aspire Lifestyles: Last but not least, what are the plans for the restaurant in the near future?

Chef Alija: Nerua is a project that still has great potential for development, it is a living project and evolution is part of our values. I also want to invest everything that knowledge offers us in new projects, apart from Nerua. For that, we are exploring with other countries to understand which ones can fit with our cuisine. We are always on the lookout for possible collaborations to help us develop and improve. Our cuisine is a cuisine that people from different parts of the world enjoy and I want to give it an opportunity of being enjoyed in other parts of the world.