It was never his ambition to be a ‘super chef’, but by the age of five, he could already be found cleaning fish: “As I opened them up, I was fascinated to discover what they had eaten,” says Ángel León. And that “unique way of looking at the sea, more in the manner of a marine biologist than a chef” earned him his nickname ‘the chef of the sea’. After discovering the combustible properties of olive stones, introducing seafood sausages, and dazzling the world with his edible marine luminescence, he is at a high point in his career. With considerable excitement, he presents his latest discovery: three totally new foods for human consumption.
What is Ángel León like outside work?
I’m a very good friend to my friends. I care a great deal about the people who were with me before “the chef of the sea and all that stuff,” and I like to keep a close connection with my roots. If you don’t do that, you lose the essence of who you are. I’m lucky enough to have friends who, if they don’t like something I do, won’t hesitate to tell me. And that is glorious, pure and simple.
Since you were awarded your three Michelin stars for Aponiente and Alevante… has your life changed much?
No. We still find ourselves in a complicated situation. There is no question that we are located in an idyllic paradise, Cádiz, but it has not been easy to get this far—don’t forget it is an area with an unemployment rate of 50%, and that is very damaging. I feel good in every respect. I have three Michelin stars—I’m as happy as Larry, but I’m equally happy frying fish on a beach in Bolonia, and you enjoy life more that way. I’m not scared of the disaster scenario, if things don’t work out.
How did you get to where you are now?
At college, I was never an ambitious cook, nor did I want to be a super chef. I was never obsessed with achieving three Michelin stars. I believe my connection with the sea borders on the psychopathic, it’s such a primitive relationship; what has brought me to this point is bringing the life of the sea into the kitchen, and developing it there. When I started out, everyone told me that cooking nothing but seafood was a suicidal path for a chef. They used to ask me what on earth I was thinking, cooking fish that nobody wanted! My way of looking at the sea from the point of view of a marine biologist, rather than a cook, has brought us to where we are now. And, of course, the crazy work of a group of lunatics who believed in the project: my crew who are my soul, my legs and my hands. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. My greatest fortune has been that my team have understood my madness and made it their own. We’re like a sea sect, strange but wonderful.
I was never an ambitious cook, nor did I want to be a super chef. I was never obsessed with achieving three Michelin stars
Your dream was to bring plankton and luminescence into your dishes, and you have achieved that. What is your next dream?
There are some very ‘heavy’ things coming up. I believe we’re at the most savage stage of research in the history of Aponiente. Things I have dreamt about have turned into reality, and next season we’re going to open the restaurant with three ingredients new to the human race. We’re making it tangible, and we’re introducing it into marine farming. That is what I find most exciting about my work. If you asked me to choose between inventing a new culinary technique and discovering a new food, I would definitely choose the latter.
If you asked me to choose between inventing a new culinary technique and discovering a new food, I would definitely choose the latter
I have always been fascinated by the biology of Ibiza. It’s not the status of the island, but it’s the seas surrounding it, the fish, the Posidonia (a species of seagrass, unique to the Mediterranean, also known as Neptune Grass), the Phoenician connection that is so interesting. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the seafaring population of Ibiza. This morning I’ve been out sailing with some fishermen. They showed me the nature reserve and the rough-and-ready, seafaring, but 100% authentic side of Ibiza that few people know about.
On Ibiza, everyone talks about the product, but they only want tuna or sea bass… No-one wants to know about other fish, such as sirvia, or gerret fish…
If we, the restaurateurs, can’t learn to call the varieties of fish by their correct names and we therefore mislead the public, then we’re stuffed. A plate of grouper cannot cost €5 or €6 when it’s actually worth €32. And if what you’re serving up in your restaurants is perch, rosada or butterfish, put their names on your blackboard, because then we’ll be helping to avoid profiteering from the sea. Because there is outright profiteering: we glamourise certain products that are considered ‘gourmet’. But there’s no sense in paying €300 for a kilo of eels. There are many things in the sea that strike me as much more exciting. We only consume 36% of the sea’s biomass. Every single day, in Spain alone, 40,000 tonnes of fish are thrown back into the sea. We live in a society where people are put off by the sight or touch of fish. We are becoming distanced from nature. The fishmongers’ shops are like cemeteries with row upon row of fillets—because the fishmonger knows full well that people don’t want fish eyes or scales.
We live in a society where people are put off by the sight or touch of fish. We are becoming distanced from nature
What about plastics?
Aah… it’s a real bitch. It is a complicated issue… As a consumer, from the moment you get up in the morning until you go to bed at night, you’re using plastic. I live in a polluted system, and I am part of it. I believe that ultimately the sea will punish us. But however much people talk, awareness of the problem has not really changed. I imagine that if we go on for another 10 years at this rate, watch out…
Let’s talk about your latest project in Ibiza…
I’m really excited about it. I had a really nice offer from Meliá. They called me to come and have a look at the upstairs terrace of the ‘Me Ibiza’ hotel, and as soon as I saw it, I said, “I don’t know what you want me to do, but I don’t mind if it’s making churros with chocolate…” And so here I am. My idea is for a fun, informal, easy-going concept… Fried eggs with prawns or bacon, a squid sandwich, or our classic Aponiente rice with plankton. There will also be a few more typically Ibizan dishes, such as spicy mackerel sobrasada (sausage), smoked sardines with coca (traditional flatbread)…
How do you manage to combine your family life with this non-stop maelstrom of work?
I don’t combine them. I’m a failure at that. But my son is the most important thing in my life… I spend a lot of time away from home, but every day I take him to school and in the evenings, I play with him. Sundays belong to him, and now that he’s turned three, on Saturdays for example, I take him to the restaurant with me so that he can try a load of different things. You have to find a way to cope with this kind of lifestyle. There needs to be a balance: you need to be creative, to be a super chef, a super dad… But we’re not super heroes.