Food

Plankton, Fish Eyes and Scrapfish — the Menu of the Future?

Chef Angel Leon's new twist on sustainable seafood.

Photo Credit: Urban Nilmander; Screenshot / AlterNet

He has been called the Chef of the Future, The Sustainable Chef and The Chef of the Sea. The philosophy is to make use of scrapfish, plankton and algae and convert everything into gourmet cuisine.

So far it has led to a Michelin star and rave reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Angel Leon is sitting in front of me at his little tavern Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa Maria on the Spanish Atlantic coast. It's the end of the season and he has just received the first printing of his first cookbook. He is proud.

"My philosophy is the sea has so much to tell and we have been bad listeners. It tells a story of gastronomy, biology and sea," he said.

 He is also open about how he almost gave up his project after two years of nearly no guests at the restaurant.

Many people came and went. They expected either to find some meat dish or at least calamari or fried fish. It has been a long way to go but now I have found my audience, or they have found me, he laughs.

He takes out a small plate with a green pulp, pours in a little water and a little salt.

"Taste," he says.

And it is the way he says it would be. The plankton collects all the flavors and scents of the sea, fish and shellfish in a single green mass. Like eating sea-concentrated ecology.

Yet his investigations has barely begun. With the University of Cadiz, he tries constantly to find new ways to use four or five kinds of plankton that you find on the Atlantic coast.

"I have some ideas that we are testing now during the winter closure," he said.

Unlike more famous Spanish chefs like Ferran Adria, Joan Roca and Andoni Anduriz he's rather a traditionalist. It's not about some molecular gastronomic experiments, but to create something new out of something old.

"The idea began to germinate when I saw how much fish was discarded because they did not fit the norm of what you can sell. I wanted to restore the unknown, 'ugly' fish that does not look right or have a meat that we are not accustomed to."

But it should be presented in a new way, in new forms where it is not so important to actually see the fish, he says.

Time to rewind the tape. Angel Leon started his chef career in his home town of Seville and later it took him to France, to tavern Chapeu Femme, and out into the world to Buenos Aires and Miami.

And back to Spain and Toledo. But all the time he longed to return to the Atlantic coast, where he grew up and the idea of exploring marine resources had begun to take shape.

"I got an offer to start a restaurant in Madrid. But I would slowly die if I lived so far from the sea," he laughs.

Instead, the journey took him to the small port town of El Puerto de Santa Maria (70 000 inhabitants, almost engulfed with Cadiz and best-known as the starting place for Columbus).

Eventually he found an old closed discoteque and decided that the name of his restaurant experiment would be Aponiente (the quieter west wind that blows in summer).

That was in 2007. 2008 few guests had found him and in 2009 he was close to quiting the whole experiment.

Many people thought I was crazy to try on a project like this in an old port city. But I wanted to be near the fishing boats and have close contact with the sea all the time, he says.

Some nice reviews in various magazines and the rumor started to spread and his project continued. Suddenly the right audience, the curious ones, found the restaurant that served plankton, fish eyes, horse mackerel, sardines and other "ugly" fish but in a gourmet way.

2011 he received his first Michelin star and shortly after that New York Times published a list of 10 restaurants around the world that they thought was worth a detour. Aponiente was one of those. And shortly after Wall Street Journal appointed Aponiente as being one of Europe's top 10 seafood restaurants.

"Suddenly we had guests from the U.S., Mexico and Latin America. It feels great to get a Michelin star but honestly a newspaper or magazine review is more valuable," says Angel Leon.

The rumor of his unusual ideas for a more sustainable kitchen and the depletion of the oceans also led to a Spanish TV series called El Chef del Mar (The Sea chef) where he shows marine products and discuss what we eat and perhaps should eat.

During the winter months from December to April the tavern closes and he gathers his team and the team from the university to develop new products and dishes from the sea.

That so many still want to hang on to meat led him to produce sausages of fish where he managed to get the same flavors as from the smoked sausage. A thin piece of tuna has become Jamon Marinero, sea ham. And recently he created a cheese made from marine products.

"The next summer, I have many new ideas but I want to keep it a secret so far," he says.

It's the Danish chefs Rasmus Kofoed and Rene Hedzepi, the Venezolanian Nelson Mendez, the Belgian Peter Goosens, the South Korean Yim Jung Sik and Angel Leon that we must listen to if we want to hear the future of food, say some food writers.

Sure it's still exclusive and it's food served on a gourmet level. But pioneers are asking questions that often get important answers.

"I want to work even more with plankton and get it into the kitchen, both in restaurants and at home. Simply put, it's what we eat eats. The fish eat plankton and we eat fish. Why always take the detour?" asks Angel Leon.

That he uses fish eyes as a sauce thickener is of course spectacular, but no more than to make jelly out of pork fat.

"It's all about mental blocks. And by changing the 'ugly' fish that lacks glamour so they do not even look like fish any more, I go around the blockages," he said.

Recently, he skipped the a la carte menu and instead guests choose from a 19-course menu for 105 Euro or a shorter tasting menu for 75 euros.

And there Angel Leon continues to make his detours around mental blockages.

Dishes have names like "an octopus that wanted to be a carrot" (looks like a small carrot) or "life balance — in a jar" (plankton), "pork rind from the sea" (made of moray eel), "oxtail soup" made of tuna and a dessert made with apple sorbet, wasabi, plankton and fennel.

"The idea was not to try to reach ordinary guests who wanted plain food. Aponiente would be unusual from the start. From the beginning we have been clear that what you find here are products available in the ocean and at the fishing boats in the harbor."

"Normally, well a Michelin restaurant need to have the finest soles, the finest lobster and so on. Instead we have the finest sardines, ling, herring, anchovies or other 'scrap fishes' that are local," says Angel Leon.

With researchers at the University, he has also developed Clarimax, a machine that removes fat broths, but still retains the pure taste.

"The idea has been that everything that can be produced through the soil also should be possible to produce by the sea. And we're working on that now.

"It is not easy trying to find a new path and create new thinking in the kitchen but it is what we have chosen to focus on and I think that's the future," says Angel Leon.

Urban Nilmander is a freelance journalist at Gonzo Reportage.

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