Chef of the Sea
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
Photographer: Spanish chef Ángel León. Tomás Zarza/©ICEX
Chef of the seas, in plural. But of the seas of creativity. Ángel León has more than an enquiring mind. He never stops trying to extract the best from fish and shellfish, often from little-known products. Today, after years of work as a chef, never losing sight of his maritime background, he enjoys great prestige amongst his colleagues, researchers and the public.
Ever since his childhood, Ángel León has had a close relationship with the sea and its products, largely thanks to his father. Before he became a cook, Ángel was a sailor. His love of the sea and his research work led him to enroll on board ships and sail the straits of Gibraltar, the coasts of Mauritania, the Norwegian fiords or the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
With close ties to Andalusia, this chef studied at the Taberna del Alabardero Cooking School in Seville and worked in restaurants such as Casa Irene (Arties, Catalonia), El Faro del Puerto (El Puerto de Santa María, Andalusia), Chapeau Femme (Bordeaux), the Sheraton hotels in Buenos Aires and Miami, and La Casa del Temple in Toledo, where he studied Sephardic cooking. In 2005, he achieved one of his dreams when he opened his own restaurant, Aponiente, in El Puerto de Santa María (Andalusia).
Ángel León was struck by Adrià’s statement that "the real revolution will come when scientists and cooks work together”, and in 2004 convinced three research centers (Sea Science at the University of Cádiz, Marine Biology at the University of Alicante, and Education at the University of Castile-La Mancha to finance a study on how different fishing methods affect the flavor and texture of fish. His work alongside university experts continued subsequently with the development of a new piece of culinary equipment, named the “Clarimax”, for clarifying stocks. It uses a filter similar to that of certain coffee machines but filtration is carried out by diatomaceous earth (microalgae). The result is a transparent, clear stock with no fat. The Clarimax, sold by the Spanish ICC company, allows cooks to dispense with long cooking and clarification processes.
R&D with a marine flavor
León's discoveries for avant-garde cuisine in Spain include the use of parts of the fish that are normally discarded. The eyes of fresh fish (vitreous humor) can be used to obtain a natural emulsifier that can substitute lecithin to obtain "airy" effect. Marine air to aromatize baked fish dishes. Also, León has discovered that a powder made from the dehydrated scales of fresh fish can be used, bound with stock, to create gelatinous, caviar-like balls.
In January 2006, he gave classes at The Culinary Institute of America in New York where, with the help of biologist Luis Pérez, he explained the clarifying properties of marine sediments.
A recent technical innovation is the combination of the flavor of fish with smoke from burning olive stones, the result of research carried out jointly with Andoni Luis Aduriz. He has also developed techniques for smoking fish over wood from the barrels used in Jerez to age Sherry wine. Another field of study in which León has been a pioneer is the use of assorted fish caught by trawl-nets. In the Gulf of Cádiz and along certain parts of the Spanish coasts, a large variety of marine species are discarded because they are considered of no commercial value. The volume rejected is ten times that of the species that are sent for sale, yet it represents a biomass of enormous nutritional and gastronomic value. Ángel León has found innovative techniques for preparing fish concentrates for use in stews and paella, dried and restructured fish products, fish hamburgers, etc.