Ángel León

The light of the sea

12/02/2021 · By Lala Llorens
Ángel León, four-Michelin-star chef

With the curiosity of a child, the passion of a lover, and the accuracy of a scientist, chef Ángel León has set out on his own original journey that has led him back to our origins, the ocean. A completely new and clean view of the sea, which draws a future full of flavour and hope for the world from the coast of Cádiz, and its flagship lighthouse, Aponiente. Sustainable cuisine with three Michelin stars and an Andalusian accent. Talent without labels.

Aponiente breathes, bustles, and beats with a life of its own in the heart of the Bay of Cádiz. Located in the old tide mill in Puerto de Santa María, isolated from the world and fully integrated into the marshy landscape, crossing its threshold is entering a magical place. You soon realise this isn’t just a restaurant: we’re in a temple, a sanctuary, a lab... From here, chef Ángel León (Jerez de la Frontera, 1977) leads his personal revolution, a movement that goes beyond gastronomy and flows like a current of pure water, slow but unstoppable.

He has been a pioneer wholeheartedly defending humble and discarded fish, products that he has elevated to excellence transforming them into exquisite mouthfuls such as sea cold cuts (Majorcan sausage, Catalan sausage, ham... even bacon!): “Every day, almost 35,000 tonnes of fish are thrown back into the sea, just in the upper half of Spain. Imagine if all those kilos were turned into food for daily human consumption!” he explains. His use of plankton for cooking, his discovery of techniques such as salt baking (“live salt” he calls it), cooking rice with sea collagen —an innovative method that could be used in expeditions to the Moon— or making honey from species such as the Ruppia maritima, are just a few revolutionary examples.

“We’ve stopped looking at nature with curiosity and hunger”

Behind all these creations, there is one key ingredient: the endless imagination of a sea lover at the service of science and research, a task he develops in collaboration with different scientific institutions and universities. The team is currently immersed in the development of new products transformed from fish farming and discarded species, in the production of healthy bio-compounds of micro-algae with food applications, and in the experimental development of a new range of ingredients and foods of sustainable marine origin that will allow us to replace those originally from the land. “Right now, we have many ongoing projects developing new foods. But one of the ones I’m most excited about is the project we are carrying out with Compass, a collective company that feeds almost 30,000 children in Spain daily, with whom we are developing new foods for children to eat fish in schools. We’ve made some beautiful things: from a pizza with 62% of fish protein in the dough to a smoked loin fillet made with fish”, explains the chef.

“We spend millions travelling to the Moon, but we won’t invest in looking for new food sources from the sea”

“Creo que tenemos que dedicar tiempo para contarles a los niños lo que es el mar y acercarles a él”, afirma. Porque en su opinión, el problema de que a los niños les cueste comer pescado está estrechamente relacionado con nuestro propio distanciamiento del medio natural. “Somos una sociedad muy avanzada pero absolutamente desconectada de la naturaleza, y hemos dejado de mirar a la naturaleza con curiosidad y con hambre”, asegura. “Hemos usado tanto la palabra sostenibilidad… y esto es terrible. Hoy todo es sostenible, y llegará un momento en que nos creeremos que realmente somos sostenibles, pero no lo somos. Por eso me gusta más hablar de naturaleza, de algo tan simple. El principio de la sostenibilidad es enamorarte de la naturaleza”.

“I believe that there is enough protein for all the human beings on Earth, but there’s not enough creativity, passion or commitment for things to change. We spend millions travelling to the Moon, but we won’t invest in looking for new food sources from the sea,” he adds. Because if Ángel León knows something, it’s that “the great solution for humankind is in the water”.

“I prefer talking about nature than sustainability. I think that the principle of sustainability is falling in love with nature”

Exquisite innovation
Such a phenomenon could not go unnoticed by critics: the ‘Chef of the Sea’ boasts four Michelin stars —three for Aponiente, which also has three Repsol Suns, and one for Alevante. “Stars carry weight and emit light. In our situation, when the first star landed on the other Aponientito, I always say that that first star was sent from God, because if it hadn’t landed on us, maybe we wouldn’t be here today. Then came the second, and then the third at this mill. The stars really motivate the team, it’s true that some days you feel their weight, but there are more days where they shine a light”.

He has also received the Medalla de Andalucía, recognition from the Prix au Chef de L’Avenir of the International Academy of Gastronomy and the Spanish National Academy of Gastronomy, among many other awards. His “cereal,” the common eelgrass, has just received the Spanish National Gastronomic Innovation Award —to name some of its virtues, it contains more high-quality proteins, vitamins, and amino acids, and less fat than an earth-grown cereal—.

“I believe that there is enough protein for all human beings, but there’s not enough creativity, passion or commitment for things to change”

León is also credited for making the world rediscover the natural, heritage and ecological value of Cádiz’s marsh, a unique ecosystem of lagoons, trenches, and local species —such as the sea salicornia, which he made world-famous—, and ancient traditions, such as the salt mines, which are sadly disappearing.

But his dream is even bigger than that. As well as making Aponiente an open, more experiential, restaurant, where the diner can “submerge” themselves in the marsh itself, his sights are set on gradually removing fish from his menu. “My dream as a chef is to end up cooking proteins that come from the sea without them being the obvious scales and fish. In three or four years, perhaps we will come to a point where I can forget about the main protein being an oyster, and it might be algae, which will taste like barnacles, will have the texture of a steak, which I’ll grill and say it’s a new way of eating meat, pouring a sea gooseberry sauce [one of his latest discoveries] over the top. And, in the end, we’ll fill the menu with 14 or 15 dishes of things that aren’t fish. This is the dream,” he says.

“My dream as a chef is to end up cooking proteins that come from the sea without them being the obvious scales and fish”

Beyond the creations of a four-Michelin-star chef, Ángel León’s proposals invite us to listen to that voice that roars from the bottom of the sea to remind us that the key to our future is hidden down there. We dive into his menu at Aponiente this season, Sweet water - salt water, and the ocean engulfs us in full force. The light comes from the infinite blue.