“The idea of luxury you’d typically get with Michelin, well you won’t get that here. Here the staff are fun”
Dabiz Muñoz is not your usual chef. He doesn’t even look the part. Most three-Michelin-starred chefs mirror their status with a large helping of sobriety – many look like accountants once the whites are off – but here comes Muñoz with his sneakers, shredded jeans, mohawk and complicated earring arrangement.
“Sometimes looking like this is useful and sometimes it’s not,” he chuckles. On the one hand he gets stopped in the street for selfies in his native Madrid, where his celebrity – books, TV shows, documentaries, red carpet moments – has added punch through his marriage to one of Spain’s prime-time TV presenters, Cristina Pedroche. On the other hand, he recently discovered that his style gets him refused entry to clubs in London. He’s not saying which. “They told me that my look wasn’t ‘appropriate’,” he says, “which is incredible for a city like London these days. Listen, I don’t really plan the way I look. I don’t dress for effect. It’s just the way I’m comfortable. But not to be able to get into somewhere because of the clothes you’ve got on, or because of a specific haircut ...”
It’s in London where his latest venture, StreetXO (XO is a tricky Spanish pun on “show”), opened to acclaim, following the serious praise heaped on his three-Michelin-starred restaurant DiverXO in Madrid. The former might not have made much profit yet, but it has proved a testing ground for some fresh cooking. It’s been, by Muñoz’s own admission, a hard ride to get going, but it’s a stepping stone to the planned opening of another six or so restaurants – in the US, Asia and Dubai – over the coming couple of years. It could be the beginning of a global enterprise, if he’s ready for it, given that he’s only now just getting used to his celebrity status back in Spain.
“It can get a bit boring – people trying to take your picture all the time,” he laughs. “But I also understand that that’s the world I’m in – not just through my relationship but because chefs are sometimes celebrities now. And the fact is that the more people know you, the more people are likely to want to eat at your restaurant. I’m here for the food – and it’s the food I want to be known for.”
That looks set to be a given. His brand – thanks not just to his cooking, or his sense of theatre but, it has to be said, his style and his attitude – is ripe for expansion. Indeed, perhaps the only stumbling block might be Muñoz himself. Like many chefs, he’s a self-confessed control freak. And he’s only now learning to let go a little.
I have to do everything, I have to make all the creative decisions,” says the Spanish chef, who already works five days a week in Madrid, then each weekend in London. “That means I just can’t open everywhere. I like to be chef, to get the apron on. That feels right. And I feel very differently about the business now compared to a decade ago. I was very successful very fast and I was terrified all the time, wondering whether I could match customer expectations. And to be honest I had a really tough time with it then, dealing with the pressure. But I don’t worry about burning out now.
A Suquet Made in Vietnam
“In the past two years I’ve got much more comfortable with what I’m doing – in life, in cooking, in London – which is not an easy city in which to make a business despite the reputation it has for people eating out all the time,” he adds. “I lived in London when I was 20 and I thought I understood the city. But coming back has made me realise that I didn’t. There are just so many cultures here and you have to understand – and cook – for all of them. That’s a challenge. But I have to say I love what’s happening.”
What’s happening is the likes of Muñoz being compared to the second coming of Ferran Adrià, the pioneering Spanish chef who, it’s often suggested, invented molecular gastronomy, turning cooking into a kind of culinary science, building dishes on unexpected juxtapositions that create as much spectacle as, well, something to actually eat.
“Sure, being compared with Adrià is a compliment – he revolutionised gastronomy. But we’re doing something different,” says Muñoz, and one suspects he’s not mad on the comparison, most of all because he wants to be his own man. What’s more, he doesn’t really think of his cooking as being especially Spanish, despite StreetXO’s tapas-style serving. “I’m trying to make my own revolution. Will that work out? Well, it’s too early to say. But I’m working on it.”
That’s apparent, in a way, in the look of his restaurants; all bold graphics, neon signs, whimsy, wonder and fiesta attitude, the staff wearing outfits not dissimilar to his own. His London enterprise has been described as a Cirque du Soleil of gastronomy, and were a staff member to cartwheel between the tables or deliver dishes via trapeze it wouldn’t be surprising. But, Muñoz stresses, “difference alone doesn’t make you better, even if I think customers really want to feel the soul of the place they dine in.” Crucially, the revolution is apparent in his cooking, which is experimental without being scientific: crunchy pigs’ ears coated with strawberry hoisin sauce, dumplings of prawn paste with cheddar cocktails, wasabi ice cream with gherkins. Dishes are often delivered with friendly advice as to how they are best eaten.
Steamed XO Club Sandwich
It’s not fusion – a term Muñoz is not so keen on – and, it’s true, it’s only passingly Spanish. It’s a mash up of different cuisines and techniques, just like the cooking at Viridiana, the Madrid restaurant where his parents liked to take him as a 12-year-old. (It was Viridiana that inspired him to take up oven gloves and go to culinary school, which was followed by spells at London’s Hakkasan and Nobu.)
“I’m trying to do the unexpected,” says Muñoz, a puckish figure in his Nikes (in Spain, he’s an ambassador for the brand, as well as for Mercedes). “That in itself isn’t difficult, in the way that just being crazy for its own sake isn’t. I’m trying to do it in a refined way, with combinations of foods not seen before. And it has to be delicious first – then we can talk about pushing the creative ideas. After all, these are not labs or museums but restaurants. The dishes can sound like they should be a disaster but they work. Of course, sometimes I think a dish is just the best and customers think otherwise. And the line between delicious and disaster is set by the customers.
The setting, the theatre, the tone and certainly the food chime with, Muñoz argues, a new definition of luxury, too. It’s one Michelin itself seems to be coming round to, just a few years back having focused its attention largely on the French, the formal and the occasionally stiff.
“The idea of luxury you’d typically get with Michelin, well you won’t get that here. Here the staff are fun. They smile,” laughs Muñoz. “The real luxury is in the dishes, which should provide a mind-blowing experience. And I’m good with that – because if a diner has great food, they’ll come back even if the service was a bit off. They don’t go back if the service was perfect but the food wasn’t quite so great. Of course, chefs sometimes want to challenge ways of eating. But that doesn’t always work. People don’t always get it. And, you know what, that’s the chef’s problem not theirs. It means you have to refine the concept of the dish so that people do get it.”
Learning to listen – you have to be pragmatic, he notes – is something that has come with maturity, Muñoz suggests. He’s still not yet 40, making him one of a very elite club to have so many Michelin accolades at such a relatively young age. He concedes that he used to be “a lot more aggressive about everything I did and pushing it all forward. But now I’m better at respecting people’s opinions. And I accept that some people like what I do and some people don’t, which is what happens when you do something different.”
How long will the Muñoz proposition stay different? How well will Muñoz be able to sustain that difference as his business expands? He’s going to be working on it 24/7 until he finds out. “I’m very ambitious,” Muñoz says, which is akin to saying that Everest is a tall mountain, or that Ferraris are quite fast. “I want to open these new restaurants and for them all to be crazily successful. And for me that means full bookings all the time. That’s the only real measure of success in this business, nothing else. Look around; there are plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants without full bookings.”
StreetXO, 15 Burlington Street, W1, streetxo.com