Fine dining always seem to be a moving target. Aitor Zabala has lived in that world since his days at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s celebrated avant garde establishment in Roses, Spain, once considered the best restaurant in the world. Zabala, who hails from the Barcelona, cooked at several big time Spanish avant garde and fine dining restaurants like Alkimia, Abac, and Akelarre before taking a position with fellow Spaniard José Andrés in Las Vegas and eventually at The Bazaar in Los Angeles.
In 2012, Zabala became the head chef of Saam, a tasting menu restaurant-within-a-restaurant at The Bazaar, producing twenty-plus avant garde courses before transforming the space into Somni, one of last year’s biggest new openings. The arresting space, built like a kitchen theater and produced like a dining spectacle, combines Spanish flavors and sensibilities into a seamless, joyous exploration of some of LA’s most clever and innovative food. Amazingly enough, Somni hasn’t had too many reviews from either local or national critics, with the exception of a brief but highly acclaimed look from Los Angeles Magazine, which declared the meal, “nothing short of mind-altering.”
Here now, Eater sits down with Zabala, whom Eater LA named Chef of the Year in 2018. Zabala talks about the potential impact of the Michelin Guide returning to Los Angeles, the long road to opening Somni, and LA’s place in the international dining stage.
On what the Michelin Guide means to Los Angeles: “After working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, it will be nice to have the guide here in the city. But I think it’s wrong for people to think that alone is the goal. I don’t think that’s why someone becomes a chef. You become a chef because you want to feed people and give people an experience.”
On the difference between the Michelin Guide in Europe and in America: “In the fine dining world, America tends to be a little different. Here it’s more about business whereas in Spain and Europe, young cooks get into that world because of the passion. If I wanted to make money in a restaurant, I wouldn’t open a place that serves twenty people a night. I’d open a place with 200 seats, work five days a week, and spend more time playing golf. My bank account would be a lot bigger.
When you’re working at at Michelin-starred restaurant you’re doing 12, 14, sometimes 16 hours a day, and you give up things like family and stable partners because you’re working to make other people happy. In the end, you’re not really in it for the money. That’s not the expression of fine dining. But you become rich in other ways: you can express something, you enrich your soul, you can be happy. You become rich in training good people.”
On whether or not fine dining cuisine is considered art: “You could say we are artistic. We use shapes. Is that art? No. An artist is something bigger. In the end, we’re expressing something in food. Some people say food is art, and at some point I can understand and agree. What we’re doing is a repetition, something you do day by day. I think being an artist is such a big word. Art is something you make once. When you’re a cook, you’re repeating things over and over again to be better. When you’re making art, you work with an idea so that people can connect with it. Artists like Picasso, Dali — their work changes people. But I don’t like when an idea is better than what you can taste.”
On the subtle simplicity of the cooking at Somni, like the spot prawn dish: “When you have dishes that are more touchable, more simple, it’s more challenging. Some dishes you have one ingredient to work with. To me, food is about my memory of forty years of life and experiences. Chefs try to make something new, but to me it’s always about memory. Pan con tomate [a signature dish at Somni] is extremely deep to me. We have staff that want to express their memories too. If it’s Mexican, then it’s mole or enmolada. For us it’s all about being connected to history and memory. I feel like our food is very simple. The older I get, the more I want to take things away and minimize. When you’re younger, you want to put twenty things on a dish, but as you get older, you just need one.”
On coming to America in 2010 after working at El Bulli: “Originally I wanted to open something in Spain but the economy crashed. I was in Washington D.C. helping José Andrés open new projects. I contributed to Jaleo, é, China Poblano in Vegas then changed the menu at The Bazaar and Saam. After coming to Los Angeles, I wanted to live here. The first time I came, it was really nice. It was like feeling at home in Barcelona. The products are amazing. The weather is the same, and it’s near the ocean.
I decided to come here and focus on Saam. It was a struggle to get recognized at first. We were serving as few as two people a night, but we just kept pushing. We tried to make it special regardless of how many people we were serving. It was tough to keep the staff motivated, hoping that we’d have something great in the future. When the new owners of the hotel promised to give us the Saam space again, they gave us the resources to make something great here.”
On the challenges of doing Saam versus the completely new build out of Somni: “We originally had three cooks doing 22 courses. We had to share the space with The Bazaar’s dishwashers in the back. We didn’t have a real kitchen. The challenge was amazing and we made many mistakes. I’m coming from the best restaurant in the world to here. But we had a place. I had to buy dishes with my own money because we didn’t have the budget. We struggled a lot, but I put a solid staff together. My chef de cuisine Alex Stanley started five years ago. Hector Contreras, who does development for Somni, was chef de partie at Saam. We became very close.
José Andrés wanted to make the space into Somni, so after five years of struggling, I believed we were in a good place. We had the talent and the staff to do something here. I wasn’t thinking about recognition or getting my name out there. More importantly, the staff had to believe in the place. My chef de cuisine can make more money at any other restaurant but he stayed with me. My sous chef could make more money elsewhere or become a CDC himself. Now I feel great that this staff has stuck with me for years.”
On taking a vacation for the first time in a year: “I’m going to rent a villa for a week in the south of Spain. My family has been upset because I’ve only been working. I live 8,000 miles away from my family. I haven’t gone home for Christmas for ten years. I’m turning 40 this year, so I want everyone to come together.”
On how Somni has changed after one year: “We’re still growing. We want to make everything better. The food is totally different from when we first opened. I think to myself, ‘We did that? Come on!’ We have a welcoming area now with our own furniture. It’s a better experience. The next goal is to focus on the small details, with better training. But I don’t want to focus too much on the future, because then you lose the moment.”
On being an immigrant chef in America: “I’m still in the process of getting a green card. When I applied, they had no idea what El Bulli was. My situation is complicated, and it’s been a struggle to live year by year. I’ve invested a lot of money in hiring lawyers. Being an immigrant is hard in America. You have to show more than the people here. People want to move here and they need to work hard to have an opportunity. Now after seven years, I feel like an Angeleno. I enjoy going to the farmer markets. I go outside and go on hikes. I love being here, and I love this city. Beautiful food, weather, and good people too.”
On making LA an international dining destination: “It would be great to make LA one of the world’s best destinations. Can we compare to Tokyo? Maybe that’s the best food city in the world. Our city should be happy that Jordan Kahn decided to open Vespertine in LA instead of San Francisco. Now, food tourists will come from around the world to go to Vespertine. There are repercussions to that. It’s similar to Copenhagen, you might go to Noma one night, Bæst for pizza on another, then get tacos at Hija de Sanchez. You have high standards from the bottom to the top. Hopefully people will do the same when they visit LA.”
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.