The flavour enhancer.
The arrival of El Xef.
The atmosphere inside Madrid’s DiverXO – pronounced [di’berso] – restaurant changes palpably when Dabiz Muñoz strides through the door. Of course, there was already an air of professionalism about the place, but it was a bit like watching two world-class tennis players playing high-speed balls back and forth to warm up before the Wimbledon final. Now the match itself is under way; the kitchen and serving staff have their game faces on and everything is moving along a tick faster. The arrival of El Xef on the scene acts like a starting gun: let the pursuit of points, of stars, of everything begin. Muñoz replaces his leopard-design hoodie with a regulation kitchen apron and scribbles his signature on papers proffered by restaurant manager Carlos in passing. Then his gaze meets the photographer’s. Everything about his eyes and body language says skip the small talk and cut to the chase. With the artwork in the can, we find ourselves a quieter corner to chat. Now Muñoz allows himself to relax a little. He’s fast-moving, open, honest, and, it turns out, an attentive listener. What’s more, he seems to thrive on talking about his passion.
Absolutely obsessed with taste.
Mr. Muñoz, sadly you can’t print aromas and flavours on the pages of a magazine. Can you describe in words what your cooking is all about?
First and foremost, I’m absolutely obsessed with taste. Everything I do revolves around creating strong and unique flavours. So my team and I are always on the lookout for new combinations.
What sort of taste buds do you have?
For me, strong is good. I’m happiest when I have different nuances in a single mouthful – like hot and sour, or sweet and spicy. Our aim is to combine ingredients that nobody has ever brought together or felt on their tongue before. That way we push everything to its limits.
Why are extremes so important to you?
Because I want to create singular experiences for the people who come to my restaurants. I think people are happy when they can try something that’s new, but also delicious. The idea is to give my guests the feeling of being on a rollercoaster. They’re quite right to feel a little nervous at the start. But then I want to delight them, thrill them, surprise them – and perhaps throw them a little off guard for a moment. I want my guests to experience a whole gamut of emotions during their meal.
How do you achieve the desired effect when people’s tastes can be so different? A dish a Chinese person might consider barely spiced at all can already be too much for some European palates.
Of course. There’s a penchant for fermented ingredients and strong flavours in Chinese cuisine, whereas we Spaniards prefer our food to be creamier and a little oily. People will experience the same flavour at different levels of intensity, depending on the culture they come from. But delicious food will always be delicious food – wherever in the world you happen to be.
In the corridor leading to the kitchen, someone has scrawled “Vanguardia o morir” (innovate or die) in felt-tip pen on the ceiling. Is that your guiding principle?
Well, innovation, creativity, and contemporary cuisine obviously mean a lot to me. But top of the priority list is taste. Everything else is secondary.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I’m a very curious person and love traveling – to Asia in particular. I like to garner as many experiences and as much knowledge as I can. And wherever I happen to be, I consciously search for new taste experiences and ingredients.
You’re currently offering three menus – at prices ranging from 165 to 225 euros. Powerful flavours are always at the center of your dishes. How would you describe your style?
With DiverXO we’re not aiming to emulate Chinese, Thai or French cuisine. But I am keen to know exactly how people cook in China, Thailand, and France these days. This knowledge generates ideas, it inspires me – and then I create something new out of it. Something that’s one-hundred per cent particular to me. Something unique.
What does the name of your restaurant mean?
The Spanish adjective “diverso” means different, which is what I want to be. And then it occurred to us that XO is the name of a well-known Chinese sauce. And since Asian cooking has had the most sustained influence on me, we swapped the “so” at the end of “diverso” for “XO”. It’s wordplay. When you say the two words, they sound pretty similar.
Your restaurant has some very unusual décor. Wherever you look, there are pigs – standing still, suspended, flying. It’s like Jeff Koons has paid you a visit…
… or we’ve tapped into a dream inside the head of Tim Burton (who I admire very much) or my illustrious compatriot Salvador Dalí. Dream worlds where everything is creative, powerful, and just a bit mad.
I’ve proved that dreams can come true.
Were the pigs an idea your interior designer came up with?
No, they were my idea. When you want to tell someone in Spanish that they’re chasing an impossible dream, you can say “it’ll never work” or “and pigs might fly.” That’s what my father said to me when I was a kid and told him about my big dream of one day becoming a professional chef and owning my very own restaurant, with lines of people waiting outside for ages to try my crazy creations.
In the space of just three years you’ve picked up three Michelin stars. You were awarded the third of these in 2014, which means you’re now “officially” one of the world’s best chefs.
I’ve proved that dreams can come true – that pigs really can fly. And now I’m giving that idea a tangible form in my restaurant. The pigs themselves show us that DiverXO is a world in which anything is possible.
Like being at a really good party.
Do your parents work in the restaurant industry?
No, not at all. There’s nobody from my family in the food world. My mother was a housewife, my father worked in the automotive sector. But they both loved going out for a good meal – and they always took us children with them. My favourite restaurant to this day is Viridiana here in Madrid. The first time I went there I was 12 and it just blew me away. It was the first restaurant in the city that offered fusion cooking; everything was prepared so creatively and tasted so intense. Eating there always felt to me like being at a really good party. And it’s like that even today. Viridiana is still around – and my old pal Abraham Garciá is in the kitchen.
Do you see him as a kind of role model?
I’m not someone who goes in for idols or role models; it’s not something I need. But if I had to name one person on this planet who came close to that sort of status, it would be Abraham Garciá.
Do you see yourself as an artist?
I consider myself first and foremost a chef. You could probably describe part of my work as artistic – but that’s a long way from making me an artist.
When I look around here, it’s like you have a second career as a designer.
No. The pigs are a good example; I came up with the idea, but it was turned into reality by an expert. He’s the designer here, not me.
Would you say that your guests are witnessing a production of some kind?
We’re a restaurant, not a theatre. For that reason, I wouldn’t go along with what you’re suggesting. The food is the main event here, the rest comes second. We keep the show side of things within limits. Otherwise we would run the risk of shifting the focus away from the food. But we do offer a kind of performance, absolutely.
What elements of the experience are you thinking of here?
heavy, claret-coloured curtain, which is opened when the guests arrive but closed again when the first dish is served. Then, in the middle of the set meal all the curtains in the room are opened at the same time, which tends to take people by surprise. One moment everything is very intimate, you’re in a world of your own, and the next you’re being looked at by the 39 other diners. It’s a shock, and suddenly you feel as if you’re naked. It’s always a fascinating thing to watch.
It’s a slightly unhinged business plan.
How many staff do you have for the maximum 40 guests you entertain at any one time?
Excuse me? And you still make a profit?
I know, it’s a slightly unhinged business plan – at least when treated in isolation. It only works because I don’t have any partners in the business and because I make money in other areas. I sold my apartment and my car so I could open DiverXO in 2007. But this restaurant has never earned any money – and probably never will. Yet it is the centerpiece which my whole business plan revolves around. The money comes from the contracts, activities and things I’ve brought together around DiverXO, such as the StreetXO restaurants. At StreetXO, we don’t take any reservations. Guests are served individual dishes or small snacks priced at around 15 euros. One of the StreetXO restaurants is here in Madrid, another opens in July in London, and we’re thinking hard about adding more. New York would be an exciting challenge, as would a city in Asia, of course.
When did your XO group first start making a profit?
You have to keep believing in yourself.
So it’s been a long journey. Did you ever doubt yourself along the way?
Of course. But ultimately I always believed I could achieve something great, and that one day my idea would be a success. What was difficult to deal with was not knowing when that would happen. In a situation like that, the only way through is to be very strong mentally and never lose confidence in yourself. You have to keep believing in yourself and never forget that what really matters when it comes to developing and growing something lies in the ideas you have, not in money.
How were things when you were just starting out on your own?
It was tough. For the first nine months after DiverXO opened I slept on an air bed in the restaurant’s cellar, just so I could get through all the things I had to do. At eight o’clock every morning my father would drop by to wake me up and bring me breakfast. I finished work at two or three a.m. every night and went back down to the cellar. I only saw my apartment on Saturdays. On the drive over there I often sat in the car thinking: oh, wow, fresh air – so that’s what it feels like!
The most contented man in the world.
How did your body cope with the hard grind?
There was a time, two years ago or so, when I weighed 35 kilos (77 lbs) more than I do now. I was strong mentally in one way, but I wasn’t happy. It was a trough I dug myself out of with the help of a coach. I decided at that point to rid myself of everything that didn’t make me happy. At the same time, I started running, four times a week. That’s turned out to be very important for me, because I still work six days a week, 18 hours a day. It’s not my workload that’s changed, just the way I deal with it.
And today you are…
… the most contented man in the world. I’m very, very happy.
How do you guard against burnout?
There’s a pretty simple answer to that.
Which is?I love what I do. I’m quite simply obsessed