We chat with the avant-garde chef Dabiz Muñoz
Describing his cooking style as ‘travelling without borders’, it is no surprise that the award-winning chef has become a global ambassador for Madrid and Spain.
Images by James Rajotte
DiverXO’s motto is ‘innovate or die’. How does one stay avant-garde when they have reached the top?
It’s very hard. Coming up with a novel concept that works in order to start a project is difficult per se, but having to continually renew that concept for 14 years is far harder. To be constantly reinventing involves a lot of effort and requires a brutal evaluation of yourself and of your business, and this exposes you to great risk. You’re always at the edge of the precipice. But I feel comfortable in that scenario. I want people to feel as if they are in a new restaurant every time they return to DiverXO. That’s what we are working on. And I think that, right now, we’re achieving that. In fact, I’m convinced that the best versions of DiverXO and of me as a chef are yet to come.
Success has made you an international ambassador of Spanish cuisine. How are you doing in that role?
I love being an ambassador of Spanish gastronomic culture. I feel very Spanish and I feel very much like a Madrid native. So I like to represent certain values that have to do with Spain and, in this case, also Madrid. Values such as the courage to launch new businesses, constant change, dissatisfaction, the culture of effort. They’re the hallmarks of what I am and of the XO brand. As is ambition. Ambition can have negative connotations, but I believe that properly understood ambition is the leitmotif of progress. Overcoming is impossible without it.
After opening DiverXO, you ended up sleeping at the restaurant for months. Looking back, how do you assess the path that has brought you to what you are today?
Some people think that my success fell from heaven. But the truth is that, during the first seven or eight years of DiverXO, we were barely making it from week to week. I’m talking about me working 17 or 18 hours a day and sometimes taking barely €500 a week. When you’re in that situation, people around you tell you you’re making a mistake. And you yourself end up wondering whether you’re sacrificing your entire life to fail. Because, obviously, I left absolutely everything behind for a dream. Now, it’s easier to look back and say that it was worth it. But there were no guarantees back then.
Did you ever consider throwing in the towel?
Yes. There were moments when I did. But when you have blind faith in what you are doing, and you think it’s worth it, you’re able to carry on. And I was very sure what it was that I wanted to achieve. I’ve been cooking since I was 12. And I knew that however big my dream was, my sacrifice would have to be bigger. That’s why – even though no one else understands it – for me it made sense to set aside my entire life to be working 18 hours a day in a restaurant. But that’s the way it is. Despite what you see on social media, I don’t personally know of any case of real success that doesn’t have a story of great sacrifice behind it.
How do you reconcile your profession’s creative side with the business and management aspects?
I really like to be at the head of everything happening at my restaurants, take important decisions, but what I like most – and this is where my differential value lies – is generating new ideas and concepts. I’d like to spend more and more time on everything related to that. I think that the explosion of the restaurant and my own ‘explosion’ will actually arrive when I’m able to spend most of my time with the creative process.
They say that you’re always jotting things down in a notebook.
That’s true. I write down everything, from ideas for dishes to sensations I’d like to bring out in the restaurant, or gastronomic concepts I’d like to create. Without exaggerating, I’d say I might have 300 full notebooks [he laughs]. That’s just the way it is. What really makes me anxious is that I have many more ideas than the time to develop them. That’s why I think I’m never going to truly leverage my potential until I can spend 12 hours a day trying out all the things I’ve got in my head.
Have you considered writing a book?
I’d like to at some point, when I can find the required calm. Though perhaps not a book, but something more innovative.
How would you describe your cuisine?
I like to say that my cuisine is a travelling cuisine, that it lacks borders. Because it travels just as I have travelled and continue to travel. And, obviously, that influences my dishes. I let myself get influenced and ‘contaminated’ by everything I like in gastronomy. One thing for sure is that I don’t do fusions. I don’t aim to take things already done in other countries and fuse them with my culture or fuse them with other cultures so that they create a third thing. I want anyone who comes to my restaurant to eat to know that they are going to eat creations by Dabiz Muñoz.
What do you hope your guests take with them when they walk out of the door?
My aim is for them to leave thinking that it’s been the best experience of their lives.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue to make DiverXO the world’s best restaurant. And I think that includes changing the location. The current place is fine – it’s great – but, in order to continue to grow, I think we need more space, but not more guests. In other words, we want to continue with the 36 or 38 diners we currently have at each setting, but we need a more powerful space that will allow us to develop more things. We’re also thinking about a restaurant with a different concept. And, of course, about continuing with expanding StreetXO internationally. We’re opening one in Dubai next year. And our next destination is the USA.