Food & Drink

Questions of Taste: David Muñoz

David Muñoz, the founder of Madrid’s first three-Michelin star restaurant, discusses his journey to chef superstardom and reflects on opening his latest culinary extravaganza, StreetXO in London’s Mayfair

I’m obsessed with finding flavours that people have never tried before. When I was 12, my parents took me to a nice restaurant in Madrid and I’m not sure why, but I fell in love with it. Most 12 year olds are excited by singers, football players and actors, but my idol was the chef. I wanted to be just like him, and to have a restaurant where people could go to experience something unique.

I began cooking at home with my mum, all the time trying to make different things. They were shit, because I didn’t know how to make delicious food, but I just loved being creative. I spent the next five years around that kitchen, until I went to culinary school. From that first day I knew that cooking was my passion: I wanted to be a chef.

After school, I started to work in restaurants in Madrid, before coming to London in my early 20s – a decision that was the beginning of something much bigger. Being in London was when I first began to see real-life creative food from around the world…I felt as if I’d never even been to a restaurant in my life before I came to Hakkasan [in Hanway Place]. There, I managed to join the pastry section by lying and saying I was a pastry chef. I knew I just had to be in that kitchen, and it blew my mind.

Everything was new to me, and every day working there was a new experience. Seventeen years ago in Spain, we didn’t know what black cod or yuzu was, so to encounter them as a young chef for the first time was unforgettable. I eventually spent two-and-a-half years working there, learning everything I could about all the techniques, ingredients and concepts that make it such a great restaurant. Even now, I still love it, and it was it is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a chef. Whenever I think of my career, everything is before and after Hakkasan.

From there I went to work at Nobu for two more years before returning to Madrid in 2007. Even though the menus of both Hakkasan and Nobu were very different, I felt that the experience from the customer’s point of view was very similar, and so I decided then that it was time to create something new.

When I first opened DiverXO 10 years ago, it was a small restaurant with a tiny kitchen. It wasn’t in the centre of Madrid, but I knew that if we made something unique, people would come to us. We were making delicious, honest food that was very different to what was available in the city at that time; especially with our dim sum, plating it in a modern way with contemporary flavour combinations. The people of Madrid used to think that the fine dining experience had to be very serious, calm and polite, but DiverXO from the beginning was more rock and roll. We changed a lot of rules in Madrid, and within three months had a six-month waiting list.

After two years, we finally relocated to a bigger and better location. In the following four years, we were awarded our first, second and third Michelin stars. At the time, just as now, I was just grateful that we had happy customers in a fully booked restaurant that was growing up all the time. The Michelin stars just came. I’m happy to have them of course, but the most important thing is still that the restaurant is full.They are never a promise of success; there are places all over the world that have one or two Michelin stars, but they are not fully booked. We took the accolades as a sign to continue creating something unique, which brought about our second concept, StreetXO, which allowed us to offer our one of a kind experience to even more people in Madrid.

A few years ago the culinary trends in Spain were heavily centred on the Basque country and Barcelona, but the last few years has changed things, and now what’s going on in terms of innovation is happening in Madrid. Places like Triciclo and La Casa, which are all run by young chefs, prove how vibrant Madrid is now and that customers there have changed in their mindset and become more international. This is what I also love about London. I knew that the next restaurant, and the first I opened outside of Spain had to be here as it’s my second home.

Pekinese dumplings – Crunchy pig’s ear, strawberry hoisin, ali-oil and pickles

The StreetXO here in London is now the 2.0 version of Madrid. Coming here helped us draw on our experience to elevate our concept. The food is that bit more radical and refined – in a way, more risky. What I’ve been learning in London has been travelling with me in my notebook back to Madrid; when we were thinking about opening in London we didn’t want to make something for Londoners, we wanted to make something new that would blow people’s minds.

The London customer is very open minded. People think the diversity of cuisines on offer makes it an easy city to establish a food business, but it’s not…it’s a tough city. Londoners ‘travel around the world’ while inside the city, and they have so many options. 

When we first opened in London we reinvented our chilli crab dish three times in the space of three months, each one being better than the last. Whilst being reminiscent of a Singaporean dish which is served with Mantou bread, we braise our king crab with tomato and chipotle chilli, and serve it with a butter emulsion made with Basque Txakoli wine. Instead of bread, we accompany the dish with a soft shell crab, which itself has been marinated in the flavours of Andalusia. Presented in the crab’s head, it’s very fun-looking and tastes like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. We took some risks but I think so far the people like it, and they agree that it is unique and powerful.

People refer to my food as fusion, but that is not unique or creative to me. I’m not mixing two things to achieve a third, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from – you won’t find the taste of your homeland here. It’s true that inspiration comes from all around the world, but we don’t do things as you’d expect; we have a wok in the kitchen, but we don’t use it like a Chinese chef would.

To be successful, I have learned that you must take risks. But with risky flavours there’s a thin line between success and disaster. When you spend 100 per cent of your time being risky and have a high success rate, you can become unique. Maybe for me, the next step will be for a StreetXO in New York, but I’m not in a hurry. I don’t want to stop, but I don’t want to run too fast.

The most important thing to achieve as a chef is taste, that is my priority. From there you can work on providing an experience to compliment it. I want people to get a spoon, put it in their mouths and say “wow, this is delicious”. That’s what I always want to achieve. I’m trying to make people happy, it’s the reason I cook.

Street XO by David Muñoz is located at 15 Old Burlington St, Mayfair, London W1S

Interview by Drew Whittam.