This Visionary Chef Has Unlocked the Secrets of the Sea Floor. Can He Change the Way We Eat?

Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Chef Ángel León’s expeimental dishes at Aponiente, his three Michelin starred-restaurant in the Spanish port town of El Puerto de Santa María, across the bay from Cádiz, showcase his culinary innovation and commitment to sustainability. Consider unexpected ingredients like “discarded fish parts to make mortadella and blood sausage and chorizo,” the “parts of a tuna’s head to create a towering, gelatinous, fall-apart osso buco,” and varied underwater flora presented on plates as sea pears, tomatoes, and artichokes. “He built his menu around pesca de descarte, trash fish: pandora, krill, sea bream, mackerel, moray eel,” writes Matt Goulding in a profile of the chef at Time magazine. “But in León’s mind, these are some of the most noble and delicious creatures in the sea.”

Known in Spain as “the Chef del Mar,” León has big plans: harvesting seagrass off different stretches of the coast and transplanting it to the Bay of Cádiz, near his restaurant, with the long-term aim of domesticating eelgrass and growing a vast “underwater garden for human beings.” Scientists have known that seagrasses are “one of the most vital ecosystems in the fight against climate change,” writes Goulding, but what’s lesser-known is that seagrass contains “clusters of small, edible grains with massive potential” — and it’s León who is exploring its possibilities.

He sees the region’s vast network of estuaries overflowing with flora and fauna—tiny, candy-sweet white shrimp, edible seaweeds like marine mesclun mix, sea bream and mackerel in dense silver schools. He sees a series of mills, stone-built and sea-powered, grinding through grains for the region’s daily bread. A wind-swept, sun-kissed saltwater economy, like the one that once made Cádiz a center of the world.

Zostera grains look more like amaranth or a chia seed than rice—a short, pellet-like grain with a dark complexion. León boiled it like pasta, passed me a spoonful, then watched me closely as I processed. The first thing you notice is the texture: taut-skinned and compact, each grain pops on your tongue like an orb of caviar. It tasted like the love child of rice and quinoa with a gentle saline undertow.

But there is something extraordinary about seagrasses: they are the only plants that flower fully submerged in salt water. They have all the equipment of a terrestrial plant—roots, stems, rhizomes, leaves, flowers, seeds—but they thrive in under-water environments. Seagrasses like Zostera marina are eco-system engineers: the meadows they form along coastlines represent some of the most biodiverse areas in the ocean, playing host to fauna (like seahorses, bay scallops and sea turtles) that would struggle to survive without seagrass.

But anthropogenic forces—climate change, pollution, coastal development—have threatened eelgrass meadows across the world. As León and team refine the conditions for large-scale cultivation, they hope to facilitate its growth along coastlines around the world—Asia, North America and, above all, across the Straits of Gibraltar in Africa—turning millions of hectares into a source of food, protection against erosion and a weapon against climate change.

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