Road to the World’s 50 Best 2017: Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri
If grilling was an art, Victor would be its maestro. Known for using the grill as his prime tool for creating new aromas and flavours in the kitchen, the Etxebarri chef is faithful to his Basque roots and utlises exclusively regional produce for his dishes. The mix of traditional and innovative techniques he applies to his self-made grill is what has taken him to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list once again this year.
Hello Victor, thanks for talking with us. How did it happen that a small restaurant by the Basque mountains has been recognised as the tenth best in the world?
Well, I think the key to being nominated for anything is constant work and effort. This was very unexpected for me and a great satisfaction, too. However, you don’t go to work everyday thinking about this award, but about being recognised by restaurant guides and, of course, the clients.
How did you discover your passion for cooking?
I guess traditions and my own roots have something to do with it. I feel that I discovered it little by little, because it’s something I’ve known since I was a kid. For instance, you could see and smell people all around cooking with low heat, and smell stews and the burnt wood aroma, too.
Spain has seven restaurants in the 50 Best, which is great, and four of them are Basque and very close considering the global nature of the list. What makes Basque cuisine so special?
There are many elements that condition how special Basque cuisine is. Among them, we find tradition, products and seasonality. This has also always been a region where food has been a very important part of our social lives.
Do you have a close relationship with Juan Mari (Arzak), Elena (Arzak), Andoni (Mugaritz) and Eneko (Azurmendi)?
Yes, of course! We’ve never worked together but we are colleagues and friends, and we also visit each other’s restaurants quite often.
Your food is very much steeped in the history and produce of the region. Do you feel a special connection to the area?
Completely, this is my way of embracing the Basque cuisine. You can find a lot of different produce here depending on the season. In November, people come to my restaurant to try elvers, while in another season mushrooms might be more appropriate, for example. Everything is always of great quality, though.
Several of the products and ingredients you use are home-grown or homemade. Are you going to expand in that direction?
Yes, sure. That’s what I’ve always been interested in and always will be, I believe, as long as we get the same great results we are getting now – I pursue excellence. Among my homemade produce, I can tell you I use my own vegetables, milk and eggs. Sometimes, if I need a good meat or fish, I can buy it from other suppliers. Quality comes first.
You’re famous for your mastery of the grill: what is it about this method that’s so appealing to you?
Let me tell you that with this technique you can make haute cuisine, and that was precisely what attracted me to it: the challenge of showing people that this is possible. The grill manages to highlight the flavour and aroma of food, while still respecting its uniqueness.
Am I correct in thinking that you built your own grill? What do you remember of when you did it and do you add new features every now and then?
(Laughs) Yes, I started with four pieces, a very simple grill, and with time I added so much more, creating a grill that I think fits perfectly in this kitchen and suits the menu I make everyday. With this, we try to control the way we work with embers and it allows us to control it, not the other way around.
Rather than the grill, it’s the wood that gives the flavour. How do you choose it? I’m sure you have more than one type; can you tell us the difference between them and what is their effect on the food?
The wood is extremely relevant for cooking: it gives food that natural aroma, clean and authentic. Embers’ perfumes can be endless and for that reason we take care of the wood we pick for every dish. For things like seafood and vegetables it’s always wise to choose a gentle aroma, and for meat, they’re often stronger. Anyway, the itensity of the fire and the embers are as important as the wood, because they can also alter the taste of the produce easily.
If you say “barbecue” most people think of meat but one of your favourite dishes is the grilled eel. What makes it so special?
Well, I guess what’s more important than the produce itself is the way we like to cook it. We grill them and they are alive when we do that, too. Besides, it’s a very tiny animal so that makes it special too, and we always use a special tool to make them, a kind of very thin metallic net.
Smoke and fire are such big elements on your menu. Does it make it challenging to create a balanced wine list?
Actually, it’s not difficult as it may seem. We always try to balance wine with food, and find the wine that’s appropriate for each dish.
Let’s go back to the 50 Best list for a moment. Do you have a favourite restaurant in the top position?
All of them are very talented people, what can I say. This is not a competition, you know? It’s a real honour to be nominated though, and to whoever wins the first position, congratulations in advance.
The female presence in the list is so limited, the only one is Elena (Arzak). Why is it still so male-driven?
As you say it’s true that there’s not enough representation, but there are a lot of women out of the list that are perfectly competent and work amazingly well as chefs.
Thanks again for your time and before you go, who is the winner of the 50 Best for Victor Arguinzoniz?
Well, I honestly don’t know. It could be any of them, they are all excellent chefs. Besides, I don’t think this should be taken as a competition. I personally feel very lucky for having the opportunity of being on the list and gathering with all of these people in Melbourne.