Road to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017: Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi
Azurmendi is a sustainable, high-end restaurant in the hillside outside the Spanish city of Bilbao. Deeply rooted in the Basque traditions, the cuisine of Eneko Atxa displays a modernist, conceptual approach. The chef calls his three-michelin-star restaurant his home and we have a chat to find out what makes Azurmendi special, how Eneko at One Aldwych is doing and what is coming up for him in 2017 (hint: a new opening in Japan).
Hi Eneko, thanks for your time. How is the weather, is it spring already today in Bilbao?
Yes, spring is already here. In fact, we are above 20oC since a couple of days ago.
Do you have a preferred season in the year?
To be honest, I don’t think I have a favourite season. Each one has its own treasures. For instance, now in spring we are enjoying peas and asparagus among many other kinds of produce.
Can you tell us more about how the history and culture of the Basque culture influences your food?
It is certainly essential for the type of food I make in my kitchen. That’s the foundation for everything I cook and my cuisine is rooted in traditional Basque food. It’s not that I don’t enjoy other types of cuisine but, as I always say, I can appreciate other cuisines but I can only make one.
Isn’t it incredible that a small region has four restaurants among the 50 Best in the world?
We have a very wide offer of good quality produce here. Besides, there is a strong gastronomic tradition within the whole region that has evolved notably during the last few years. I guess that’s the reason why foodies always take us as a reference.
What’s your relationship with the other Basque chefs in the list? [Andoni Luis Aduriz, Victor Arguinzoniz, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak]
We are close. We’ve been friends forever and we share a lot of things together, too, mainly our way of living and the love for food. We also try to keep ourselves competitive as that makes us stronger as professionals, forces us to maintain the quality and to attract more people to our restaurants.
You won the sustainable restaurant award back in 2014. How important is the evironmental cause to you?
It’s common sense to me. I feel it’s crucial we take care of our environment if we want to survive on this planet. A good example of my commitment with this sustainability goal is this building, which employs the optimal technology available to save electricity and to not disturb the environment around it. Additionally, we help local communities with several recycling projects.
Do you feel that globalisation in modern food, i.e. chefs cooking with out-of-season ingredients shipped from half way around the world, is an issue?
It’s clear to me that every one of us is free to cook the way we want to and I honestly think it’s better that way, to make food that speaks about you and your own style. The influence of globalisation can somehow benefit us, too. From a sustainability viewpoint, by buying products from another country, maybe you get to help a local seller and support a local community and their agriculture. I personally don’t do that, I always use produce from my region, but you need to take both sides into account.
is the greenhouse a vital part of the Azurmendi experience?
It’s an experimental greenhouse where we seed produce that’s endangered. We don’t grow the daily produce we use in the restaurant, that is provided through our suppliers. Also we have a little vegetable garden, but that’s for private consumption.
Your dishes are renowned for reinterpreting classic ingredients in a very modern way. How do you strike a balance between respecting tradition and pursuing innovation?
We keep the product alive and experiment with it, trying to give it a more contemporary touch. It’s true that we always respect traditional Basque gastronomy but, at the same time, we can’t allow that to stop its natural gastronomic evolution.
You’ve talked about the importance engaging all of a diner’s senses. How do you achieve that?
We try to get involved in all of the senses from the presentation up until the moment diners finish their dishes. But at the end of the day, taste is the most important sense, and the one we pay more attention to.
Do you feel that sometimes the theatre of serving a stimulating dish can get in the way of its taste?
Not at all. The first thing you need to be working with is the taste. If you have that you can play with the rest of elements around it.
Technology plays a bigger role in your kitchen than in most. Can you tell us about your latest experiments?
I don’t see myself as someone who experiments with technology but, as a chef with kitchen tools, you use them to optimize the result, so I’ll keep using them as long as they serve that purpose.
Martín Berasategui, Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran Adriá were all important influences in your career, but are there any less obvious chefs/restaurant/moments that really shaped you as a chef?
Of course. To begin with, before getting to know these wonderful chefs I learnt from my family members who were my biggest influence since the very beginning, even before I officially started my career as a chef.
Your London offering, Eneko at One Aldwych, has been described as “simple, happy food.” Do you enjoy having that simpler menu?
Sure, I enjoy executing a somehow more informal cuisine with simpler elements.
We interviewed you and Edurne [Martín Delgado, head chef in London] last November. How is she enjoying her role at the restaurant? Have you been developing new dishes?
We certainly have created new formulae: every season we research and create new dishes. Prawn is our star ingredient right now. We’ve also started to offer private events and a Basque brunch once a week.
What are you three favourite restaurants in London?
I do enjoy Nacho Manzano’s Ibérica restaurants and Pizarro. They are very good places, with great food.
What plans do you have for 2017?
Next plans we are going to open our first restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. It’s an informal restaurant, similarly to London – I’m very excited.
The 50 Best ceremony is about to come up. Can you tell us how you feel to be so highly-rated on the list for so many years?
The best thing this list has is that people get to know you. And that it changes, bringing more and different clients for your restaurant too. But it’s not something that obsesses me at all. The most important thing is go to work every day and to do your best so that our guests are happy and satisfied.
Are there any restaurants that are not on the list at the moment that you feel should be?
I know a lot of them, but I don’t want to give any names (laughs).
Is there a chef on the list that you became close with thanks to the list?
For sure, I didn’t know Iñaki Aizpitarte (Le Chateaubriand) or Mitsuharu Tsumura (Maido).
Not enough female chefs though.
Well, I really don’t know but I hope this doesn’t take too long. Here, in my region I can tell you we have tonnes of extraordinary female chefs.
We won’t take any more of your time, so just one last question: who’s going to win, and does it even matter?
I can’t really say. I’ve been very busy here and there and I haven’t had time to think much about who would win, but they are all great for sure.