With a lifelong interest in food and the rich offerings of his Basque homeland, it was only natural that Eneko Atxa’s first restaurant, Azurmendi, would also become a hub for incorporating and promoting local produce and sustainable farming methods.
Set against a backdrop of lush Basque countryside outside Bilbao, the building of the restaurant itself was designed and crafted with a focus on sustainability, with the majority of the materials used being environmentally friendly and recycled or reclaimed.
In addition to this, Azurmendi recycles its own waste, harvests rainwater and uses geothermal energy as a cooling system; all of this has given it a 93% sustainability rating from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, proving that there are no limits to the ways in which a gourmet restaurant can adhere to and promote a sustainable business model for the future.
“Since I was a small child, I have always loved eating and the kitchen has truly been of fundamental importance in my maternal and family home because life revolved around the kitchen. It was the neuralgic center of the house and while living there we would listen to conversations of our elders. We would often find my grandmother and mother cooking for us with a lot of love and affection, always trying to please the rest of the family. Maybe that’s why I started to love cooking and the food, and became a chef.”
“My real curiosity about cooking started at around 14 years old, and it fully bloomed when I did an internship at a traditional restaurant at the age of 15. From the age of 16, I then trained at the School of Hospitality of Leioa, where the kitchen hooked me completely because it offered me a whole world to discover and it became my fellow.”
“As in any other discipline, one starts to learn, develops as a professional, and finally, if looking for excellence, tries to improve every day and is very competitive with themselves and their peers. The best way to achieve in this industry is by making people happy and giving them the best of the best. Especially in the beginning, when the means you have are not plentiful and efforts to win over the guests are titanic.”
“Before launching Azurmendi in 2005, I imagined a concept based on how I dreamed that I could make my clients enjoy a dining experience. I thought about what I would like to feel when I arrive at a space or restaurant, what I would like to be offered, and how or in what way I would like to be offered it etc. Each one of us has a story inside and I believe that cooking can be a mode of expression or a universal language that speaks of who we are, where we come from, a culture, a way of understanding life and a way of understanding pleasure.”
“Now, we continue with the same determination and the same obsession to gain each client, as well as increasing our knowledge on certain subjects, which helps us to make things better and easier. The philosophy at Azurmendi continues to be to make people happy with our cuisine, but also aims to cook a better future.”
“In Azurmendi, gastronomy is the socio-cultural thread that drives and boosts progress by relying on its pillars of work: health, sustainability, social commitment and multidisciplinarity, which lead us to “The gastronomy of the future”. Our cuisine is all about flavour, texture and aesthetics. The home cooking, the stews and our roots are glimpsed in the composition of each dish, seeking to enhance the authenticity of the traditional flavour. We created dishes that are linked to history, culture, roots and the terroir, but endowed with maximum creativity and innovation, which seeks to convey to diners the tradition and essence of our land.”
“Since opening, I have matured: I have evolved. The restaurant has a living component that grows with me and I also think that all this has been possible because of my communication with customers. By listening to them and understanding what they like and what I can offer them I have kept myself open to change and adaption. I also have a permanent obsession to make customers happy because, in short, as a chef I think that is my main function or work.”
“I want guests to perceive that Azurmendi is not conceived as a restaurant, but as a home. We created a space in which we did not want to invade the environment, but to live with it. We let nature literally enter the house: there is nature within the building itself. Equally, when choosing menus, I find out what products I will have for each season. There are certain products that are given by nature. The change of the menu each year depends a bit on the environment, the climate, etc. Every season I am excited about what nature offers us. In autumn, I am crazy about mushrooms, in spring about good peas or in summer about an extraordinary tomato etc.”
“Absolutely all the dishes we make end up being different from the initial idea to what we later put on the plate. The first thing I think about a dish is how to make sure that they are ‘alive’. They are never finished: every day we retouch them, looking for changes. For us, they are living elements that are constantly evolving, so the dish is constantly being developed over time.”
“As for the methodology, I imagine a smell, a texture; even in my head I imagine something very beautiful. I imagine the plating of the dish and from that image, or intangible dream, to make it tangible I start to draw it. Once I draw it, I show it to the rest of the team and I tell them what that dream was like. Seeing the drawing, they imagine how we want to do it. Then we bring in the products and start to build that dream, giving it shape. Then the dish starts to have a life of its own and develops little by little, taking shape. After we test it with the kitchen and front of house, we present it to the public and it can be included on any of the menus.”
“I think I have to offer my guests something that I have inside me, my culture, my customs, my roots, something which you can only find here. We want our clients to live a unique experience, in a lively and interconnected environment with the local territory. I am privileged to live close to the sea, the mountain and the countryside, but also to have four absolutely distinct weather seasons, which provide me with a very wide product pantry.”
“In addition, I come from a territory where there is also very expansive gastronomic and culinary tradition not only at restaurants, but also in homes, at “txokos” (gastronomical society) etc. Let’s say, that we live in an environment where the table becomes something that goes far beyond the object. It becomes the meeting point where people want to talk and be happy around good food and good service.”
“This combination has perhaps helped with the success of Azurmendi, as well as consistency, hard work, and listening to customers and understanding what they demand from us. I think they have been the key elements in the functioning of Azurmendi over the last 13 years and for me, the maximum recognition of my work is that customers come back time and time again. This is what makes me most happy.”
“I do not consider myself important in determining the future of cuisine, but I would like to imagine a future in which everyone has their own personality. I believe that each one must have a differentiating value and this, in my opinion, is marked from a territory, from a way of understanding and transmitting the values that each one has and have absorbed at home. I believe that everyone should expose their own way of cooking and understanding the pleasure, the taste of what they are cooking. If everyone does this, there will be many different cuisines, but each having a common denominator called pleasure – pleasure of identity. In this way, gastronomy will be much more diverse and enriching with each place offering a kitchen with different flavours and pleasures.”
“I am a chef and I know that my job and my task is to cook and make my clients happy, though it sounds redundant in an interview. However, it is also true that circumstances have allowed us the ability to get involved in other projects such as, JakiN and this makes me proud. JakiN (“Jaki” means food and “Jakin” means knowledge) is a design centre, which seeks to be the front-runner in using gastronomy as a social tool. At JakiN, gastronomy is linked to sustainable development, health, solidarity, anthropology, fine arts, social commitment and family-friendly working conditions, amongst other new angles that we want to tackle in order to lead the next generation of chefs towards new values and models.”
Images © Azurmendi