What are your earliest memories of being interested in food?
I was born in General Echagüe Street, next to the old town, but the truth is that we didn’t spend much time at home. My parents owned the Bodegón Alejandro, a renowned restaurant in our city, which is where we spent most of our time. I’d head straight from school to the Bodegón, which was divided into two areas, one on the left hand side for guests and another one on the right, separated by a door, which was just for family and closest friends. Here we used to have lunch and dinner; it was basically the epicenter of our lives. We only went home to sleep and have a shower.
We played games, listened to our elders’ stories, learning all about life really, it was my own personal university. My father was a well-known personality. Butcher by profession, everybody knew who he was. He had passion for everything on our land surrounded himself by like-minded people. He didn’t like the kitchen so much and spent most of his time in the main restaurant entertaining guests.
On one table you would see bertsolaris or popular bards such as Uztapide or Basarri, and journalists from the Diario Vasco. On another table, you would find players who were going to the Urumea pediment, boxers, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, students, high school teachers, all of them enjoying a chorizo or cooked meat dish, an omelet, a steak, some fish or whatever my mother and aunt were cooking. A good hot soup was always on the menu. We also served many football players from Real Sociedad, the first football team of my city, or artists such as Jorge Oteiza.
I remember with nostalgia those years between 1965 and 1975, and I realise how special that time was – quite a meeting of personalities would be impossible to see nowadays. I yearn for this atmosphere, maybe because it is unattainable. I can achieve great things, I’m sure that with hard work and dedication almost everything is possible, but all of what I lived during that time is forever gone.
My mother, Gabriela, was always moving about the kitchen and the living room, serving customers and looking after us. She didn’t take a minute to relax during the day. I enjoyed staying in the kitchen with her, and if I noticed that I was getting in the way, I went out to have a walk around, play fronton in Trinidad Square, or visit the wharf to see the fishermen’s catch, sea bass, hake, tuna and anchovies.
What would you say has inspired your cooking the most?
This vocation can appear anywhere, at any moment, but I’m quite inspired by my land. At home, a new dish means years of well-organised work, with lots of discipline and precision.
Today’s cuisine has no limits; I am indeed open to all kind of influences and products. However, each one starts from its roots, its own personality and sincerity. Only from that point on you can let your imagination go, on a solid base and with focused experimentation.
First of all we have to look for the idea, then the details and necessary elements to develop it… and all this ends in a creative dish that has to be perfect. Sometimeswhat you finally create has nothing to do with the initial idea, It seems incredible that you have done it, but if once you taste it and it doesn’t work as expected, it’s time to begin the process again. The creation of a recipe depends on the thoroughness you put in to it, and I put it in in huge quantities. There is no place in my kitchen for improvisation; it’s something that goes against high cuisine. Everything must be perfectly measured and decided in advance, although the truth is that sometimes improvisation can create nice accidents and unexpected surprises.
In my restaurant, there is a consignment that we call the testing ground and it is dedicated to exploring new combinations, textures, flavours, to basically create new dishes that we can incorporate in to the menu. The chef of this partie and I, together with the rest of the chefs work together experimenting. We are a great team.
Describe your culinary style…
I normally describe my cuisine as complex and close at the same time, capable of opening new ways for the next generations, making people understand that it’s necessary to take into account lots of details to make everything work to our standards. Products and suppliers are an essential part of the gear that we need to make the creative cuisine we offer at my restaurant in Lasarte. My cuisine is indeed very close to my land and my roots, but open to the world. This is unquestionable.
What would you say has inspired the new Txoko concept for the restaurant?
I think that the main inspiration has been my path of 40 years cooking. During this time I have always looked for the best recipe, the most delicious, surprising and creative. Thanks to this career path I can now offer updated recipes which combine past, present and future. To all of this, we add a huge desire to please, to make people have a good time at Txoko and to offer a restaurant where they can come more than once during their stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Abama.
Why do you think this concept is the way forward?
As chef and restaurateur, I would like to say that I always tailor each of my projects and Txoko is the tailor-made suit for such a hotel as The Ritz-Carlton, Abama, where I already manage M.B, a haute cuisine restaurant with two Michelin stars.
What are your most indispensable ingredients?
I believe that the most important ingredients are work, humility and sacrifice. With them, you can cook in the best way.As products, I think that in Spain and in the Canary Islands we have the best provisions in the world, the greatest kitchen garden of Europe is situated in Spain, the best seafood and fish come out of our coasts and furthermore, we have products such as the olive oil, jamón… which are admired all over the world because of their high quality.
What kind of experience do you aim to give guests at your restaurant?
I want them to have fun, to enjoy the restaurant, to share, laugh, enjoy…Ultimately, I want to offer guests a global experience from proximity, good treatment, letting them taste the best recipes born of over 40 years’ experience.
What would you say has been the most memorable moment in your culinary career so far?
At professional level, the most memorable moment was when we received the third Michelin star in 2001. I remember we were sitting at the table, in the kitchen. I was astonished. That first night, I couldn’t sleep; I went out at 1:00 a.m. and had a walk around San Sebastián, alone, slowly. As a professional, you cannot expect more.
From a personal point of view, the Tambor de Oro I was awarded with by my city in 2005 was really exciting to me. San Sebastián is the most atomic city I know, where I lived and where I was born, where my family and friends are… Receiving a nomination as its best ambassador in the world is something that I cannot explain with words.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self, starting out a career in the world of food?
I would say that, if you really want to devote yourself to the cuisine, struggle for it and never surrender, although there are moments of dejection, it is essential to have perseverance and determination, as well as being patient, humble and honest. Goals can be achieved little by little, this is something that the younger ones find difficult to understand due to their energy, but it is very important to go step by step, focused on that deep passion which drives your life.
What’s next for you/What projects do you have lined up?
I like to talk about my projects once they are finished. At the moment, I run 13 restaurants, distributed in different cities of Spain, Mexico and Dominican Republic, if that’s saying a lot.
What is your guilty pleasure?
What restaurant is currently at the top of your list to dine at?
Zuberoa Restaurant, owned by my friend Hilario Arbelaitz, located in Oiartzun (País Vasco).