This one goes to all the chefs out there: Beyond the bespoke ingredients you use, what sets your food apart from your peers’ cooking? Why would someone travel – sometimes at great expense – to your restaurant?
Is it for your technical precision? Creativity? Presentation? Consistency?
Is it for the quality or rarity of your products?
Is it for your restaurant’s setting? The service? Or the wine?
This question churned in my head as I watched nearly forty chefs – an illustrious list of some of the world’s most renowned – take the stage at this year’s Gastronomika conference in San Sebastián, Spain a couple of weeks ago.*
Much of this year’s conference – which was devoted to celebrating the contributions that French cuisine has made to modern cookery, especially the influence that it has had on modern, Spanish cuisine – was played out in glossy, high-definition videos presented by the chefs, each offering glimpses into their world and work. Some of the videos were instructive, a visual walk-through of the dishes that the chefs were presenting, from prep to plating. But many of them were motion postcards, taking us to their far-flung corners of the Michelin constellation, or some other culinary destination around the world.
The footage was usually quieting, lovely vignettes stitched together artistically (sometimes abstractly) with music. We watched these chefs cook in their stylish kitchens, pick herbs in their gardens, tweezer food onto fancy china, and generally be fabulous in their environs, be it city or country. Most of the time, the setting was spectacular – a vertical, glacial perch in the Alps; the jazzy streets of Paris at night; or calm stretches of pastureland. And the food was beautiful too. (The ultimate motion postcard was a screening of Entre Les Bras, a slow-moving, but visually haunting documentary about father-son chefs Michel and Sebastien Bras.)
But, after sifting through all of the visual and audial stimulation – what did I learn from these presentations?
I learned that these chefs have access to amazing ingredients. That they cook in amazing places. That they can make and compose food in the modern way. And – if I may be slightly cutting in my honesty – I learned that these chefs are not in their kitchens.
Beyond these superficialities, which have become rather commonplace among high-end chefs, few of the presenters I saw (I did not attend every session) set themselves apart from the dozens of other chefs who have similar resources and skills, or offered a technique, thought, or a piece of information that I haven’t seen discussed or posted elsewhere. After a while, their messages and food started to run together, a blur of micro herbs and sous vide bags.
So, why conference?
Well, to be fair, a few of the chefs did offer something unique – like Carme Ruscalleda of Sant Pau, who riffed on a theme of “G,” using that letter as a jumping off point to discuss gastronomy. Much like her food, her presentation was creative and dynamic.
Andoni Aduriz, chef of Mugaritz, tested the line between the comforting and the uncomfortable. He challenged the audience with chocolate and blood, together in a macaron (cocoa meringue piped with a liver and blood filling), which I had a couple of days later at his restaurant.
These few were a treat to catch.
But, like other chef-driven congresses I’ve attended (which I can count on one hand), Gastronomika seemed to function primarily as one, long press release for chefs and sponsors. Instead, the opportunity to network, and an excuse to eat around the region were the more valuable benefits of attending the conference.
In addition to being a particularly attractive city, San Sebastián is also a particularly attractive dining destination, which probably contributes greatly to the popularity of this particular conference. And, that, in turn, makes it easier for Gastronomika to attract bigger names.
In those three days, attendees of the conference had the opportunity to see and meet Alain Senderens, Pierre Gagnaire, Juan Mari Arzak, Quique Dacosta, Rene Redzepi, Albert Adriá, Joan Roca, among others. And, if ambitious, you could have eaten at three of Spain’s five restaurants that currently hold three Michelin stars (Akelare, Arzak, and Martín Berasategui), in addition to Mugaritz, Asador Etxebarri, Elkano, and dozens of pintxo bars.
San Sebastián, on the Costa Vasca (the Basque coast) of Spain, is a magnificent lagoon. Its mouth to the sea is narrowed by a rocky island, which makes the waters within particularly calm.
The old part of the city is a warren of bars and eateries. I spent a couple of nights moving among them.
At A Fuego Negro, I had an interesting progression of “modern pintxos” that left me convinced that, perhaps, some traditions are better left untouched. At Méson Bidea Berri, I found them just so, faithful and true. There, I had morcilla bocadillos, and Joselito jamón on griddled toast. Musty, with the flavor of walnut oil, I understand why Joselito’s label commands such cachet in Spain. It was very, very good. But, I have to admit, the fact that they stationed bouncers outside of their sleek stall at the Gastronomika conference turned me off (after hearing of people being rejected at the doorway, I didn’t even attempt entry). Exclusivity sells, I get it. But I found Joselito’s conduct at the conference elitest and obnoxious. Warmth and hospitality sell too, you know.
My favorite experience in the old quarter was at Ganbara, perennially cited as a favorite by locals and veterans of San Sebastien’s food scene. We arrived to a bar crowded with pintxos, but ordered off their chalkboard of daily specials instead. It was mushroom season in the region, and this year is yielding a bumper crop, apparently. Led there by Gabriella Ranelli, a local American expat and expert on Basque culture and cuisine, we glutted on fleshy porcini with runny yolks, and a magnificent plate of bright-orange revellons and seared foie gras. Those are two of the more memorable plates I’ve had this year.
Do I write about a restaurant that wishes to remain wrapped?
Despite the fact that I had a reservation, I was, at first, turned away at the door by the proprietor of Bar Ibai. A restaurant that has managed to stay relatively hidden, Ibai is known mostly to locals. On the ground level, it appears to be a simple pinxtos bar. The restaurant, which only serves lunch, is below. His excuse, of course, was that I was a lone diner. But I knew that was only an excuse.
I was about to leave when a group of fellow, Spanish-speaking Gastronomika attendees (including a two Michelin-starred Spanish chef) walked by and generously invited me to join them. The proprietor admitted to them that he had turned me away because he didn’t want foreigners (especially those who don’t speak Spanish) in his restaurant.
For a moment, I debated whether I wanted to go, given the fairly stern rejection I initially met. But, ultimately, the pleasure of good food is why I eat. So, I decided to set my pride aside for the chance to experience what a few others had described to me as truly wonderful, Basque cooking.
While I can understand the proprietor’s fear of finding a tiresome parade of tourists showing up at his door, the result of the ravings of the sometimes-clueless foreign press, I objected, primarily, to his rudeness. But it also made me question the conduct of foreigners who had gone to Bar Ibai before me. What (if anything) had they done to illicit such a reaction?
I understand that the Basque people have been known for being particularly exclusionist (or, fiercely independent, depending on who you ask), but, how can anyone fairly accuse foreigners of being ignorant if they deny outsiders the opportunity to learn about their culture? Asians are particularly guilty of this – any non-Chinese diner who has visited a Chinese restaurant that keeps two sets of menus knows of this inequality. Perhaps I have a more egalitarian outlook than most when it comes to food and culture, but I think this is wrong. Until I encounter more, I’ll assume that Bar Ibai is the exception in this matter.
But, about the food: at Bar Ibai, it was soulful, flavorful, and wonderful, celebrating the salty brine of the sea in a way that only the Spaniards (or, in this case, the Basque) can. In addition to plates of kokotxas – the gelatinous throat of hake and cod – in various preparations, the highlight included an entire sole that was crusted with a salty, vinegar glaze. The fish was presented whole, filleted at the table, and basted with the pan sauce.
Asador Etxebarri was thrilling.
Regarded for its use of the grill, Etxebarri, to me, offers the ultimate form of barbecue. The drive from San Sebastian to the restaurant, nestled in the Basque Mountains, is worth the trip alone, not to mention the beef you’ll find there. It was so tender and flavorful, shaming the best beef I’ve had in the U.S. by a fair country mile.
Martín Berasategui’s eponymous restaurant was also thrilling, for entirely different reasons. Who thinks of putting eel, green apple, and foie gras together, all under a crisp, sugary, bruléed crust? I’ve seen the combination in various forms elsewhere, from Shanghai to Stockholm to Modena. But Berestategui first did it in 1995. Perhaps only Robuchon’s version, which doesn’t include green apple, predates Berastegui’s (here, I am unsure – if anyone knows, please chime in). It’s pure genius. So was a dessert that put chocolate, asparagus, mint, and coffee on the same plate.
At Mugaritz, Andoni Aduriz delivered on the challenge he presented to the Gastronomika audience. My meal there was full of flavor combinations that avoided the obvious, testing the traditional boundaries of comfort and familiarity, like putting chocolate, liver, and blood together, as I had described earlier. But, the more interesting side of my meal at Mugaritz was Aduriz’s exploration of texture. Specifically, there were a lot of textures from Asia, like chewy, orzo-like pellets made from glutinous rice that reminded me of Chinese new year “cake;” crispy julienned yuba that was somewhat reconstituted by broth; cooked cucumbers – something that my Chinese mother would make – presented as skinned grapes (the texture and look of the two are quite similar); and a raviolo of herbs wrapped in a slippery, mastic layer that was indistinguishable from the outer layer of Chinese tong yuan, which is also traditionally made from glutinous rice.
The one dish that impressed me most presented braised hazelnuts in a meaty tasting bean stew, surprisingly sweet with onions (so sweet I was tempted to ask if there was any added sugar). It had the uncanny semblance of sweet red bean soup with lotus nuts, a common Chinese dessert. The viscosity of the stew sauce, slightly gritty with the starch from the beans, mimicked the texture of Chinese red bean soup, and the tender and somewhat grainy texture of the braised hazelnuts was just like the texture of boiled lotus nuts. It was an amazing effect.
I want to go back to that question that I asked at the beginning of this post. Have you an answer?
Eating in the Basque region reassured me that Spain remains one of the most exciting and rewarding dining destinations I’ve visited. And I think it’s because the Spaniards have, more than most, looked within. As well, they’ve preserved and projected their culinary heritage on the screen of modernity more effectively than most.
Surely, as the theme of this year’s Gastronomika pointed out, the Spaniards have looked abroad for techniques and ideas. But they’ve largely used them to explore and express the flavors of their own land, their own past. And it’s done with such confidence that it manages to be incredibly evocative, even to a foreigner who has little to no cultural understanding of the Spanish.
Beyond the bespoke ingredients, the amazing locations, and stylish trappings that have become ubiquitous in the gastromondial, Spanish chefs have defined themselves by their culinary traditions. That there is an identity is clear, even if the borders and meanings are fuzzy. And that’s not something you can necessarily learn from a video, however glossy, or a presentation, however articulate. Above all, you must taste it, smell it, experience it.
I wish that I had more time to explore the Basque region. I urge you to go.
Below is a list of the restaurants I visited on this trip to the Basque Coast. Until and unless I write a separate post about these meals, in which case, I will link them respectively, each is hyperlinked to the photos:
A Fuego Negro (San Sebastian)
Asador Etxebarri (Errenteria)
Bar Ibai (San Sebastian)
Ganbara (San Sebastian)
Martín Berasategui (San Sebastian)
Méson Bidea Berri (San Sebastian)
* Disclosure: I was invited to attend Gastronomika by the Spanish office of tourism. So, my trip to San Sebastian, including airfare, registration for Gastronomika, and lodging, was covered by the Spanish. However, I paid for all of the meals I listed, with the exception of Mugaritz, where our party was refused a bill by the restaurant.
Photos: A storm on the horizon, San Sebastian, Spain; Juan Mari Arzak, Kursaal, San Sebastian, Spain; Quique Dacosta presents at Gastronomika, Kursaal, San Sebastian, Spain; Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Nawe M.O.F., Kursaal, San Sebastian, Spain; Ganbara, San Sebastian, Spain; chiperones in su tinta, Bar Ibai, San Sebastian, Spain; oil and vinegar dispensers, Asador Extebarri, Errenteria, Spain; expediting at Mugaritz, Errenteria, Spain; a skateboarder in the square at midnight, San Sebastian, Spain; a night scene in the old quarter, San Sebastian, Spain.
5 replies on “travel: exclusionist, expressive, evocative…”
Superb, thoughtful post. Etxebarri is the epitome of barbecue and then some. Spain and Japan share a lot in common when it comes to food, but this is the first time I have heard of a foreigner being refused entry into a restaurant that is not a private supper club.
Excellent writing, as usual. Your conclusions capture the escence of the Basque region quite well. Their exclusionary attitude that may be misinterpreted as xenophobia (or correctly interpreted, it’s a matter of opinion), may well be the result of obnoxious tourists in the past (as you clearly express). Their cultural richness expressed through their food is a gift to the world that we should be thankful for.
I just found your blog and I LOVE it! I visited San Sebastian in April and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I too wish I had more time to sample all of the restaurants and I truly enjoyed reading about it from your perspective. I was fortunate enough to eat at Arzak the day Elena was named female chef of the year. She was so kind and the experience was incomparable. I’m so thrilled to have been introduced to your blog!
@Sconzo, @Nelson, @Cara: Thank you all for you kind words. Thanks for reading.
Think, somewhere in between those earnest words of yours, I fell in love with Spain. It’s culture and cuisine along with delivering simple food with exquisite outcomes. If only every chef/restauranteur would see this perspective…