Sharing leads to Basque culinary success

(From far left) Xabier Gutierrez, Elena Arzak and Igor Zalakain at the restaurant Arzak, famed for its experimentation, in San Sebastian.
(From far left) Xabier Gutierrez, Elena Arzak and Igor Zalakain at the restaurant Arzak, famed for its experimentation, in San Sebastian.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN• Still relatively young chefs when they went to France 40 years ago, Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana were determined not only to learn, but also to lift Basque cooking and then spread their know-how.

At the time, despite the bounty of seafood and produce in their home region on the lush and mountainous northern coast of Spain, Basque cuisine was not particularly renowned worldwide.

"There had been no sharing between chefs and everybody jealously protected what he knew and made sure even his apprentice didn't learn everything from him," Subijana, 67, said.

"But we understood that it's through generosity that Basque gastronomy could really grow.

"We had to make sure chefs here would work as if they were part of a relay race, in which somebody has to open a path and then allow another to take over and innovate further."

To say that they succeeded is something of an understatement.

Since then, this region has taken on an outsize influence on top-flight global cuisine, thanks in large part to that philosophy of generosity they pioneered.

This area of tight-knit traditions with a passion for fine ingredients stands apart as an incubator of quality chefs and innovation.

Today, San Sebastian, a Basque seaside resort of 185,000, boasts the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in Europe - 16 stars in about a 25km radius.

Four Basque restaurants were ranked among the top 20 in the world by Restaurant Magazine. Arzak's restaurant, called Arzak, and Subijana's Akelarre each hold three Michelin stars.

Andoni Luis Aduriz, of a younger generation of Basque chefs, credited Subijana with helping to create "a unique eco-system of solidarity" in the Basque region, one that has distinguished the area worldwide.

Aduriz, 44, knows from experience. He set up his own restaurant Mugaritz, ranked No. 6 in the world, in the hills surrounding San Sebastian after working for another leading local chef, Martin Berasategui.

"Martin could have booted me out, but instead, he offered to become a shareholder in Mugaritz and share his experience to help a 25-year-old prosper," Aduriz said.

In 2010, he again benefited from Basque solidarity after being forced to close Mugaritz for several months after a fire. "I was facing ruin and others could have applauded the disappearance of a rival, but I can't think of a single chef who didn't offer to help me reopen as soon as possible," he said.

For all their solidarity, however, Basque chefs thrive on a healthy competition, particularly in playful presentation and breaking frontiers.

At Arzak, a seafood dish might be served on a video screen playing ocean waves or chocolate sweets presented in the shape of nuts and bolts.

Elena Arzak, Arzak's daughter, has been visiting San Sebastian's main food market since childhood. But, she said, there is always something to be recalled or learnt anew.

Depending on the season, she may find all kinds of regional specialities, such as hake kokotxa, the fleshy underpart of the fish's jaw, or live baby eels.

At 73, Juan Mari Arzak still shuffles between the tables and the kitchen that he runs with his daughter. "Our strength has been to evolve and innovate without ever forgetting that we're a family restaurant," he said. "I've turned down all the offers I got to work in America or elsewhere because I was born in this restaurant and I want to die here."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Sharing leads to Basque culinary success'. Print Edition | Subscribe