This was one of the most interesting conversations I had last year with the two chefs sharing their different points of view and their experiences in taking their cuisine and concepts far from home. Every time I visit with Eneko at Azurmendi in Spain or elsewhere I am awed by his wisdom and humanity. He is extremely humble and spiritual and these qualities are reflected in his cuisine and his view of the world. The cuisine at Azurmendi reflects his brilliance and mastery of techniques as well as his genuine sustainable philosophy.
Virgilio is an extremely intense and driven young Peruvian chef who is rapidly realizing his ambitions of moving to the top of the industry. His love of nature is reflected on his beautiful plates with exotic ingredients from the Andes and the Amazon. I have lost count of how many international events we met at, yet I look forward to visiting Central in Lima soon to taste his latest creations.
A Conversation with Eneko Atxa and Virgilio Martinez at Chef-Sache, Germany
by Geeta Bansal
These two young culinary superstars were presenters at the annual Chef-Sache event 2014 for modernist chefs from around the world organized in Cologne, Germany by Thomas and Carola Ruhl publishers of the Port Culinaire magazine. Both these talented chefs one from Spain and the other from Peru are on their individual but equally astonishing journeys into the upper echelons of international gastronomy.
Eneko Atxa, chef/proprietor of the acclaimed three Michelin starred Azurmendi restaurant in Larrabetsu in the Basque Country of Spain (named as the most sustainable restaurant in the world in 2014) was amongst the chefs sharing their cooking skills on stage. Atxa’s newly launched overseas venture Aziamendi in Thailand is also receiving rave reviews for his cuisine as well as his transplanted sustainable concept. Virgilio Martinez of Central restaurant in Lima, Peru (which was named as the # 1 restaurant of Latin America in the World’s 50 Best list 2014 by Restaurant Magazine while his Lima, London recently received its first Michelin star) was also in town cooking a collaborative dinner with German three Michelin starred Joachim Wissler as well as being a presenter on stage.
It was a unique opportunity to converse with both these young chefs who had traveled from different parts of the world to be at Chef-Sache, something possible only at these international events. Having sampled their cuisine at their restaurants and getting to know them well over the years, they were very candid in sharing their opinions and ideas about various aspects of their professional lives.
You both travel a lot, don’t you? How many events have you, Eneko, traveled to this year?
Eneko: I started the year with Madrid Fusion, San Sebastian, Barcelona and now here at Chef-Sache. Now I am trying to do fewer events like these every year. I travel to Thailand to my Aziamendi restaurant in Phuket in December and the beginning of the year when Azurmendi is closed and the rest of the year I try to stay at home.
Virgilio, I bet this year you probably have a few hundred thousand air miles because you have traveled from Peru practically all over the world. So where all have you been this year?
Virgilio: In the beginning I was traveling a lot but now this year I am here at chef Sache in Germany, was in Zurich, and before that San Sebastián, Spain. I have been to a lot of congresses in Latin America in 2014 as my goal was to know all the congresses in that region since it is important for me to have the feeling of unity amongst culinary professionals of my region. It is easier for me to travel closer to home than to come to Europe which takes up a lot of time. I actually prefer going to restaurants in different areas to cook like here in Germany I cooked with Joachim Wissler at Vendome. I also cooked with Eneko at Azurmendi and it was a wonderful investigative experience and an honor for me.
When you guys travel to these events are you attempting to share your experiences and techniques with other chefs or culinary students in the audience?
Eneko: Sharing my thoughts and true experience with others is for me a part of my soul. My experience at each such congress is different as are the audiences. I try to share information about my restaurant, where it is, what we are trying to do there, what we are cooking. In the case of Azurmendi I try to explain why we built Azurmendi as a sustainable restaurant, what technologies we have utilized, and explain our dishes in that context. More or less we want to share our work with other professionals in this industry, including chefs, journalists and most importantly for me with the new generation in this industry. For example in October in Barcelona there was a very happy moment for me because many people in the congress were very young culinary students. It was a kind of spiritual moment since we chefs mostly speak to an elite audience but it is really wonderful to connect with young people.
Virgilio, do you feel the same way?
Virgilio: Yes for me as well that connection is very important. We usually cook for the elite crowd and connect with them at our restaurants. At these congresses we can send a message to young people about our jobs and work and inspire them. We may not meet them at our restaurants but at these events we can and get their feedback as well. It is hard to put forth your concept to an audience in 30 minutes or an hour but we do our best. We try to be very creative in that time to translate the meaning of our restaurants for these audiences that have a lot of expectations from us.
Does your attendance at these congresses translate into more business for your restaurants?
Eneko: Yes of course! It is necessary to go to some of these congresses as in this way probably more people come to know you and your work. It has become necessary for chefs to go to different countries and familiarize people with their project. We receive people at our restaurants from all these places we have traveled to who learned about us by watching us or listening to us and then become curious about us and come to visit.
Sometimes people including journalists are very curious as to why many chefs these days are traveling so much, and if it is to lobby or to get votes for some restaurant lists or awards?
Virgilio: We cannot deny that but that is not the only reason that we chefs are traveling so much. I understand that we have to be in our kitchens but being in other restaurants for example in Germany at the Vendome we get inspired by new dishes and ideas. It is at these events we get a chance to meet and get to know other chefs we might not meet otherwise. We also need to learn and travel helps that though it is not so easy for us to make these journeys.
Eneko: You make a very worthwhile association with people when you travel. More people get to really know us and have a genuine desire to visit our restaurants. When journalists write about us at these events it helps get our message out. Sometimes we chefs do not know the best way to explain our work and journalists writing about it make our jobs easier as they know the best way to present these things.
Virgilio, how do you deal with your celebrity status?
Virgilio: I am so against that notion of popularity and celebrity. At the end of the day we are just regular guys doing our jobs. It is actually because of the media that chefs are looked upon as celebrities. It is sometimes confusing for us as we are just doing our jobs.
Eneko: I don’t know about this celebrity as I live a very normal life with my wife and family engrossed in my restaurant and work in my town. Nothing has changed in all of that and the people in my town still look at me as they did before, to them I am not a chef but just Eneko.
Chefs use this celebrity for endorsement deals, TV shows and such. Any thoughts on that?
Virgilio: I respect what other people choose to do but am more interested in my guests than selling products on TV or in the press. The message at my restaurants is that I want to use the best products and get the best use out of them. I don’t want to lose my freedom by endorsing any product or any company. I just want to respect my guests and get their respect for my work. We have a commitment to our diners above everything else.
You both have restaurants far from your home base. Virgilio, you have two in London and Eneko you have one in Thailand. What are the challenges of these long distance operations?
Eneko: it was a big decision for me to go international. Luckily I can close my Azurmendi restaurant in Bilbao in the winter season and travel to Aziamendi where it is high season at that time. I have very talented people in the kitchen with big possibilities who are very responsible so when I received the offer to open in Thailand I thought Fantastic! I have a very capable team to send there. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity and I am glad I did it and it has been very successful. We are doing incredible work there with our team which is perfect for that area.
Virgilio, you have two restaurants in London a long plane ride away as well. So how challenging was it?
Virgilio: From the beginning we planned not to open anything related to our Central restaurant so Lima, In London is a very casual gastro restaurant. We designed the restaurant and concept very differently there. We also have a great team in London as you know and they are doing a great job. You just have to build a great team at the outset.
Being in the business often people you have trained and work for you choose to leave at inopportune times. How do you handle that?
Eneko: Yes, it happens. Everything in life is unpredictable and you can plan but still have to be ready to deal with these things. You have to give and get respect in the kitchen. Respect is the most important thing in life.
Virgilio: You have to pick your team wisely. If people see a future they are committed and stay. Ethics, values and all these are attributes you look for in people. We all know the difference between right and wrong and have to make the correct choices.
Is finding the right people for your team one of the biggest challenges in this business?
Virgilio: I can give the example of ships that used to come to Lima, Peru a long time ago and if people thought they had a future there they got off the ship. It is a similar situation with the team as people come and go depending on what they are aiming for.
Virgilio, you have your Mater Initiative, and Eneko, you are known for your sustainable concept, so is that where the future of the industry lies?
Eneko: I think for me sustainability is very important especially in my kitchen. I do think we are all going to be heading that way in the future. The concept of sustainability is very important to me and all of us.
Virgilio: We are in a situation of identifying and recognizing our food products in Peru. We have established solidarity with farmers, suppliers and cooks. We have to recognize the problems, where they are and how to fix them in the food supply. We have collect and share this information we gather by working hard for it. That is the future.
Is there pressure on you both with this high visibility? Eneko, you with three Michelin stars and being named the most sustainable restaurant in the world, and for you Virgilio with being named the best restaurant in Latin America and earning a Michelin star for Lima, London?
Virgilio: I was not working for that specifically but it happened. Once it happens you do get lots of reservations but I cannot be living on that success only. You have to keep on working hard and not lose your values and ethics.
Eneko: You have to think that you achieved this award because of your mates and not your fate.
Eneko, in a conversation with David Thompson of Nahm about sourcing organic produce in Thailand he mentioned your venture there. How is that progressing and is Eco Buddhism a part of it?
Eneko: We are working with many small farmers and producers and we did adopt that philosophy of Eco Buddhism of from the Thai. It is working very well as I have adapted myself to Thailand. You have to learn, adapt and change.
What do you both want to be recognized for or share with others in your field?
Eneko: For me I want to work with as well as share my passion with others. My challenge every day is to win and satisfy my guests, share my passion and give them what they want. For me it is a day to day experience and we decide what we research or work on every day. I don’t perceive any project as good or bad and everyday day we have one project or challenge to win. In this way at the end of the year if you work very hard you can win 365 challenges. One night I have a room full of happy guests I win and tomorrow it is yet another challenge.
Virgilio: Like Eneko says it is day by day and little by little you become transcendent. In my case in Peruvian gastronomy we have different communities like producers, cooks etc. that are part of my terroir and soul. I feel that it is important to live in the present and work with your surroundings.
Eneko: I think we should live in the present but dream in the future.