Chef Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi, Spain: Passion is Fundamental to Creativity

I admire the creative chef Eneko Atxa not only for his talent or his sustainable sensibilities but also for his humanity and genuine observations about various facets of life. Atxa always speaks from the heart and I look forward to our next meeting and conversation every time we part. We might meet in different parts of the world at times but I really enjoy seeing him in his home, Azurmendi.

My latest conversation with Atxa as published this week on The Daily Meal.

Chef Eneko Atxa
Chef Eneko Atxa

Spanish Chef Eneko Atxa: A Sustainable Future

by Geeta Bansal

Eneko Atxa is the youngest of eight Spanish chefs currently holding three Michelin stars for his Azurmendi restaurant perched atop a hillside in Larrabetzu, a brief 20 minute drive from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The modernistic, steel and glass structure in the midst of 40 acres of vineyards and gardens exposes guests not only to his superb modernistic cuisine but also to the diversity of the products of the Basque region, sustainably produced utilizing advanced alternate energy systems. Atxa’s restaurant which was relocated to its present location in 2012 is a true representation of a sustainable operation. In a record seven years after its opening it received its third Michelin star, setting the bar even higher for the other incredible culinary talent in nearby San Sebastián and Bilbao. Post-culinary school Atxa trained with some of the most well-known chefs in the area including Martin Berasategui and at restaurants such as Extebarri and Andra Mari. Two years ago he ventured overseas, far from his Basque home, to open another standout restaurant Aziamendi in Phuket, Thailand.

Azurmendi is a true example of sustainability utilizing solar energy harnessed on the roof of the structure, tapping geothermal energy to provide radiant heating, self-sufficient sewage plant, water collection tanks, photovoltaic systems, recycling of all materials, electrical outlets in the compound for charging the electric powered vehicles, and growing a majority of its produce. In 2014 Azurmendi was named the “Most Sustainable Restaurant in the World” by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List and Restaurant Magazine, where Atxa’s Azurmendi presently holds the #24 spot.

Nature not only envelops the building but unobtrusively seeps inside, blurring the lines between the exterior and interior. Diners enter the stunning reception area, a two stories tall expansive space, a lush green enclave with tall trees, plants and the water features. Picnic baskets with aperitifs appear as guests check in, each delectable bite served a veritable piece of art and a precursor to what is ahead. They then tour the green house on the upper level where there might be tiny vials of juices, marinated tomatoes hanging from the tomato plants, or Atxa’s signature edible leaves among the real ones for the diners to taste and marvel at.

Reception area of Azurmendi
Reception area of Azurmendi

Atxa wants to welcome his guests into his home and the heart of his home is his kitchen so dinner service begins in the huge steel lined kitchen where guests perch on stools, sipping their drinks while the chef and his team deftly plate and serve one delectable bite after another from across the counter. Finally guests are led to their tables in the dining room with its glass walls open to the verdant green vistas of this area in the northern borders of Spain. It is a unique and unforgettable experience since the visions of and tastes on the plates, the exceptional wine pairing which might even include the Txacoli wine from Atxa’s own winery on site, tend to linger on the palate. This destination restaurant offers a unique experience in an atmosphere that’s alive and interconnected with the land.

Questions for Chef Atxa:

These days reputed chefs like Joan Roca at El Celler de Can Roca, Albert and Ferran Adria at Heart in Ibiza, Grant Achatz at Alinea are introducing mixed media, sensory experiences, and performance art into the guests experience at the table. What are your views regarding this?

I am inclined towards a special experience but a very real experience and not one in 3D. Right now for example we are working towards a new concept for the gardens at Azurmendi. Every year we change the experience in the gardens and by the end of the year one of the ideas we are introducing is of putting an indoor vegetable garden in the greenhouses. It’s more like a cave with plants.

So you are building a grotto. Will it have water elements too?

Exactly, a grotto but the walls will be lined with plants. In the middle of this space there will be a map of my region of Bizcaiya and it will highlight the different and special plants from various parts of this region. All these different elements shown on the map will be accompanied by information about these plants allowing the guests to discover these little towns and villages along with their special produce. The guests will also be able to taste these products to get a real sensory experience. As you know we serve little edible surprises during the tour of our greenhouses in Azurmendi. It is not a huge space but rather an intimate one, romantic and connected to the greenhouse. The water element may be there as it is still a work in progress.

Since your guests are given a tour of the greenhouses prior to dinner, why is this tasting experience important?

By the time they go to the kitchen where as you know we begin the first part of our dining experience they will be familiar with the taste of the products of our Basque region. It is going to provide them with a condensed tour so to speak of the area in the form of this interactive map experience.

Will those products appear in the food coming out of the kitchen later?

Claro, that is exactly what we are planning to do to enhance the diner’s experience. The idea is to connect the point of origin or production to the food on the table. We will be able to show the guests the origin of plants growing outside in our gardens.

When will this project be open to guests?

It will be finished and functioning before the end of 2015. Actually the water theme was a surprise we were working on, but now you know already!

You concentrate on aromas in the cooking process, but why do you think it is important to incorporate the other sensory experiences like touch, feel etc.?

My dream is that people are familiar with the products before they come into the kitchen. That is the reason why we have the guests begin in the greenhouse where they see the living plants and can touch, feel and taste them and it is the same idea to take this experience outside.

There is a region named Basturia from where we source our tomatoes for example and it will be on the map. To enhance this connection we have bone china plates made to look just like these tomatoes and the guests will be able to open and discover for themselves at the table.

So are these ceramics made by a local artist?

Yes, it is being fabricated very close by and designed by a local artist.

You recently did a pop up in Malta. Are you planning another international event anywhere?

We are doing one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia that starts on the 22nd of July for four months. I will be there only for a week after that I come back to Azurmendi since it is a very busy time here. Some team members from my Aziamendi in Phuket, Thailand will be handling it after that.

You have a very strong team in both your restaurants, and as you have said before very capable people in your kitchens. Do you incorporate their ideas into your work, or is your word the last word about what you put on your menus since you are the boss?

Yes and no! What we do is discuss the idea as a team and then we argue about the possibilities of doing it a certain way or not. We work with different opinions and once I have all the information and the thoughts of the whole team I propose the final idea.

You have a restaurant in Phuket and you have spent time in Kyoto. Have some of those Eco Buddhist values become part of your work here at Azurmendi?

It has affected the way I work but not necessarily my recipes. It’s a part of my philosophy in fact I should say Azurmendi affects my work in other parts of the world and not the other way around.

Edible Leaves
Edible Leaves

Have you brought back any products, spices etc. from these regions into your Azurmendi kitchen?

I enjoy the spicy elements of the foods from the Phuket area but instead of bringing those chilies or spices over here I work with local products to obtain that spice level in our kitchen here. Some of the influences needless to say do travel back and forth.

At Azurmendi there are so many components in your project: the restaurant, the winery, the gardens, the green houses, laboratory, and now the grotto. Is cooking still the primary focus of your work?

Absolutely, I am a cook before everything else. The main element here is our kitchen and the work we do there.

You are a very independent thinker, but are you very self-critical? Are you constantly tweaking your dishes?

I would say I am my own worst enemy. I believe the experience is alive so everything is constantly changing and evolving. For me a dish as a creation is never finished. Nunca!

Is this constant re-evaluation spontaneous or methodical?

I am spontaneous for sure and everyday it happens that if we have decided to do something one way I will change it on the spot. Every day!

You are such a serene person, but is there something that makes you lose your temper in the kitchen?

I define things very minutely and strictly to the smallest measure and do not appreciate any variation from that. I even want it plated exactly as I specify and not even two centimeters to the left or right. I believe if I let something go it will get worse over time so it has to be followed to my specifications.

How long does an idea take from inception to its appearance on a plate?

It could be a week or it could be a dish that was created two years ago that I rework. An idea could be fantastic in theory but sometimes I don’t like the results. Sometimes the idea seems so original in my brain but when it comes to practicality it fizzles out.

So do you let go of such ideas or inspiration or keep working at it?

I don’t let go for sure and continue working away at it. I am obsessive for sure. I don’t give up.

In the last few years your truffled egg yolk that you served at the restaurant or presented at food congresses around the world has become the dish most associated with you. What are your views on an iconic dish that begins to define the work of a chef?

I don’t like it as I don’t like to define myself. I want my food to define me, but not just by one thing.  I appreciate the response to my creation and it is flattering but I don’t believe in a dish on its own and think it is a part of a whole. Each dish is part of the story I am telling on my menus and not an individual component.

Is passion an important element in developing your philosophy and moving forward creatively?

Passion is fundamental and it is the foundation of all creative work. The daily work, the consistency of work it all comes from passion.

What is the secret to building a perfect progression of flavored and tastes on your menus?

I plan ahead in advance of the next season and what will happen then. I think about what the weather will be, what products will be available, what kind of guests will arrive here, all of it is taken into account while making the menus.

How do you plan the actual progression of the tasting menu?

There are products that I like to work with in each season and I try to link products to each other and lead from one to the next and so on. It is a continuous story on the menu.

You do collaborations with other chefs at Azurmendi and elsewhere. Why do you choose to do such events?

It is fantastic working not only with colleagues but with my friends. It’s an opportunity to learn, to progress and share. It is interesting to see someone working in our kitchen who has never worked here before and how they deal with the change.

Is it easy to blend different concepts? For example, Virgilio Martinez’s Peruvian cuisine with your Basque cuisine a few months ago?

It is interesting to create a marriage between two cuisines. It was surprising and a lot of fun for the guests.

When you travel to cook in New York, or recently to Manresa in California, how far in advance do you plan your menus and collaboration and do you carry any ingredients with you?

At least six months in advance. As for products I use totally local products, whatever is available where I go. I adapt my cooking depending upon what is and is not available.

Any recent outrageous experiences on such ventures?

Once in Singapore I spent hours trying to get the flavor profile I wanted because we couldn’t find the right kind of potatoes. I still don’t know why it wouldn’t work. Eventually we managed to get the right potato and prepare the dish as I wanted it.

Your restaurant is a destination restaurant where people plan in advance, depending on when they can get a reservation to visit you. What is the most important emotion or feeling you want to give them?

I want them to feel they have come not to my house but to my home. They should feel they are being welcomed into a very special place. It is not a standard restaurant where you sit down, eat and then leave it is more of an experience that we offer here.

Not all guests are exposed to avant-garde cuisine prior to coming here. Do you try to accommodate all kinds of guests? If there is ever a negative experience, how do you change it into a positive one?

I always listen to the guests and we try to interpret their desires and do whatever we can to make them happy. The communication between the dining room and kitchen is very important to relay this information.

How do you avoid food waste in your operation?

Azurmendi’s policy is zero waste. We don’t have huge refrigerators to store or stock food.  We harvest product we need on a daily bases and only store in our small refrigerators what we need on a given day. We have product come in every single day and many times other chefs who come to cook here find it very strange that we don’t stock anything. We get only what we need so there is no waste.

Is using extreme proteins in the kitchen or investigating alternate foods by chefs a trend, or a way to a sustainable future?

We are open to anything that will help alleviate the difficult food situations in less fortunate parts of the world. It has to be more than just following a fashion or trend, like for example Stevia, which is not a trend but an actual alternative. I understand sometimes people do it for attention but you have to really believe in this philosophy.

Is using alternate energy sources going to be prevalent in the restaurant industry in the next decade?

I think that it is definitely the future. In the past it was done with the dishes and the products and not with the container or the restaurant itself. Sustainability is not limited to the product but it extends to the running of the entire operation. It is complicated to comprehend this whole concept as a totality. The mind has to be trained to think in this manner. It’s a cultural thing too like we offer baby eel here and someone from another culture might not appreciate it but we are trying to use our available resources.

Is a plant-based diet going to replace a protein heavy diet in the future?

I think it is more important to go for a balance between the two and not one over the other. I think we are going to start using all available resources responsibly. Restaurants will play to the demands of the guests and availability of products.

Are you traveling to any food events this year?

Yes, after Kuala Lumpur I will be in Bangkok in October and nothing else is planned, but of course I will be at the San Sebastián Gastronomika as every year.

When you travel do you visit other restaurants? Where was your last experience?

I was in New York a few weeks ago to cook at an event and dined at Eleven Madison, and in Tokyo where I was visiting recently I dined at Narisawa, Jiro, Nobu, and a few more.

Any dreams of the future?

Earlier it was always about objectives to meet or short term visions which I would work objectively and obsessively to achieve. I always achieved them and when I did I realized that it did not make me as happy as I had expected. I do the same now but I try to enjoy that entire journey to the final achievement.

What is the most annoying question asked of you?

When they say define your cuisine in one sentence or the one about if you were to go to an island what is the one product you would take with you.

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