Eneko Atxa: Seeds of Change at Azurmendi, Spain

This Spring I planted some Basque tear pea seeds from Azurmendi restaurant in Spain. Not all the plants did well but the ones that did reminded me of my recent visit to Azurmendi tucked away in the Basque countryside around Bilbao. The seeds, packed in a tiny jute sack, serve as the calling card of Spanish chef Eneko Atxa. He presented it as we conversed in the dining room with its vantage point overlooking the 40 hectares of vineyards and gardens that supply “some “of the requirements of his restaurant. The view puts into perspective its recognition as one of the first truly sustainable restaurants in the world.

The card is an indicator of his functional interdisciplinary philosophy. “Working with artists, I proposed that instead of designing a special card that has my name, lists all my restaurants etc., which I give you and you put it in your pocket and eventually it goes in the trash. Instead you take these local seeds and plant them in your home and then we are adding something to nature and making a lasting connection. The plant will not only remind you of Azurmendi, but you become a part of the landscape and the sky above Azurmendi.”

Nature pervades the interior of the restaurant seeping indoors into the reception area with lush greenery and the sounds of trickling water. The dining experience begins in the atrium with aperitifs and picnic baskets lined with delectable bites after which guests tour the latest addition off the foyer which he refers to as the “grotto”. Edible surprises await amongst the display of spices, seeds and plants. The tasting tour proceeds next into the working kitchen before winding its way into the dining room.

The forty-year-old chef is understandably proud of his restaurant’s recognition as a sustainable project perhaps a tad more than over its three Michelin star status. The restaurant is listed at the 38th spot onThe Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List and holds an aggregate score of 98.50 on La Liste the worldwide restaurant review site. Azurmendi is a true example of sustainability built with recycled materials, utilizing solar energy harnessed on the roof of the structure, tapping geothermal energy to provide radiant heating, self-sufficient sewage plant, rain water collection tanks, photovoltaic panels, recycling of all materials, and with electrical outlets in the compound for charging the electric powered vehicles. A recycling system converts the restaurant waste into compost, which is accessible to the neighbors in Larrabetzu village, home of the restaurant, for use in their gardens and farms. It’s all about the community, sharing and bringing positive change for this chef in all his projects.

Born and brought up in the region he is very connected to his roots never straying far from them even with recent projects opened in London and Tokyo. The choice of Naia Eguino, an emerging local Basque architect to implement his vision of a 21st century restaurant, a seed bank developed with the local university, a future eco food transport system to limit the environmental impact, it is all about the social responsibility he feels towards his community.” The most important thing for chefs is to make our guests happy but at the same time there is a big opportunity to share our knowledge. The media focuses on watching me or other well-known chefs, so we have a responsibility to use our time and this advantage to work other directions. This is the social aspect of food”.

The youngest chef in Spain to achieve three Michelin stars, he has acquired wisdom and inculcated a social consciousness, evident in his projects in the community. Atxa stands out amongst other chefs of his generation with his deep reflection on the social aspects of food while some of his peers who seem to pick up a cause merely as a profile building exercise. All the social, sustainable, nutritional, and health aspects initiatives fall under the umbrella of his restaurant groups JAKIN (N) project which aims to build a” a healthy and fair society through gastronomy”. Atxa thinks from the heart not; everything is business to him and I have observed this commitment deepen over time and how he actually walks the talk. Many young chefs have gone on from the Azurmendi system to prosper in other parts of the world and have taken and implemented his positive message. In some ways he is changing the world of gastronomy and much more with his way of thinking and using the inordinate privilege accorded by his celebrity.

Speaking as someone often experiencing hospital food his initiative to work with hospitals and nutritionists in his area is one I hope other chefs will emulate in their own communities. It is an oft neglected aspect of the food industry that affects the community as a whole. Investment in health and nutrition goes beyond running, his favorite sport, or dealing with allergies and requests of patrons at his restaurant. The hospital kitchen project developed out of the research for his book on nutrition, health and cooking for people with varying medical conditions. The focus on nutrition has also led to healthy staff meals for a brigade of close to 70. Atxa is also taking part in research into the rampant spread of food allergies across the board and Azurmendi kitchen offers 18 menu options to cover dietary requirements of guests. The more recently opened Eneko restaurant close by, which has already landed a Michelin star, offers similar choices on the menu so rest assured: Gluten free? Dairy-free? Vegetarian? No problem the kitchen is well prepared with substitutions and options. Atxa’s restaurant group is contemplating introducing these menus in his overseas projects in the near future, setting an example for others in the industry.

A visit to Peru developed over the years into sponsorship of a trainee from the Pachacutec Institute kitchen in Peru every year as part of his commitment to sharing knowledge. Interaction with Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio has also led to a proposal to the local authorities to offer guidance and training for cooking healthy nutritious meals for school children. He is still waiting on an affirmative response.

What does sustainability mean to you?

At Azurmendi we have been labeled as being sustainable and are often written about as such. What does sustainable mean? I believe that we must look at this with a more encompassing vision. To me it means to work towards making food healthy and very important to me, to work in solidarity to find solutions to this. I am referring to the ‘real’ solutions not promotions to draw attention.

What are the solutions you have implemented at Azurmendi?

At Azurmendi we allow our guests to observe us at work by bringing them into the center of our home, our kitchen. The can see us at work and observe the passion of the team. Usually in restaurants people, especially in haute cuisine work long hours and are spending a lot of time away from family and friends. In order to change this totally by creating a new system of working, we have started to open only for lunch on Tuesday through Thursday. There is no dinner service on those days allowing staff to go home at 6 or 6:30. We open for lunch on Sundays too while on Monday’s we are closed. Friday and Saturday are the only two days when we have both lunch and dinner service but even those days I put one obligatory condition for staff in all the sections of the kitchen. They are required to take one day off on the weekend as well and by doing that we have a staff that is more motivated, more passionate for their work.

Each restaurant is different, you have to listen to what your people have to say or are concerned about, your team, that is your work family, and friends and pay attention to their needs. Sometimes we think that they need more just money or more free time, but maybe they need more. It can be special attention like I may say I heard from your friends that there is a restaurant in Australia that you always wanted to go, and I have arranged a stage for you there for a month. I will pay all expenses for you to work and experience it.

Sustainability to me has a very human aspect in food. We eat every day to sustain ourselves and so it is very important to watch how and what we eat more than focusing on the cooking. We must eat healthier of course but in order to do this we have to understand the varied international cultures represented in our kitchen. We have staff from Korea, Japan, India etc. so on Friday and Saturday we have staff meals representing different cultures. This gives us an opportunity to learn about their food culture and its history. Every Tuesday we have a challenge, we call it “creto” in Spanish, every week we assign a different subject like for example “herbs” and assign a different herb to each staff member. They work on it in two parts, one being theory and the other practical giving every member of the kitchen team to express their creativity. The prize for the winner can be a master class with a chocolatier, a special dinner or a visit to a vineyard. This not only motivates them but allows everyone to grow. According to me this is also sustainability.

Of course, our building has all the technologies, geothermal, panel, recycling materials, discovering new products in our region but more importantly we are working with other disciplines. This is also sustainability, at the same time we are working with local farmers with using all our technologies. Today for example we have a plate with tomatoes which is special to me because of a story behind it. We are recovering varieties of tomatoes with our local farmers and keeping our culture and traditions.

I understand we have a problem with our concept of sustainability globally, but I believe it starts with small things, and we can do this on a daily basis.

Why is this message important for you?

The real chef not only works in his kitchen but also has an opportunity to make changes, we cannot change the world in one day, but we have to plant a seed every day, a seed of change.

We have to change especially because of the way young chefs are looking at us and the business. They think we are like rock stars or football players and our life is fantastic. It is like a fancy suit that maybe others want to wear but it is not for me. I want to be a tool to change our world. We are part of this society and we have an obligation to take part in changing it. Sometimes we don’t even realize how they look up to us, but these young people are the future of gastronomy and I feel we are chefs should be transmitting this desire for positive changes to them. It’s not about being rich, famous, drive fancy cars or having Michelin stars but it’s about something more important, it’s about responsibility. This is the message we need to pass on to young people. As for me I don’t need more things, I am happy and content with what I have, it is more than I ever imagined before.

Is contentment important to be able think this way?

You can use your money, your power, your focus to create something different and special. It’s not like I want to receive a Nobel Prize or something, but I just want to make a positive change in my region. If we all begin to make these changes in our own regions we will have communities moving in the same direction. We can all be working in different countries with own cultures, but we do have a responsibility as chefs. Sometimes these days we are so involved in thinking about lists, and all this noise about awards etc. and it drowns out other meaningful conversations.

Has gastronomy become more focused on business?

Yes, it has. As an example, I do aspire to be on a list, but of other more sustainable restaurants, not otherwise. This is also a lot of work, but I don’t need more attention because we are totally booked every day and that kind of focus compromises my work. The other day I had a meeting in London about a strategy to publicize my restaurant. I said you don’t need to have a strategy, just come to Azurmendi and I will show you the project in my restaurant that I normally don’t share. You don’t need a strategy for marketing, I show my essence and my soul here. When you are losing that then over a period of five to ten years you are losing your identity and yourself.
When you work you are sharing your heart and once you lose yourself you are not at your best.

Can the media help spread this message?

Absolutely and I prefer to use the opportunities with media to share this message and not about or why or how such and such plate was conceived. What ingredients or techniques were used and so on to grow my business. I prefer to say everything is great, I cook everyday but let me share something more meaningful to me.

You have projects in London and Tokyo. Why this desire to expand overseas?

It is very simple; these companies came as guests here or are friends and proposed a project in Tokyo asking what I thought about it. I said Tokyo is fantastic, people have gastronomy in their soul and have refined sensibilities. I am interested but I don’t want to go and leave my soul behind, so for that reason I want people to come here to work with me first, not to learn the recipes but to understand our system or working here.

The staff that trained here opened the Tokyo restaurant and they understand our philosophy about sustainability. It is the same in London, which is a major food hub, so my challenge was to bring our way of thinking to one of the largest cities in the world without changing our philosophy. We are creating two specific events, not promotions, where culinary and school students, chefs, farmers can come to talk about issues facing the in order for young people to understand cooking not just as cooking but cooking ideas.

Are you concerned about London and the Brexit situation and how it may affect staffing?

I am a little bit concerned like everyone else how it will all play out. It is something that is going to come as the world is changing. It is moving ahead all the time and there will always be problems. The concern is these problems are changing the place or the country.

In Tokyo we are working with Japanese chefs in the kitchen. Matteo my executive chef was in Japan initially to facilitate the opening with chefs who have all trained here and he goes back frequently. I go to London on Mondays since it is very close, when we are closed here’s and as for Japan I was there for the opening and then again when we closed here for holidays.

In order to change this notion of chefs as celebrities, should they not share their stories of struggle even when they have reached the top?

Yes, because before you make the cover of a magazine you are working nonstop. facing and resolving problems. Unfortunately the focus is only on that magazine cover and not what goes on behind it. We have to relay to young cooks that this is the result of a years of hard work and we must share this in the chef community. We are human and should be tools of change working in solidarity on issues of sustainability, health. Food is an incredible tool and you can work.

Is the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards coming to Basque country beneficial?

Yes, it is bringing value to our economy. Attention to our landscape, our values. I think these events should bring along a focus and more attention on human values.

You have been very successful, but do you feel that more is expected from you? You must not only fulfill your expectations but those of others as well.

I think in life the biggest challenge for me was to achieve success and when I arrived there it felt very empty to me. Yes, good things happen in life by accident, but I have a doubt about this. I try to enjoy this road I am on but sometimes along the way I forgot what is around me as my focus was just on the road ahead. Look around us, at that light, the view which has always been around me. I forgot to appreciate the small, but still very important things.

I am working hard on myself at this, to remember that my life is fantastic. I am a chef but more importantly I am human, a father, a friend, husband and all other things. As you said balance is important I will always be a chef here as well as at home, but we have to that equilibrium.

It is a big responsibility since people are constantly asking what is my next step. People think it is easy for me and I can just come up with the next surprise. I say let me finish my current projects and then we can talk about what is next.

Sometimes you think to yourself that yes, I have dreams and I need to go slowly and one step at a time. I do have ambitions to achieve more but nevertheless it difficult and a pressure.

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