by Eneko Atxa
Basque people are born around the dinner table. We are unique in that when we are eating we are also speaking about our dinner; we are just crazy about our food and it dominates our conversations every day. We are lucky because we are close to the sea and the mountains, and have had a rich gastronomic culture for a long time. The seasons here are very distinct, and from each we can achieve very different kinds of produce, which the farmers here have such an incredible knowledge of. In summer you can find fantastic tomatoes, which we are designing a new dish around, and also bonito (an oily fish), which is great to work with.
When I was growing up, nobody in my home worked as a professional chef, but my mother and grandmother always showed me the importance of the kitchen and healthy eating, and giving pleasure through food. I understood that it could be one language that could translate and transport people to a space and a culture. Today my approach is still inspired in a large way by traditional Basque recipes. I am a modern chef, but I think if you don't have the history or the tradition behind you it is very difficult for you to execute contemporary cuisine.
In Bilbao we have two concepts: Azurmendi, which is 100 per cent fine dining, and on the other hand we have Eneko, which we introduced with our London restaurant, which opened in Covent Garden last year. The latter is one way to translate the Basque gastronomy into a more informal and relaxed atmosphere. We have tried to create a concept that is available to the normal person working nearby – it's for everybody, like one big Basque food party.
For us sustainability is very important, and we are planning how we can translate this to London – next year we will be creating some special events around this. At Azurmendi we have been working with architectural concepts, including geothermics and photovoltaic solar panels, as well as finding and bringing back plants and produce that are at the point of being lost. We also work with local farmers and the city hall to create one central bank for organic food that we can recycle to create compost.
There we also make our own wine, which we serve in our restaurants. It's unique because the grapes we use are native to the Basque Country – the two varieties we use are Hondarrabi Zuri and Xerratia. The generic name is Txakoli, a Basque white wine. We are very proud, because we have achieved a lot of awards with this wine.
On 7 September, we will open an Eneko restaurant in Tokyo. It's an exciting challenge because we get used to working in a specific way, but now we've had the chance to understand this new city, its culture and explore the different ways they cook and the produce they have throughout the seasons. We have chefs from Tokyo working with us in Azurmendi to translate our soul and the way we work, which, in a way, is sometimes more important than learning the recipes themselves. I think Basque culture has a lot in common with that of Japan; the importance of the table, and also the respect for their farmers, the products and the seasons.
Every day we have to convince all our guests one-by-one of our work. We have to feel like we don't have anything, like a restaurant that doesn't have three Michelin stars or awards. You start from zero; we don't work for the awards, we work for the guest.
ENEKO ATXA is the three-Michelin-starred chef behind Azurmendi, an award-winning restaurant in Larrabetzu, near Bilbao. His latest outpost, Eneko London, opened in the capital last year, while Japan will be the next to experience his Basque cuisine, with an outpost in Tokyo opening in September.