Whether it’s due to his work pioneering new grilling techniques, his humble personality that allows him to focus fully on his food, or his role mentoring upcoming cooks across the globe, there is no question that Basque cook Victor Arguinzoniz is among the best-loved chefs on the planet. In 2021, this is substantiated with his receiving the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award – the only peer-voted accolade in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants programme.
Born in a country house only one kilometre away from where his restaurant is today, in the foothills of the Spanish Basque Country, Arguinzoniz comes from a family of farmers. Some of the chef’s first memories relate to fire: his childhood home had no heating or electricity, so the fire was the centre of the house, where meals were cooked and where warmth was spread. It was around the fire that his family passed onto to him the values that the chef carries with pride to this day: respect, humility and honesty.
Arguinzoniz became a forester after graduating high school, until, in 1989, he bought an abandoned 200-year-old building on the town square of the village of Axpe, where he had often spent time after work grilling steaks with the locals. Here, he started serving traditional asador (grill house) dishes, from bone-in rib eye to whole sea bream – but soon realised that the cooking technique had untapped potential.
In the late 1990s, Arguinzoniz started designing new tools that allowed him to grill products whose taste or texture were so delicate that no sane cook would have placed them on the coals. From egg yolk to caviar and even risotto, the chef designed an array of utensils that opened up a world of possibilities – from sieves to mesh pans and even a laser-perforated container with holes so fine that smoke enters it while liquid stays in, ensuring a product like risotto keeps its unmistakable texture while taking on a whole new layer of flavour.
Arguinzoniz’s search for grilling perfection led him on a journey of discoveries that have today influenced chefs worldwide. From the height-adjustable grills with pulleys that he designed for Asador Etxebarri’s kitchen, to the ovens he built at the restaurant to prepare the perfect embers with carefully selected woods (Holm oak for meat and vine trunks for fish, to ensure the correct aroma for each product), and an approach to sourcing that sees him work only with the most premium products, he revolutionised a centuries-old cooking technique.
The chef cites among his mentors the late Pedro Arregui of restaurant Elkano in Getaria, Spain, as well as local chef Matias Gorrotxategui of traditional eatery Casa Julían in Tolosa. But it’s his mentees and the impact they’re having on the global gastronomic scene that truly impress: among them are, for instance, Australian chef Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends in Singapore, which debuted on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2021, as well as British chef Lennox Hastie of up-and-coming venue Firedoor in Sydney.
A shy and reserved character, Arguinzoniz is arguably even more popular in chef circles due to his shunning of public speaking and interviews – he is truly a chef’s chef, often heard saying that he feels most at ease at his grills, as they understand him best. But in 2021, the cook is getting the recognition he deserves, with his fellow cooks voting him as the winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2021.
Discover more about the previous award winners