Committed to innovation and the search for excellence while simultaneously taking care of the environment, chef Eneko Atxa – whose restaurant Azurmendi picked up the Westholme Highest Climber Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 – explains his cooking philosophy and reveals his latest projects
You once said that when you were young, you looked up to chefs with the same admiration of the children who look up to footballers. Do you still observe the world of haute cuisine with the curiosity of a child?
Some things I still observe with the same fascination and respect and others, not so much. When you know some of the tricks, the magic isn’t the same, but the excitement remains intact; the desire to make my project something relevant is greater every day and the satisfaction of a happy customer continues to be what pleases me most. What makes me feel satisfied is apparently simple, but tremendously complex at the same time.
Do you feel that you are a son of the New Basque Cuisine that really succeeded in modernising Spanish food?
New Basque Cuisine was an important movement that identified a territory and a new way of doing things. It was a group of cooks who, through their work and commitment, transcended their kitchens and who established foundations that are still valid today. I’m sure that this transcendence made this movement an inspiration and a source to feed from, but if I have to position myself as the son of a movement, I don't know... I am only a son to Teresita and Jesús Mari, for the rest I prefer to feel like a pupil of life, an observer of everything that happens, an eternal apprentice free from pigeonholing.
Atxa receives the Westholme Highest Climber Award for Azurmendi from Terry Farrell of Westholme
What did you learn from your mentor Martín Berasategui?
He was a great teacher to me. He taught me that consistency is fundamental and that ours is a craft, where the client is the foundation of what we do and that this is a job you have to love. He was an extremely generous person to me and he is now something more important: a friend.
Although your restaurant is considered one of the best on the planet, your humility gives the impression that you don’t feel part of the elite?
What you got yesterday is worthless if you don't claim it again – it's just a memory, something ephemeral that doesn't feed you, that doesn't pay your bills; a fantasy that made you happy for a couple of days... yesterday's stew won’t feed you for the rest of the week.
Are you a competitive person?
I've always been very competitive, but only with myself. I don't cook to be better than anyone else, I cook to be better for those who come to visit us. I don't like to compete with other people, it's enough to compete with myself because I'm my own worst enemy, I always demand the best, I'm critical of myself and I'm also my best ally. I like to live my way, staying up to date with what’s happening in the sector but in my own style, within my world and staying focused on my stories and my people.
How important are the culture and landscape that surrounds you in the Basque Country?
For me they are everything – they are the necessary context to what I do. I am able to enjoy any gastronomic proposal throughout the world, but to create one for myself, it has to come from the culture I absorbed and the landscapes and territories that surround me and how I can enrich these ideas with what I learned here and there.
Your restaurant is a shining example of sustainability, how does that fit into your ethos?
Sometimes I feel that we prostitute words and concepts for our need to create trends. And the worst thing is when a necessity becomes just a trend. We are like sheep, sometimes we adopt forced positions to sell more, but in reality, we care very little if we are part of the problem or of the solution. I believe that sustainability begins by being fair to what surrounds us, to the environment, to people... it’s about common sense and respect.
Does the way in which Azurmendi invites diners to sit in the different spaces of the house have something to do with your role as host in your home?
Without a doubt, I have a wonderful house and I want those who come to visit us to live it in depth, to feel that it’s the most important thing and that everything is created with the aim of crafting moments of pleasure and joy. It's that simple.
Atxa's signature dish: shrimp, vegetable juice and frozen “old” tomato
You have a new project that aims to create a huge network of small producers all over the world. Can you explain more?
The Bestfarmers.eco project, a digital platform that Sherpa CEO Xabi Uribetxebarria and I created with our respective teams, is going well. We want to highlight some of the best producers in the world, divided by country and category. For example, through a search you will be able to find out who are the best producers for vegetables, dairy products or meat in Japan, France or Brazil. We can do this thanks to the invaluable collaboration of many international chefs, who have altruistically acted as curators in their respective countries and have shared with us which are their favourite products, following certain criteria when assessing the producers, such as organoleptic characteristics, product traceability, mode of delivery... We have been very fortunate to collaborate with people like Gastón Acurio, Ana Roš, Joan Roca, Pascal Barbot, Grant Achatz, Heinz Reitbauer, Alex Atala and Andoni Luis Aduriz.
And how about your social projects – what is Jaki(N)?
In 2017 we created ‘the other kitchen’, Jaki(N), a place where we could use our knowledge to contribute to society in different spheres and in conversation with other disciplines. It's about using the resources that we are lucky to have for a better society, about trying to ‘cook a better future’. We approach health with projects in different fields, such as the design of action plans for the nutrition of people with childhood obesity, diabetes, renal insufficiency, heart failure, intolerance and allergies. Together with specialists from Galdakao Public Hospital, we created a book with all this information. We recruited young talent from local catering schools to be part of the menu design group for public hospitals, and we created scholarships to redesign trays and more appropriate equipment for hospitals.