Header: Victor Arguinzoniz and his chuleta steak
As the chefs of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 recover from last week’s celebrations in the Basque Country of Spain, we catch up with grill master Victor Arguinzoniz of Asador Etxebarri on the secret to a successful barbecue, Basque-style.
Victor Arguinzoniz’s restaurant Asador Etxebarri has been a firm favourite of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy of over 1,000 restaurant experts, having been voted into 10 editions of the list, starting from its debut at No.44 in 2008. Ten years on, Arguinzoniz is widely considered the king of the barbecue: at Etxebarri, everything from steak to ice cream passes through the chef’s custom-made grills and the scientific approach is abandoned in favour of artisanal techniques and an expert eye for temperature and cooking point.
The chef considers grilling a true art, which at Etxebarri he elevates to its highest form. “Everyone can cook on a barbecue and many people think it’s easy,” says Arguinzoniz. “What I always say is that it is an ancient technique, but nothing about it is easy. You need to develop the practical skills to gain absolute control of the temperature and time of cooking.”
Born in a country house only a kilometre away from where Etxebarri is located in the village of Axpe, surrounded by the lush hills of the Atxondo valley, Arguinzoniz first fell in love with the magic of fire as a kid. “In my family house, we had no electricity or gas. My mother and grandmothers cooked on the open hearth, which we called fuego bajo (low fire). It served the double purpose of cooking while also keeping the house warm,” he says.
“The memories of those aromas, of the burning wood and of the flavours cooked by my family, stayed with me. Through food, a relationship is created between the people, the environment and our territory. That is how I learned the values of respect, humility and honesty. To this day, I try to keep those values alive through my cooking.”
Arguinzoniz’s practical tips for the perfect barbecue – which he has developed over a stellar career of nearly 30 years – start from the raw material and take in everything from cooking height to salt. Find out how you can master the principles of wood-fire cookery and improve your own barbecues in ten steps, while discovering the secrets of the Basque chef’s kitchen.
1. Start with an excellent product
Arguinzoniz at work in the kitchen (image: N.J. Soler)
“As a cooking technique, the barbecue highlights the natural virtues of a good product as much as it shows up the defects of a mediocre one,” says Arguinzoniz. “So you have to start with the best you can find.” At Etxebarri, he applies this principle by sourcing everything he can hyper-locally. He grows his own vegetables, gets milk from his own buffalos and eggs from his chickens. “Everything I cannot source myself, I get from my trusted suppliers – a trust that only develops over time.”
2. Check your marbling
When cooking meat such as a steak, Arguinzoniz recommends checking the degree of fat infiltration – also called marbling – to determine its quality. Intramuscular fat “will determine whether the meat is juicy”, says the chef, but not just any fat will do. “Look for animals that were fed naturally and didn’t grow up in barns,” he adds – the type of fat is determined by the animal’s diet and a natural feed will result in more flavour and moisture.
3. Pamper your product
“Few people know how to take care, handle and pamper products properly,” says Arguinzoniz. “So the first thing I teach my cooks is how to handle a good product without ruining it.” He recommends thoroughly checking the product when it is received, then ensuring it is stored and handled carefully until it is cooked.
4. Choose the right wood
Arguinzoniz preparing his wood coals
“To get the best result, the wood you use has to give off gentle, natural and clean aromas – that way it will enhance the taste of the products,” says the chef. Using charcoal isn’t recommended, as its smell is too aggressive and covers up the natural taste properties of the products. “When I’m cooking fish, I generally use holm oak, which is really clean and soft, while for the meat I use vine trunks and shoots, which have a stronger aroma.”
5. Make your coals in advance
While not many will have access to an oven like Arguinzoniz’s – at Etxebarri he has built two 750-degree ovens in which he prepares fresh coals daily – he recommends that everyone should try making their own embers. “The wood should be burnt in an independent oven, then the embers moved to the grill. This is the only way to get more control over the temperature and the right cooking point for each product, and to make sure that you are controlling the coals, not the coals controlling you.”
6. Find the right height
Arguinzoniz’s kitchen features six fully adjustable grills with different width grids, which can be raised and lowered on a pulley system, and the chef has also invented several utensils – such as mesh pans – that allow him to grill virtually anything. Regardless of your kitchen, there’s still a tip that everyone can use to cook a better steak: “If your meat is high quality, place it on very hot, live coals and it will start dripping fat right away, creating a flame. The height of that flame is where you want your steak to be cooking, so that the flames are caressing the meat from the bottom.”
7. Salty tricks
“As soon as you put your steak on the grill, that’s when you add salt to the top side, the one that’s not immediately cooking,” says Arguinzoniz. As for the quantity of salt needed, he reveals a secret trick: “You can add any amount of salt you like – while the bottom side of the steak is cooking, the top side will naturally absorb the salt it needs. The excess will remain on top and all you have to do is shake the steak when you turn it.”
8. Be patient
Arguinzoniz's grillled chorizo sandwich
“Anyone who dares to cook on a barbecue wants to do things quick – they want the embers to be ready as soon as they light the fire and they want to start cooking right away. This is a mistake,” says Arguinzoniz. “The most important ingredient in a barbecue is patience. Patience to create the right infrastructure, to light the fire properly, to create the embers, to control them and to reach the right cooking point. This is an artisanal profession – it all depends on your patience and experience. Every product has its own temperature and cooking time. Find out what it is and be patient.”
9. Be bold
“To anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of wood fire cookery, I would tell them to lose their fear. Don’t be afraid of working with fire. You might not get it right first or second time, but you learn from your mistakes if you’re daring.”
10. Learn from the best – and experiment
“This is a wonderful technique, one of the best ways of cooking, the most natural and the cleanest,” says the chef. “Go and learn from the best – when I was younger, I learnt from the late Pedro Arregui at Elkano and from Matias Gorrochategui at Casa Julian simply by going to their restaurants, eating and observing. There are new fields being developed, such as cooking fried or battered foods on the grill. You have to keep doing new things and experiment in order to keep advancing.”
Go inside Etxebarri with Chef Arguinzoniz:
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