At The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 awards ceremony in Antwerp, Flanders, chef Victor Arguinzoniz of restaurant Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country of Spain was announced as the winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2021. A pioneer of grilling who took the humble fire-meets-ingredients technique to the heights of the gastronomic scene, Arguinzoniz is a self-effacing character well-loved by the global culinary community.
As he receives the only peer-voted accolade in the awards programme, and as his restaurant retains the No.3 position in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, we catch up with the Basque chef to discover how he went from local forester to the world's most-respected cook
Where does your connection to fire come from?
In my childhood home there was no electricity, so everything revolved around the fire, to prepare food and to warm ourselves. Those memories – the aroma of the firewood that was lit every morning and of the stews that my grandmother and mother made – stayed with me, as well as the ritual of sitting around a table, when the fundamental values of life were passed on to me.
You bought the 200-year-old building that houses Asador Etxebarri in 1989 to open a traditional Basque asador. Tell us a bit about how it happened?
The beginnings were hard because I don’t come from the culinary profession, I started from scratch. I worked in many fields before I achieved my dream, which was to have my own restaurant.
Cooking for others is an act of generosity. Seeing the happy faces of the people you cook for doesn’t have a price. Through dedication, passion and constant work, I made my way in the world of gastronomy. I just wanted to set up my business and cook with embers because that's when I'm happiest. Then I tried to transmit that happiness to the diners.
Victor Arguinzoniz's Asador Etxebarri is located in Spain's Basque Country (image: Oscar Oliva)
How did you innovate grilling to such a level that now sees your restaurant as No.3 in the world?
Grill cooking in the Basque Country is a traditional technique. I just updated it for the current times. At the end of the day, fire is one more ingredient that you are adding to the dish – an ingredient that you can't see, but you can taste. The most important change was understanding that first you have to work on the embers. That was fundamental and, for me, it’s based on three factors…
The first was to get rid of the charcoal that is often used in grilling, because charcoal gives off aromas that are aggressive and mask many of the taste properties of the products. So instead, I started working with different types of wood, which give off natural aromas that are mild and clean, so they enhance the flavour of the product you are cooking.
The second factor was to make the embers in an independent oven, so that you could control them at all times, rather than have the embers controlling you. And finally, the third was to create utensils suitable for cooking different types of food that until then had been unthinkable to grill.
Asador Etxebarri's dishes (such as 'vegetables from our garden', above) are based around the technique of grilling (image: Oscar Oliva)
What kind of ingredients are you referring to here?
One of the most unusual products we grill is also one of the first we experimented with, which was baby eels [elvers]. We had to devise a new tool, a metal mesh pan, to be able to cook them. It’s one of the most complicated products; we had to throw a lot of eels away until we got the dish right. Since we started using mesh pans that allow the aromas of the wood to pass through, everything became much simpler, and we were able to sauté on the grill things like mushrooms and baby octopus.
How do you achieve perfect cooking for each product?
You have to control the cooking points at all times. With a grill you don't have any thermometers or timers, everything is based on the cook's own senses, so we had to come up with the most accurate way to control the height of any product compared to the embers. We needed to be able to raise or lower the grill at any point, because when you first take out the embers there’s a high heating power, but if you wait five minutes that power changes very quickly. So we invented a system of pulleys to lower or raise the ingredients and control the cooking points.
This is why I’ve always said that in the grilling technique, which to many may appear simple, the difficult thing is to get the cooking points right. You need to have the necessary practical skill. That’s what makes this craft purely artisanal.
What does it mean to you to be the winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2021?
It’s a great compliment and honour, a surprise that made me very happy. It’s also a great responsibility for me, something that personally forces me to try to keep improving every day. It’s the pressure to ‘live up to it’ out of respect for my peers. I’m very grateful and I can only say to all the colleagues who voted for me, ‘thank you!’ I felt the affection of each one of them when I received this recognition. I hope to be able to repay them in some way, perhaps by cooking for them one day in my house.
I never thought I would achieve this kind of award. All recognition is important, but perhaps this is the most important award for me in my entire professional career.
Victor Arguinzoniz won the Estrella Damm Chefs' Choice Award 2021 in Antwerp, Flanders (image: Mariano Herrera)
What message would you like to send to the new generations of cooks?
To fight for their dreams and work hard to achieve them. There is no other way but to work hard. The most important thing in our profession is the customer; that has to be the permanent focus of attention. Without clients we are nothing; everything else is just circumstantial. Constant hard work, every day, is the best way to keep growing and breaking down barriers to make dreams come true.
Watch the Estrella Damm Chefs' Choice Award 2021 video:
Now discover Arguinzoniz’s ten tips for the ultimate grilled steak and meet the other special award winners for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, which was announced on October 5, 2021 in Antwerp, Flanders. To stay up to date with the latest news, join the community on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.