Reinventing Basque Cuisine

Eneko Atxa: Reinventing Basque Cuisine from Azurmendi Restaurant in Vizcaya

Montserrat Barba

Bringing pleasure to the customer and staying true to his identity define the success of chef Eneko Atxa, both in Azurmendi, his main restaurant near Bilbao, and in Aziamendi, his output in Thailand.

Azurmendi restaurant in Vizcaya is at the top of the global dining scene. The acclaimed chef Eneko Atxa opened the doors of this sustainable eatery in 2005. The award-winning establishment is the pride of Larrabetxu, a town just 12 miles from Bilbao, Spain. Seven years after opening its doors, the chef was awarded his third Michelin star for his gastronomic creativity. “It was definitely the most exciting moment of my career,” recalls Atxa, who does not like to be called chef. “The beginning was very hard and I had a rough time. Then I started to discover the tricks, creating a team, understanding the customer, maturing personally and professionally, and this helped me a lot. Later, I had the opportunity to travel and learn, says Eneko Atxa.

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Eneko Atxa.

Today, Azurmendi is ranked 38 in the San Pellegrino list of the 50 Best Restaurants in the World. Atxa’s cuisine identity is linked to the Basque Country and its roots, but at the same time innovative and universal. “We want the customers to enjoy the full experience. First taking a walk in the garden outside, where they can see and taste a variety of native plants; then enjoying snacks in the inner garden, before going through the kitchen to finally reach the dining room with views of the surroundings. There they can enjoy a tasting menu, thoughtfully designed to delight them,” explains the chef.

The 12 tables in Azurmendi restaurant face a large window at the top of a valley overlooking the Basque woods. The dramatic backdrop is perfect to savor the dishes on the menu, which the chef calls “original, but without fanfare.” Some of the most popular plates include smoked anchovy, Bloody “Mar”, Foie Gras ashes, grilled squid in its ink, pigeon, or truffled egg and chard. The cook’s recipes call for local products without “star” ingredients: “every season and every day, we work with many different and indispensable products,” recounts the renowned chef.

Before embarking on this personal adventure, Eneko Atxa already had extensive experience, after training under teachers such as chef Martin Berasategui and working as head chef of several renowned restaurants. The family tradition of gastronomy and viticulture influenced him since childhood and soon he found his calling. “I started being curious about food when I was about 14 years old, and I became thoroughly interested after participating in an internship at a traditional restaurant at 15,” he recalls. At that age, Atxa began studying at the School of Hospitality in Leioa, Vizcaya and did various stints in restaurants where he soaked up knowledge of traditional Basque cuisine. And while enjoying the “disparate and particular styles“ of the great chefs in his land, it is clear that the formula that works in Azurmendi is different. “We only know how to cook in our style, that’s what we are. The reference for us is our environment, our understanding of pleasure,” explains Atxa.” When you allow yourself to be influenced, it does not work because you are not doing what is in your heart. And you need to return to your ways with no delay.”

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The chef, his restaurant and signature dishes.

He has learned great lessons from his teachers, especially perseverance and hard work, virtues that he conveys to the 60 people that make up his staff. “Everyone has the sole purpose of providing pleasure from our clients,” adds the Basque chef.

In addition to the main restaurant, his Prêt à Porter Bistro, received a Bib Gourmand award from the Michelin Guide in 2013. “It offers a more casual cuisine, an informal concept where the customer can enjoy an excellent and dynamic meal at a super competitive price,” he says. Another of his side projects is Aziamendi, a restaurant located in a luxury hotel in Phuket, Thailand, which opened in 2013.

In the field of research, Atxa has developed new techniques—such as the tridextensionalences— in cooperation with the University of the Basque Country and worked with hospitals and R&D (research and development) companies related to food and health. For him, supporting gastronomic research is essential, as well as providing support to entrepreneurs. He advises them on how to conduct their own projects. “With few exceptions, I think it is the individuals themselves who have to design their path by visiting schools, restaurants and research centers to quench their thirst for learning,” he says.

To celebrate his successes, the chef wants to make clear where his heart is, “I want to look for a very, very special way to acknowledge the loyalty and unconditional support of many of our clients, friends, and collaborators.”  ■

© | 2019