2008 / 10 / 03-10
Luis Irizar (La Habana, 1930)
Prestigious Chef. Recognized as “Master of Masters” in his profession.
He started his career very young at the Hotel María Cristina in San Sebastián. He worked as a Chef in various Restaurants an Hotels, both home and abroad (Restaurante Azaldegi in San Sebastián, Restaurant Royal Manceau in Paris, Hilton Hotel in Londo...).
In 1967, he founded the first Caterin School in the Basque Country at the Hotel Euromar in Zarautz, which produced some excellent and renowned Chefs, such as Pedro Subijana, Karlos arguiñano, Ramón Roteta, José Ramón Elizondo and many others.
After working in the Baque Country for several years and later in Madrid, as Manager of the Hotel Alcalá and Manager-Owner of the Restaurante Irizar for 10 years, he retourned to San Sebastián where he founded the Luis Irizar Cooking School in january 1993.
Luis Irizar has always been renowned for his total dedication to teaching proffesional cooking.
His curriculum includes:
. Fist Prize of the Gastronomic Critics to the best teaching and proffesional work in 1980.
. Member of Honour of several Gastronomics Societies.
. Member of the Spanish jury of the “Paul Bocuse” Cooking Competition.
. President of the Spanish jury of the “Pierre Taittinger” international Cooking Competition, held in Paris every year.
. Member of the Board of the “Eurotoques” European Chefs Association.
. In 1992 the town of San Sebastián awarded him The “Gold Drum” for promoting the city and basque cooking around the world.
Some of the books he has published: Recetas sabrosas para diabéticos (2005), Técnica y gestión de un oficio. Cocinero (1998), Erabateko Sukaldea (1998), La cocina de las aves de caza (1996), Las cocinas de España (1990), Grandes maestros de la Nueva Cocina Vasca (1982).
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Our weekly magazine Euskonews & Media will reach its tenth anniversary in 2008. To mark this event, within a very extensive programme of activities, every month until December we will publish a special interview with an inportant figure in the recent history of our country. It is the best gift we can give the thousands of readers who read our magazine every week.
Experts consider Luis Irizar as the patriarch of Basque cuisine. He is largely responsible for the quantum jump produced in the area of Basque cuisine over the last few years, which has allowed it to be admired all over the world. Going back 40 years, after analysing different local cuisines from all over the globe, Luis Irizar decided that it was high time Basque gastronomy was given a quality label. Since then, it has become a reference point in the area of cookery which has acquired great specific importance in our current culture.
Luís Irizar is one of the most significant representatives of Basque cuisine, perhaps as a result of what is known as a nouvelle cuisine, which appeared in this country some years ago. However, I would like to ask my first question in reference to our traditional cuisine. We have always heard the phrase “The food is really good in the Basque Country”, and I believe this is true, but, since when has the food been really good in our Country?
That’s a good question because, to be honest, people believe that we have always eaten like we do now in the Basque Country, and that is completely wrong. Due to its geographical location, the Basque Country has always been a small, mountainous country, and this led to the cuisine being somewhat poor. Especially, when today’s industry was not around. Fortunately, the Basque Country became industrially strong and that was what raised its cuisine to the current levels.
Before, there was no industry and no large expanses on which to grow crops. There were small farmlands, with large families, where custom dictated that the first-born child stayed at home, and all the other children had to look for work elsewhere. With the small amount of land, nothing could be grown on a large scale. It wasn’t possible to produce any oil, and we couldn’t even grow decent wheat. We had to get by using locally grown products. What did we have? Savoy cabbage, green cabbage, turnips, millet; mainly these things. That was the Basque people’s food. Chestnuts, apples, what we got from the land. The little we got from the land.
If we ate meat it was game, especially wild boar, which was abundant at that time. And the only thing that saved the Basques, in some way, was the sea. It was right in front of us and we were forced to fish in order to eat. This was the start of our fishing fleet and what we the Basques have achieved at sea, which is something that has attracted attention worldwide. We set sail for Scotland, Newfoundland and we caught whales and made our name with cod. All of this was a result of the circumstances produced by our lack of land.
The fact that seafood products were consumed inland has been proven by prehistoric remains of sea molluscs found in Leze Txiki in Mondragón, for example, quite a long way from the coast. Does this mean that our inland ancestors also consumed sea fish?
Without a doubt, because it was the basic principal of preservation. As I said, the strongest point the Basque Country had was the sea. We couldn’t get much out of the land. It’s evident that fish reached inland farmhouses. It would have reached them via the means available at that time, more slowly, and they would need more time to take it. But that’s what happened. Here in the Basque Country distances are short, but in Spain, to transport fish they had to use covered wagons filled with ice to reach the Emperor when he was in Extremadura.
Anyway, disembarking in America changed the outlook, didn’t it?
It changed it completely. For us that was perhaps not our salvation because there are many ways to survive, but from a gastronomic point of view, in America we found a really good deal. If we begin to analyse the products that have been brought from just one country, Mexico for example, we can think of corn, chocolate, the tomato, the potato,... All of which are first rate raw materials and are the basic necessities for life, and we brought them over from America. As a result of this, we have made progress in the gastronomic aspect. The Basques have always been emigrants and we have never been afraid of travelling around the world. But it is all due to the fact that we were so poor.
Was it that “discovery of America” in the gastronomical sense that influenced what we refer to as grandmother’s home cooking?
Without a doubt, because those emigrants brought back to their home towns, to our country, knowledge that they discovered around the world. The circumstances taught them how to eat. Those who went to Mexico saw what a Mexican ate, and the ones that came back from Scotland, saw what the Scottish ate. All of this information was left behind at the farmhouses with the grandmothers and the mothers, who were the real creators of the initial Basque cuisine.
They were the ones who promoted it. And later it was developed further, and in more modern times we were then able to enjoy more privileged lands due to the influx of elegant, aristocratic tourism. And that also made it economically and gastronomically richer. Later, we saw the creation of the famous gastronomic societies, which the Basques enjoy so much, which is perhaps because we like to have a place to get together and at the same time to get away from arguing with the etxekoandre [housewife].
Therefore, it is due to a series of factors. I’d say they make up a triangular figure: the grandmother, the more modern cooking of French origin and the gastronomic societies among friends; that is the origin of Basque cuisine, we don’t need any more explanations. And that was joined by what I mentioned earlier about industry, which began to take on great importance in the Basque Country, particularly in Bizkaia, and the fact that at the beginning in the gastronomic sense there was a great British emphasis. The English had a great influence on the Basque Country, particularly Bizkaia.
In this sense it has all been like a kind of paella made of different ingredients, which have made a really good rice dish.
So it is evident that we have not always had good food.
That is a myth.
Because the Basque Country has obviously been poor, and...
Of poor origin. We mustn’t forget that...
I was going to say that Busca Isusi mentioned, in reference to the sauce used in the “bacalao al pil-pil” dish [Cod in pil-pil sauce], that as our ancestors did not have suitable ingredients for cooking (no oil to make it tasty) and they had to move the pan slowly on the heat to make the fish break down into that sauce that had been made with such care and patience. And this is where merit lies.
Undoubtedly, and they also had to make sure it was a substantial delicacy. They need one dish that could feed a whole family, which at that time contained ten to twelve children. My wife, for example, is from a family of eleven children. It is not the case nowadays, but at that time they had to find a homemade dish that would feed the whole family. They had to invent something that was substantial enough to feed all the members of the household. Of course, cod was ideal, it’s pure oil. That was how they did it and that was why that particular dish was invented, just like the fried potato omelette has always existed in the farmhouses. It’s understandable. Those omelettes our grandmothers or mothers made. Family-sized omelette that didn’t have much egg as they were mainly potato and onion. But of course they had to feed the family in the evening, and with the grandparents, their sons and daughters, the odd unmarried aunt, the children etc. there were 16 people at the table. That is some daily budget my friend.
Did Luís Irizar have a grandmother?
Yes, of course, but unfortunately I never got to meet her. My mother died young at the age of 53, my father..., well, fathers always have fewer links to the home. Mine emigrated to America and my brothers and sisters and I were born in Havana.
So, with no grandmother and no mother, who taught you how to cook?
Nobody taught me how to cook, at first it was something that came from me. I lived and studied with the monks in Arantzazu. I then went to Forua in Bizkaia. And that’s how it started. I was a pretty good student. And I later decided to leave the religious path. I was offered work in an office, but I didn’t like the idea as my preferences lay with art. I wanted to do something that was related to art, even if it was confectionery. My family had a restaurant in San Sebastián, in Igeldo, called Buenavista. My elder brother worked in the Provincial Council but had a second job at the María Cristina Hotel, doing the accounts, and he knew the owner who ran the hotel, and he told him about me. The owner said “If your brother wants to work we can offer him a start in the kitchen and he will be able to learn cake and pastry making because the two things go hand in hand”.
How old were you at the time?
Sixteen when I started work at the María Cristina. That was at the time when my family had always had a little restaurant.
Also in Havana?
No, not in Havana. My mother and her sister had a tiny little restaurant in Guanabacoa, a village near Havana.
I’ve heard of it. It is famous for the Santería religion...
That’s it. That was where they set up a small restaurant... for the Basque pelota players. They set up a guesthouse and the pelota players stayed there when they played in Havana in those days. Later on, back in Donostia, we had a small restaurant, Buenavista, in Igeldo. So some of it did come from my family, however, I focused on the more artistic side of gastronomy.
So your first “melting pot” was the María Cristina Hotel...
Yes, the first one. I spent the first three years of my apprenticeship there. I was lucky enough to have wonderful local head chefs. I could never forget the first one, Adolfo Cormenzana, from Donostia, who was a great artist. He was my first teacher and therefore my first school was the María Cristina Hotel. Three years of learning there and I moved on to the Monte Igeldo Restaurant, which was at that time a luxury establishment run by the Garagorri family. There, I took another step forwards and later, with their help, I was able to start work at the Jockey restaurant in Madrid, which was the best restaurant in Spain, and it was obviously very difficult to get to work there.
After that you went to England...
Before that I worked in France. When I left Madrid, I spent a summer in the restaurant in Igeldo and from there I was lucky enough to go to France. And I say lucky, because I was at the age to do my military service but I got out of it because my father was in his sixties. Despite this, it was impossible to go abroad but I was extremely lucky to receive the backing of a minister, due to certain circumstances, and I was granted a passport. They did me a great favour, as not all young people were able to leave Spain. So I had the opportunity of working in Paris, in a good company. That was my first mainstay, the first backbone from which to learn the trade.
I went to England years later. I returned to Donostia, I established myself and worked with my family at first, and later set up the Central Bar Restaurant in Lasarte. That is when I was given the opportunity to work in England, as head chef in a Spanish restaurant. And I did indeed go.
I believe it was the Martínez Restaurant...
I’ve been there... In London, close to Piccadilly... I had dinner there in 1969.
When it was a good restaurant...
Looking back over your first years of training, it’s clear that you wanted to reach God through prayer and in the end you have done so through gastronomy.
Along this path we reach Euromar. How did that happen?
Another new stage. Besides being a chef I have always liked teaching. I was born with it. In England, I became the head chef of the Hilton Hotel. And at the same time, I was also in charge of training the youngsters for the same company. I had a double task, in the kitchen and as a teacher to the English lads who came to work at the Hotel. It was there that I consolidated my desire to teach, something that had already been brewing for along time.
When I was in England, a rumour went around that a cookery school was going to be opened in the Basque Country. The only one in Spain at that time was the school in Madrid and a small one in Seville. And that was it. From San Sebastián, my brother told me that several businessmen were interested in the idea, and they wanted to know if I would be part of it. Who wouldn’t want to go back to their home town! The idea finally got off the ground, although it took some time. Several locations were considered, but the constructor Dionisio Barandiarán, who owned the Euromar complex, called us and after several meetings I ended up in charge of running the hotel and setting up the school there. And that’s how we started.
As I had come from England, and had also spent a short time in Switzerland, I had acquired ideas about teaching gastronomy that were ahead of the times. And in that sense, it can be said that Switzerland is at the head. I learnt a great deal from the Swiss, which I retained and brought to Zarautz.
What year was that?
That was in 1967. We opened with a small group of young people, who were both employees and students at the same time. They were not employed on the payroll, but they were workers at the hotel, that is, they were obliged to attend the school and at the same time they held positions at the hotel, such as receptionists, waiters and waitresses, chefs, porters etc., in order to learn the reality of the business that surrounded gastronomy.
We started out training and we were lucky enough to produce an elite group of first-rate professionals. I have to stress that they really were amazing. And it is clear to see. I always encouraged them to better themselves, to be ambitious in their profession. To not be content with just being one of many and to try and stand out from the rest. And it is perhaps thanks to this and the teaching system, which was very direct (we would spend the entire day together), that the school made great progress and produced very good professionals. And that was Euromar.
How long did you spend running the school?
Three years, as I was offered the chance to go to Madrid. One of my students was José Mari Larregi, whose family originated from Elizondo, although he was born in Mexico. His father and his two uncles were Basque-Navarre emigrants to Mexico, who had made money there and decided to open a hotel in Spain. Which they did, it was the Alcalá Hotel in Madrid.
As I said, his son was studying with me and one day, his father, Bautista, came to the school and offered me the position of Manager of his hotel in Madrid. I liked the idea and decided to take on a new challenge. And that’s how I ended the Zarautz experience and I handed over my post as Director of the School to the first ever student to have attended, none other than Pedro Subijana. The truth is he had been a very good student. And he stayed on and took my place.
A large number of future chefs have passed through this school and experienced your expertise, and are now well-known by all. They are there as representatives of what we could call progressive Basque cuisine.
That is undoubtedly the case.
And you could be considered as the father of all of that...
Yes, because I’m the one who put the idea into action. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, I had the advantage of having been abroad in a primordial period for teaching and I acquired knowledge from countries that were more advanced than ours. Circumstances of life. They hadn’t suffered any civil wars, although there had been a European war, but that had not affected them as directly as Spain was affected by the Spanish Civil War.
Switzerland was a rich nation, France was a country which, despite having suffered somewhat, was in a good position. England was also in a good situation and appeared to be economically strong. I made what I observed around Europe my own and transmitted it here.
Anyway, you mentioned that you didn’t have a grandmother, and the truth is, if your grandmother had witnessed the transformation from eating as we were accustomed to before 1975, to such a different kind of food which led to some very strange things appearing on our tables, it would have been a terrible blow for her...
A shock, without a doubt. Although, the world gets gradually used to everything in the end, but at first it would have been a shock, because a grandmother at that time, who had to cook in very difficult circumstances, due to the lack of products and money, faced with such a different world would have said “And what’s that?”. But that is the reality. Slowly but surely it started to change and we have reached the current levels.
The truth is that we often look back and smile, because some of us actually thought that someone was pulling our leg...
It’s true, it seemed like a joke.
We have gradually overcome doubts, distrust, but there is still some way to go... in that respect...
Of course there is some way to go! It’s good for there to be something still to do...
Has the jatuna or Basque “food lover”, the one that goes to the gastronomic society, accepted nouvelle cuisine well?
In general, I would say that they have accepted it with curiosity. But there is a bit of everything. There are those that have welcomed it exceptionally well, but they are in the minority. They are mainly the gourmets, who look for something different in life, who want to see something new. But the great majority is not like that, and they have accepted it as a curiosity. “What’s going on with these youngsters, who are changing the culinary scene?” But they have accepted it, and even more so, with the great fortune that the Basques usually give a certain priority to eating well. I’m not sure if it something in-bred in us or is a result of going hungry for so long, but we want to learn and eat the best food. I’m not sure; I don’t know the reasons why. I often get asked: “Did you become a chef because of the hunger you experienced in Arantzazu, during those post-war years?” Maybe.
But the truth is that this nouvelle cuisine has been accepted very well by some and by others with curiosity, and there is a third contingent, the traditional ones, that will never be changed. They are pure tradition, which isn’t a bad thing either...
So, it seems that it can’t be said that the Basque people are very traditional...
They are traditional, but not so narrow-minded that they don’t want to look beyond traditional cuisine. They are open to discovering other cuisines and are very inquisitive. That is why even if Basque people don’t end up liking a dish they eat one day on a trip or on holiday in Hungry, they try it. They are inquisitive, they try it and then they either accept it or not. That is clear. But at least they have the virtue of not closing their mind to everything, they are also open to new things. And this is where experimenting with new recipes comes from.
Earlier, you gave us the name Adolfo Cormenzana, are there any more references regarding cuisine that have influenced your career?
Yes, one of the Garmendia brothers, from San Sebastián, magnificent chefs. Once of them was head chef at the Ritz Hotel in Madrid for many years, and the other was above me at the Monte Igeldo Restaurant. I don’t know if it was because I was from Guipúzcoa, but the main teachers who have trained me have also been from Guipúzcoa. There was Andrés Azaldegi, owner of a famous restaurant in San Sebastián, which, together with the Nicolasa, was the best there was at that time in Donostia. Andrés Azaldegi was the typical Basque man, and he had trained in Paris. He had impressive technical cooking skills. As I said, I was from the restaurant in Igeldo, Buenavista, which was a very simple place. In the evenings it was very characteristic to give early dinners of small cuttlefish in their own ink, potato omelette, plates of cured ham, etc. which were homemade. All the well-off girls from San Sebastián used to come up with their boyfriends. Andrés Azaldegi’s daughters came up a lot and enjoyed my aunt’s cooking, with my help. He occasionally came with his daughters and became interested in what we cooked, and also in what I did, to the extent that one day he said: “Luis... I know you have worked as a chef in Paris, and I would like to take you to work with me. So you better get used to the idea” For me, talking to Andrés Azaldegi was the utmost, but I didn’t think I was good enough to go and run the Azaldegi restaurant, because he already had good professionals. But he insisted, like a good Basque would. And although I left to work abroad, I came back two years later and he got hold of me. And he took me to his restaurant as the head chef, which for me was another very important step, because every day I spent with Andrés Azaldegi, I learnt something new, because it wasn’t just about cooking, but also about organisation, managing a squad of chefs, designing set menus, choosing select dishes etc. All of that is training, and these were new steps in my career.
Are you still learning nowadays?
You always need to learn, and even more so nowadays. You evolve in all aspects. Which is why I’m aware that both with regard to cooking and technologically I’m being left behind. I am aware of where I am lacking, which is why for some years now I only cook for, let’s say, pleasure. I sometimes come to the School and give a Master Class, as the students call it. But in the real world my daughter is miles better than me as regards technology, because she is a constant studier, the ones that analyse anything that is analysable. She has a much higher level than me, without a doubt. We have to admit that things evolve and highly trained youngsters are better day by day.
Has Basque cuisine made us more international?
Yes. I believe it has given us the opportunity to become better known abroad. It has opened the doors, although at first it was a very slow and very difficult process, because we weren’t actually well received or well rated. But they opened the door just a little, and we have gradually made more room for ourselves, we have kept pushing and when they finally realised they said: “Hey, they’re not that bad, they’re good workers, people you can rely on”.
And it is now that they are considering us. But they took their time. And I can assure you that they’ve taken their time because I have experienced it firsthand, as I spent many years helping to organise the Pierre Taittinger culinary award. This is a contest aimed at chefs and organised by them. It is the only one that has a panel exclusively made up of head chefs and it is based in Paris. I was president of the Spanish panel for many years and our job was to present Spanish chefs. And I have worked on the panel with a series of chefs, the most distinguished ones from France. Chefs from all the represented nations were present and we had to choose. I remember at the beginning we were considered to be inferior and of a lower category. As the good Basque that I am, I didn’t talk very much and aimed to prove them wrong. In my opinion, it is the best policy, as you gradually win people over, and they find out for themselves. You discuss it with them and observe before you contribute your cuisine and your products. Five years on, the tendency started to change and they gave us a better reception. They started to see that we provided well-trained chefs.
But we earned all of this, and opening out to international cuisine has been slow. But if it hadn’t started by learning slowly but surely and making room for ourselves at the door, without giving up, we would be behind now. And the truth is that, despite the fact the French are still very chauvinistic and very French, they receive us well.
What are the most esteemed dishes of that Basque cuisine that is known in the international context?
Unfortunately, I once organised a Basque Cuisine Fortnight at the Walford Astoria in New York and the Manager came to me and said: “could you make us a paella please Luis” And even though I underlined that it is not typical of our cuisine, he insisted... and he got his way and we made him the paella they had heard so much about.
Aside from this, the most highly rated dishes of our cuisine, perhaps the simplest ones but the most common ones, are Merluza a la Vasca [Basque-style hake], a real must wherever we have gone, and in the few places where we could find them, Kokotxas [fleshy part of the hake’s jaw], as the great speciality, and Angulas [baby eels]. Once, on arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto where we did another Basque week, we had brought around 60 kilos of baby eels with us. And we put the baby eels on the menu as the dish of the day. The Canadians had never tried baby eels, apart for a few exceptions, but they liked them, and the Manager, who was of French origin, started to get worried when the stocks got low, to the extent that he asked me to keep all that was left for him.
Undoubtedly, Bacalao al pil-pil [Cod in pil-pil sauce] has always been a reference, along with Bacalao a la vizcaína [Biscay-style cod]. Small cuttlefish as a fancy dish. People were a bit surprised, “A black sauce?” They had never seen one, and they rejected it at first but when they tried it... How amazing! We have also made our contribution to international cuisine with crab.
And what dish do you make the best?
I wouldn’t know which one to say, I like everything, and I’ve had to make dishes from very different cuisines. Of course, I love our cuisine, and there are dishes that I’m crazy about, like a good fish soup. The French make the Bouillabaisse which is wonderful, but we also have a fish soup, which when made properly is also amazing.
It has to have lobster, doesn’t it?
Of course it has to have lobster! Well, it should have... if possible. Although it is not essential, as you can make a great fish soup, like the simple one made in a gastronomic society, which tastes really nice but has more bread than chunks of fish. Why? Because in a gastronomic society it has to cost a reasonable price so that every one can eat it, but it is usually delicious. Yes, I’ve always liked fish soup. Since you’ve brought up lobster, I have to say that American-style lobster is one of my favourite dishes. I have also appreciated game very much. Woodcock terrine has been one of my great specialities. I was called “Rey de la becada” [King of the woodcock] because I defended this dish, as in my opinion it is the finest poultry we have.
But I have to say that I always enjoyed working, not only with those luxurious dishes, but also with the simplest ones. I’m crazy about lentils, for example. Some people ask me “Who invites you to lunch?” And I answer that anyone can invite me. If I get there and they give me some well prepared lentils, without forgetting a glass of wine and little piece of Idiazabal cheese... with the lentils, the cheese and the wine you’ve made me happy, I don’t need anything else.
We have made an international Basque cuisine. Can we talk about a ranking of cuisines?
It’s difficult, and moreover I don’t suppose one could be entirely neutral. I would say there is a ranking, like in football, with some countries in the top category, some in the second and others in the third. And in that classification, I believe there are very important countries, such as France, China, Italy, Mexico, Peru and Japan. There are others in the second category that could be Germany and the US, which aren’t so creative and haven’t had such a gastronomical base. They are good cuisines but they’re not at the level we’re talking about.
I’m a bit surprised about Peru...
Yes, because Peru is an Andean country with many curious characteristics. In those countries they have truly interesting products: new fruits, new baby vegetables which we look for a lot, perhaps due to snobbishness, but this snobbishness ends up in a dish that is interesting for everyone. And in that gastronomic world, we carefully follow any new condiments bursting on the scene, something which has also come from Brazil, a whole collection of recipes to be discovered. Still today, with everything we think we know, IBM sure that if I was in a town in the heart of the Amazon, I would be stunned by the new things I would see the local cooks doing. And all of that is learning.
You mentioned that you learn something new every day. What do you teach at the Luis Irizar Cookery School?
Here we mainly teach basic cookery. You shouldn’t put the cart before the horses, you start with the basics. And basic cookery for us, since we have mentioned rankings, is French cuisine. And together with French cuisine, we teach Basque cuisine. Which is to be expected seeing as we are based in this country, apart from the fact that we consider it to be of a very high level.
Therefore, the base is Basque-French cuisine with aspects from other cuisines. In the second year we teach a bit about Italian cuisine, a bit about Indian, Peruvian, Mexican cuisine, etc. to ensure they also learn about other things in general. Without specialising in any one, because that would be impossible, as we don’t have the time or the resources. But they get to know a little about everything.
And we also teach Spanish cuisine from all other regions. We train them to make paella, Arroz a banda [rice and fish dish from Valencia], Cocido madrileño [type of stew from Madrid], good Galician octopus... That way they also learn about Spanish geography in general.
In addition to strictly culinary matters, they are taught everything a chef should know: punctuality, cleanliness, taste, to be a hard worker and, of course, the theory, which is essential for good practical cookery training. The students must be capable of correctly understanding the texts, learning the origin of the raw materials, and every day they must be able to design a different menu, with various different aspects. That is, we shouldn’t limited ourselves to doing a starter, a main course and a dessert. No. We will prepare a starter, a main course and a dessert but we will also make the day’s bread. And if there is enough time, we will also make another dish off the menu. Today they are learning to make partridge terrine. And another day, small cuttlefish stuffed with crab. We diversify so they get to know a bit of everything.
Where do your students come from?
At first there was a large proportion of Basque students, but in the Basque Country we are lucky and there are now many different teaching methods, on the one hand, because there are more schools, and on the other because many restaurants have doubled as schools, the proportion of local students soon went down. Nowadays I would say around 35% are from the Basque Country and Navarra, particularly Navarra, and the rest are from very different places. There are Japanese, we have North Americans, and at present there is a Korean, an Israeli and there are many Mexicans, Colombians and Argentineans. And also from the different regions of Spain, particularly from the Canary Islands, Valencia, Madrid and Catalunya.
How many students are there?
The maximum is 52. In each year there are 26 students. And when they leave, after two years, they already have a post in companies. They start as assistant chefs, obviously, as you can’t be considered a true professional in just two years. From the start we get it into their heads that just because they spend two years with us they’re not going to leave as a Juan Mari Arzak or a Ferrán Adriá! We have to be honest with them, and not mislead anyone as they will be trained as a young professional, an excellent assistant, better trained than in any other place, but no more. They shouldn’t think that they know everything, and they have to learn that they will have to put up with many bosses, which will perhaps help them to learn more. And that, in my opinion, is the basis of teaching, not to get at someone but rather to make them see that they still have a lot to take in.
Luís, imagine I’m going to take some people, who have come from Madrid, for example, to a restaurant and I want to offer them a business lunch, what would you recommend?
People from Madrid have a great concept of Basque gastronomy. I would start with a small appetiser, in which I’d put two or three kokotxitas [fleshy part of the hake’s jaw], simply fried, a small crêpe filled with crab and a few goose barnacles.
Next, if you like, I’d give them a hot consommé or a fine cream soup, and if not I’d go straight to a fish dish, for instance people from Madrid really like sea bass. I’d make a stuffed sea bass in pastry, and to finish, if they are still hungry, particularly if the guests are young, I would give them a small delicacy, a small thin duck breast with a cherry sauce.
And then, a dessert. If they have had a light lunch I’d offer them some of our cheese, an Idiazabal from this area. And to finish, a fine ice cream made with cider or calvado [a cider spirit]. And if they have eaten enough, I’d give them a fruit juice or a fruit salad, that is, something light on the stomach.
I’d ensure the business with that, wouldn’t I?
With that you’d finalise the deal.
And if I wanted to win someone’s heart over dinner? What would you recommend?
I’d have to look for something more striking. I’d start with a well dressed salad, a combination of lobster with small cuttlefish and cod, for example, with all kinds of modern vegetables, well presented on the plate with plenty of decoration, and an ultra-fine vinaigrette, lightly perfumed with truffle or fine chives.
For the main course I would make a fish dish using a local fish, perhaps red mullet fillets, completely clean, French style, with no bones, with a sauce that is slightly acidulated with a few drops of lemon and some avocado mixed with potatoes. If the chance arises and it is hunting season, as I said, even though woodcock is practically prohibitive nowadays, because you are not allowed to offer it at restaurants and not even hunt it. But if it is possible, why not? A little woodcock in Salmí sauce would be tremendous. She should be happy with that. And if that is not possible, I would go for a fine local dish like loin stuffed with lamb, with an ultra-fine salad and very special potatoes made with almonds.
And then to finish, I would make her a selection of our pastries. Some of which are really very good. And I’d combine them with an apple mousse, which is very appropriate, with ice cream made with local yoghurt or cheese, and then some Gateau Basque, always in miniature because cooking in small doses seems to appeal when you go to a luxury restaurant. All served with a good local wine, she would be more than happy.
It’s clear: the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. Let’s move on to other dinner guests: In this harsh environment we live in with regard to the political aspect, if I had the opportunity of getting certain important figures from our scene to sit down together around a table, Rajoy, Zapatero, Sanz, Ibarretxe and even Sarkozy. What would you offer me? Would you give them all the same dish or would give each of them a...?
The same dish for all of them... Never! By studying each one of them a little, I would try to place myself in their homelands, because the heart always has the last word. Naturally, if it was Rajoy, of Galician origin, I would think of something from this region. For Sarkozy it would have to be French cuisine of course, like in the good restaurants of Paris. For Zapatero, we know he’s from León, so we would need to go to Castilla. And for Ibarretxe, what better than some dishes from Basque cuisine?
I would design the menu along those lines. Because at that time they would be doubly happy. Not because they would be eating good food, but rather because whilst eating well they would remember their homeland, and that, in my opinion,... what we said earlier about our grandmothers, runs deep inside you, even if you are the President of the Government.
So that plan could improve relations between them all, and therefore lead to a better climate...
Good God yes! If we started like that, we’d be a lot better off than we are now, where we can’t agree on anything, which is incomprehensible. They should take a look at what the chefs of Guipúzcoa have done; those of us who started the movement and have taken it to the whole of the Basque Country. We have enabled different businesses which are poles apart to form a unit, as well as to become more dignified, and nowadays we work together. Each with our own business, but at the same time united. That has been an example in Spain. In politics they could learn a little from us chefs.
I’m really pleased to hear that you think our political situation can be resolved, at least through cookery. I’ve got a question about what we say over and over again about our children and youngsters eating badly, and that we haven’t got them used to eating healthily. What you’ve just mentioned now, about there being a good rapport between chefs, why can’t you project it out a bit more to encourage our youngsters to eat a bit better and stay away from fast food...?
I think that in an individual sense, in a family sense, we are trying to improve. In the Basque Country we are privileged in that aspect. But, of course, we cannot forget that we have tremendous competition, particularly from American fast food, which encourages us to eat at McDonald's. It is a way of consuming and at a good price and that interests many types of society. That channel means people get used to eating badly and too quickly.
In the Basque Country, we try to defend the correct aspect but it is difficult to tackle such a powerful reality. Because we can give our children the best food at home, but when they see McDonald's advertising every day... and on top of the plasticized hamburger they offer them a ticket to the cinema... This all acts against us. We fight as hard as we can but you can’t forget the great influence of money and of the large specialised companies. In the end, whether we want to or not, we are becoming Americanised, and in America everyone one eats junk food. And they are so big they can’t fit through the door.
We have to avoid that here, but we must stress that we need to put a lot of effort into it. Most of children and adolescents now eat at school, in the ikastolas [Basque schools]. So we need to be vigilant and set a direction on which to focus school children’s diets. To guide the centres and the industrial companies that provide the school meals to ensure they give our children and grandchildren healthy meals. By studying well-balanced diets and menus. That requires good general planning, which should go hand in hand with the authorities.
Moving on to another matter: many chefs have a reputation for being drinkers...
That is true, but you don’t have to be a drinker to be a good chef. But it is true that we use wine and liqueurs a lot in cooking. And they enhance the result. Logically, if you don’t drink you don’t have that ability to know the exact taste of the sauce.
But a good chef doesn’t need to drink a lot. They only need to taste a few drops of wine to know whether it is good or not. However, they have to be trained on those few drops or they will never learn. And with a liqueur..., you don’t need to drink a whole glass of whisky to know what it tastes like. But there is no doubt that being a bit of a drinker is good for a chef.
Luís, before we come to an end, I would like to ask you a question that concerns me to a certain extent,... I don’t drink alcohol; can I still be a good food lover?
Well! Someone who is going to eat one of the menus we have been discussing and orders water to drink is committing sacrilege. It is sacrilegious because you lose a whole range of aromas, of different tastes.
So if you see me one day in a restaurant eating a plate of beans with water, you will excommunicate me.
I’ll excommunicate you.
I’ll have to be careful to make sure you don’t see me. In any case, what I really like are desserts. I could even sacrifice a starter or a main course for a dessert...
It’s an important factor.
What do you recommend to end a good meal?
What I mentioned before. If you’ve eaten a lot, a light dessert. If you haven’t eaten much, I would make two desserts, the first would be a selection of cheeses, because, unfortunately, the Spanish don’t fully understand cheeses. There are few restaurants that offer a cheese board. Why? Because the customers don’t eat them. In France it’s a must. Wherever you go, you’ll have a wide selection of different cheeses, which is lovely to see. In Spain, there is no end of great cheeses in all regions, and we forget about them. So, on the day you haven’t eaten very much, leave some room and have a bit of cheese and then complement it with a dessert of fine patisserie: a brioche, a puff pastry, or a soufflé.
If you have eaten a lot and you’re a bit full, the cheese would be too much and you’d have to go for a cold dessert. This gives you a wide range of sorbets, ice creams, mousses, no end of cold desserts that are wonderful,... I really like mango milkshake with vanilla ice cream. Those who don’t drink, like you, will drink water —how awful!— but for those who enjoy their food and their drink, a good drink will help to finish a meal, a good liqueur. As Busca Isusi said, it is the best digestif. If you like sweet things, you can have a good Patxarán [Basque liqueur made of anis and sloes], or a good Aguardiente [grape marc spirit] from Galicia or Les Landes or Normandy. They help you to digest the food and that is important.
And to end this conversation, have missed out any dishes?
I don’t know... maybe just a piece of advice, which is that professionals should try to discover the soul of each type of cuisine. To look for that type of “grandmother’s cooking” we mentioned, in France, as it exists and it is a type of cooking that will never be forgotten and will always be welcome. And the same here, in our Basque Country. Let’s not focus on too many new developments, wanting to find out what is yet to exist, which is leading us to forget about the beans from Tolosa that our grandmothers made which were amazing. Why? Because they spent the whole morning making us a stew and had the patience to leave the pot on the heat for four or five hours and then you sat down at the table, and you ate them with a black pudding from a pig that had been recently slaughtered, what could taste better than that?
As Bocusse once said, at a Paternina wine event, to mark the Wine Cellar’s 75th anniversary, at which he was the guest of honour, when he was given Patatas a la riojana [potatoes cooked with chorizo]. And after trying them, he reiterated this by asking this question: “Why do you want to invent another type of cuisine if you’ll never find anything better than this?”.
And it’s true. As I said before, if I’m given a good plate of lentils, then that dish will be very difficult to beat. Why? Because it comes from the essential cooking of our grandmothers, who were a world of patience and love. It is difficult to beat that.