When Spain’s hottest young chef travels, he does so with gusto. ELLE KWAN meets ENEKO ATXA
FOUR MEN SAT at a table in Amber recently, pouring red wine, laughing and chattering. When waiters appeared and proudly presented a dish of abalone on a bed of polished pebbles, one of the men, as many diners do today, reached for his iPhone and tapped.
But the photo-snapper wasn’t just any food aficionado enjoying a light-hearted lunch. He was Eneko Atxa, the youngest chef in Spain to achieve three Michelin stars.
On a break from preparing the menu for the second evening of a three-night pop-up event at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Atxa appeared upbeat, unbothered in being interrupted midway through lunch for an interview. He was enjoying discovering new dishes in Hong Kong, he said in a thick Spanish accent, and was looking forward to travelling next to San Francisco on another tasting mission, during which, he admitted, the phone would come in useful for more image collection.
The iPhone is a constant reference source, he says, part of a new toolkit necessary for today’s chefs. The photos he takes are handy when he hits “chef’s block,” and seeks new ideas. “If you’re stuck on how to present a dish, you can…” He mimes scrolling through the images and then a light bulb going off: a winning idea! The photos also work as quick info bursts on social media – like so many successful chefs of his generation, he’s a keen Twitter user.
Technology is not the only generational difference that Atxa notices in his trade. At just 36, his has already been a long career, begun when he was 15, at culinary school, and completed in Michelin-starred kitchens across Spain. Those were days of head-chef ferocity, where punishments for trainees caused shame and self-derision and where dishes were prepared with rigid practice and unswerving dedication to technique. “It was a different kitchen, very strict, very hard,” says Atxa.
He wanted something different for his own restaurants – at Azurmendi in Spain, which opened in 2005, and Aziamendi, which opened earlier this year in Phuket’s Iniala Beach House. Technique he kept, but a modern approach where ideas are tested and shared brought a sense of camaraderie among the chefs. His is a tight team where every member has his place, but where creativity can and is encouraged to strike with regularity.
He set the Spanish restaurant upon a hillside in the Basque country, where he was born. Its striking glass-and-steel bioclimatic structure made with photo-voltaic cells, located just outside of Bilbao, set a new standard for sustainable dining in Spain. In 2012, Azurmendi picked up its third Michelin star.
A dining experience at the restaurant is thoroughly modern too. A first course is served outside the main hall, in the midst of the restaurant’s vegetable and herb gardens. From there, more starters are eaten in the greenhouse, and then diners consume a sophisticated course served from a hamper, picnic style. Contemporary, crafted cuisine takes its lead from local ingredients and heritage recipes infused with new ideas.
And if the idea of an open kitchen seems theatrical, then the ritual passage through the Azurmendi kitchens, the next stage in a visit there, is a real backstage pass with access to all areas. In the dining room proper, guests are wowed both by a show of cuisine dedicated to locally produced food and by the dramatic presentation of it. Beetroot dust represents soil from which sprout seasonal vegetables. Broth served from teapots masquerades as tea. Eggs are cooked inside out courtesy of an injection of hot truffle consommé. Basque delights are evident, from infused red-onion skins to anchovies to Iberico ham. The idea of a meal, says Atxa, is interactive, and should unravel like a book, chapter by chapter.
In a globalised world increasingly becoming “the same”, where currencies, trends and stock options merge, food by chefs such as Atxa, or René Redzepi at Noma, or France’s Yannick Alleno, strives to reference a particular geography, history and culture. To feed us a “difference” that we actually crave. “You have to feel like the guest, imagine what is their favourite thing, how do you want them to feel. I always want to discover not just the restaurant, but also the people, the story. The place can speak for you,” says Atxa, through an interpreter.
He admits part of this progression to “food as experience” is consumer-led. In these head-spinning days of expendable income and global travel, iPhones and their currency within social media, and the rise of food TV, chefs have been catapulted to rock-star status, and the consumer demands more from each of them.
But the idea of superstar status revolts him. “I hate the ‘superchef’ idea,” he says. He insists on being called Eneko, not chef, even in the kitchen, and has promptly turned down the offers for TV shows that have arrived since he became well known. When guests enter the kitchen at Azurmendi it isn’t tense. Instead, cooks prompt them to ask questions and look around.
This warm welcome mentality stems most likely from Atxa’s mother, a fabulous family cook, he says, whose simple traditional dishes like black squid or garlic soup are elevated with four quintessential elements: “Incredible product; hands; knowledge of the old Basque recipes; love and passion for family and friends.”
Whatever Atxa does is close to wizardry, but he modestly says all he really needs in the kitchen are his cooks and ingredients. Chefs get too much credit for their work, he says. In Kyoto, studying under the legendary Yoshihiro Murata, Atxa asked where the kaiseki master’s creativity originated. He was surprised to be taken to tea with the Japanese chef’s supplier. “It’s they who have the real information. The products to choose, the season, what tastes good,” he says. Chefs, he argues, are mere interpreters.
Perhaps it’s this notion of home and heritage that keeps Atxa humble. His own place gets Mama’s thumbs up, he says. His father, however, remains unconvinced. Atxa squints, and holds open his palms. “Its just too different for him.”
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