Eneko Atxa’s restaurant Azurmendi retained its 3 Michelin Stars for 2015 when the new classification for Spain was announced on 19 November. The restaurant, perched on a hillside just outside Bilbao does not need any introduction among food connoisseurs. Ranked 26th in the World’s 50 Best restaurants, it is also the winner of the sustainability award.
Eneko, the 37-year-old chef of the restaurant told Food and Wine Gazette, when we interviewed him in Cologne during Chef Sache 2014 last month that the most important honour for him is to finish a service and ensure that his guests are happy. “I always say that we have to fight every day to ensure that our guests are happy. If we achieve this every day for 365 days a year, then we win. This to me is the most important honour. Obviously awards are important because they help us to get more people to the restaurant. We are not obsessed with the awards, but with the guest. For us, satisfaction of each guest is the most important,” Eneko said.
This Spanish chef is making a name for himself for many reasons. His inventive cuisine is among the most innovative in the world but he is also extremely conscious of the environment. I asked him why he is so focused on protecting the environment. “We are a very young team. I am 37 years old and I don’t think about the future. I am dreaming about the future. And in my dream, the future will be more sustainable and the environment will be more important than it is today. That is why when we decided to build the new restaurant, we made a huge compromise with the environment. The landscape and environment is part of my discourse.”
Atxa’s philosophy is centred around his team who he considers his family. “Our philosophy is to work together as one family. It is like we are welcoming our guests home. We want to welcome guests as if they are visiting our home. This is an integral part of the experience we want to provide. After that, the landscape and knowledge we have is important but what is crucial is the family sensation.”
Azurmendi is different. The ‘complex’ includes the restaurant, his house, a wine cellar, a hall which serves as a venue for large events, a garden and a small bistro. “The restaurant is designed to pay industrial homage to the old steel industry of Bilbao,” Eneko said.
The complex has been built in a way which integrates with the surrounding environment. But it also follows the basic principles of sustainability. It is environmentally friendly, using renewable energies to carry out its operations, recycling the waste generated, making use of the rainwater and heating and cooling the facilities through geothermal energy created from 38 holes dug into the ground.
The Spanish chef says that Azurmendi is not just a restaurant but also his home. “So when we welcome guests, it is like they are visiting our home. After you reserve a table and come to our restaurant, you are first welcomed and then given a guided tour of the building. We want our guests to be like members of our family, like friends. We have a vegetable garden even though we are not self sufficient. We want to show our guests that the cooking process does not start in the kitchen but much earlier, i.e. with our suppliers who are the ones that inspire our dishes.”
“The kitchen has always been a central part of our family home when I was growing up and I want this to be the same at the restaurant. For us, the kitchen is the centre of our restaurant. So, we welcome all our guests into the kitchen before they sit at table. We offer an aperitif in the kitchen”
The Spanish chef says that he tries to help producers from the Basque country. “We could buy different products from around the world but we choose to help the producers and suppliers who are close to us. This is also an important part of our identity.”
Spanish cuisine is considered to be one of the most innovative in the world. I also ask him about Ferran Adria and his influence on today’s Spanish chefs. Ata replies that each project is different. “Each restaurant has a different team. Everybody has a different personality. Our gastronomy is richer when chefs build a project for themselves.”
Eneko on mentors
Who are your mentors, I ask. Eneko replies that it would not be correct to mention just one mentor. “I learn every day. I learn from anyone in my team, my mother my grandmother. Everyday is a learning experience.”
Eneko on creativity and innovation
His cuisine is incredibly inventive. For a taste of what he creates, you may want to check out our earlier report on his presentation at Chef Sache. I ask him about how he finds inspiration. “Inspiration is very difficult to explain. For example, I showcased the potato plate. When we started working on this dish, we were working with snails. But we ended up with a potato. If you ask me why, I don’t know or cannot say. When we are working, we start to see different things, different possibilities and we adapt along the way. In a way creativity is like nature or like a person. You are always changing, sometimes you are happy and sometimes you are sad. It is the same with dishes. There are days when we start working with an idea and it works immediately. We make that dish and its fantastic. But that is not the norm. The norm is for us to keep changing every day.”
Eneko on the future
I ask him about the trends he sees in the gastronomic world and where he wants to reach. “Actually we were having this discussion with my team a few days ago. We spoke a lot about the future and the present. I will answer your question with one of my favourite quotes. I prefer to enjoy the road rather than the destination. We are always thinking about the road and not the destination.”
Eneko on Malta
Eneko Atxa was also involved in a pop-up restaurant which opened in Valletta, the capital of Malta, for 100 days in summer. It was the first time that a Michelin-starred chef had put his name to a project on this island in the Mediterranean under the name Aziamendi. Given I come from Malta I had to ask him what he thought about this experience and whether he sees potential in Malta. “The experience we had was fantastic. The people and the weather are fantastic. The Maltese are very curious about gastronomy and I think that this is the way forward. The Maltese are very interested in discovering new things and flavours. We also worked with fantastic produce. The fruit, the tomatoes, tuna, lots of fresh herbs, local rabbit and pork are all exceptional,” he said.