On a perched hill in Larrabetzu on the outskirts of Bilbao, Eneko Atxa, the Spanish chef of acclaimed restaurant Azurmendi is ‘cooking up the future’.
Using Jaki, the basque term for meal and Jakin, the term for knowledge he is building an ecosystem that builds around knowledge and meals. With his idea he wants to foster a sustainable, healthy and a fair society through gastronomy.
Those are the three elements that are the pillars of his work.
Eneko has taken up running recently and he intends to run a full marathon this year. “Running has really helped me to think. It is a way of arriving at the restaurant refreshed or of leaving the restaurant to go home and be able to clear my mind,” he told Food and Wine Gazette. “I’m so convinced of the importance of sport that I insist with the members of my team that they should take up any sport they love,” he said.
The Spanish chef considers running to be an integral part of his creative process and the place where he can think and clear his views. Being healthy is an essential part of what he is doing in a restaurant whose focus has been sustainability since it was built.
In 2012, when he was 35 years old, Eneko decided that he needed to invest in something that would stand the test of time, that would last longer than him. “I started to speak with architects and finally decided to work with a Basque architect Naia Eguino who was the same age as me. She had just five months experience working independently but I felt that she was the right person to carry out the project.
The building is sustainable, it is geothermic with photovoltaic panels, space to collect waste and eventually turn it to compost, storage of all rain water and the whole building was built with recycled material.
Eneko has entered into a collaboration between the restaurant and the village of Larrabetzu. “We have a lot of rubbish that needs to be treated to be composted. What we do is take it every day to the composting area so that every person in the village can use this compost for free when they need to. They also use the compost in their garden.
The restaurant also works on the recovery and use of native spices. They have a local, Franco, who forages whatever they need with a special emphasis to only pick what is necessary.
With a local university, Eneko has also developed a seed bank which is visible to anyone who visits the restaurant. It is showcased near the restaurant’s garden and green house but the Basque chef does not believe that growing your own vegetables is a sustainable approach. “We need our local producers. With our garden we can give an indication of what we do but each producer specialises in growing their produce. We need to value their work. We make use of an onion which was grown by one particular woman. Thanks to our demand and demand from other chefs, now there is a small group of producers that are growing these onions. We help them subliminally. For example, we have many magazines which are asking us for some recipes for Christmas. What we do is to help these producers by referring to the ingredients. When people see the recipes, they learn about the produce and it is a way to add value to the product.”
Given that the restaurant works with a lot of producers they have created a collection point system. “We have found a person who can collect the produce from each producer so there is only one collection that is made. It is easier for the farmers and easier for us. We also have less CO2 because we move one truck instead of many cars thus creating less pollution,” the Spanish chef said.
He believes that in future there could be an eco-transport company that could serve a big community working to decrease traffic on the roads.JAKIN and people
JAKIN (N) is also about people. Eneko believes that work life balance and reconciliation between family and work is essential. “On Monday we are closed and we only have two dinners, on Friday and Saturday. Being a chef does not mean that you have to be at the restaurant all the time. You need time with your family, after the service you need to go home and be with your family,” he said.
“We have noticed that the new generation of chefs are suffering. There are a lot of youngsters who want to be chefs but when they finish school they realise that their friends are enjoying the weekend while they are working. They end up losing their passion. We have the power to change things, to allow passion to flourish and also to give chefs their social life back. We need to find the balance,” he said.
Eneko has been working on this since last January. “We do not want to be romantic dreamers, we are a business and we have to be able to make it work to be able to pay the salaries for everyone. But that also means sensitivity and common sense when it comes to working times.”
restaurant has also come up with what is called The Challenge which is to create a ‘positive competitive spirit’. “We have created a challenge which enables everyone on the kitchen to develop and continue their growth. We create teams and they have to develop a dish or research a product which they present to the rest of the team. This could mean also going to visit a producer. This competition is always done during work time and its where most of our ideas come from . It is friendly but it also forces the team to push forward,” he said.
Eneko is also working on nutrition for his team. “Ana creates a healthy weekly menu of what the team eats. We need to take care of ourselves. We do not deprive ourselves and have a free day each week where one member of the team cooks something different. It could be Matteo preparing an Italian lunch or someone from Mexico preparing a typical Mexican dish. It is also a way for us to get to know another culture and another cooking style.”
He believes that it is essential for his team to be happy and healthy and work. Most, if not all of his staff, started work in the restaurant as trainees. When they started in 2005, he had 12 people working for him but now that figure has gone up to 70. “We are one big happy family and it is great to see the team work together.”
Eneko started working by himself and while he did not really spend time cooking in different restaurants around the world he would go and visit chefs and restaurants around the world for three days to learn their philosophy. “I was not interested in getting to learn the recipes but I wanted to immerse myself and understand the restaurant and the chef’s philosophy,” he said.
Today he does this less and less because he loves to travel with his family but he encourages his staff to follow in his footsteps to the extent that he invests in their travel and experience elsewhere. “It is essential to read and to travel. Reading can compensate for travel because you can understand a lot of things but experiencing things first hands is always better”, he said. “Ultimately, you need to visit restaurants, to enjoy yourself and to understand how others are working.”
Eneko and hospitals
The chef is also conscious of external nutrition. “We have a specific focus on food allergies, aversions and things people cannot or do not want to eat. We have found that with allergies and intolerances more and more guests are having issues. When you book, we always ask you about allergies. If for example someone comes and says they cannot eat nuts, the kitchen knows exactly what they can cook. This helps to reduce panic in the kitchen. The scheme helps the kitchen avoid chaos and at the same time ensure that all demands from customers are taken care of.”
To do this Eneko has also been working with nutritionists to understand the issues that are emerging today. “We believe that it is the responsibility of the chef to address these issues. We started doing it intuitively a long time ago but last year we formalised it. We know we are very small but we’re need to start from somewhere. For chefs, it should be easier because we do not have to think about it.”
For this reason, Eneko has written a book about healthy cooking with each chapter of the book addresses a particular illnesses. “There were recipes that doctors said were not possible so we worked with them to come up with something that they were completely happy with. The recipes are meant to be simple taking no more than 20 to 30 minutes to prepare with Sunday recipes taking a bit longer because people have a bit more timer to cook,” he said.
Through research for this book, Eneko has discovered many things that can now be used to design a menu for hospital patients. “Every year, with the head chef of a hospital kitchen, Eneko and his team show what can be cooked in a hospital. We amend the recipes so that they are suitable for the hospital. We have served our signature mushroom dish in hospital,” he said.
He said it is a win win situation. “We want to show that people can eat well even if they are in hospital. Being in a hospital as a patient shouldn’t mean eating badly. We want to change this and this is a first step,” he said.
Last month, Eneko has also offered a gastronomy factory that serves schools to go to the restaurant and design a menu for school children. “I want to offer my knowledge for free and to work together with them but unfortunately have not yet received a reply. To me it is insulting to see what school children are served. “We need to promote food culture to our children because they will lose the heritage. The kids need to grow experiencing Basque food. My intention is to help out and support but we need to work together to create something better. So far we have not received an answer. We are still waiting for a positive response,” he said.
Eneko said that at first the head chefs of hospitals were afraid not just for the costs but also because of the work. “We try to build confidence because by building confidence we can create something that is permanent. Chefs from the region could eventually sign a menu each day. People will think of a chef not as someone who is a rockstar but someone who can help people. This is the change we want to lead,” he said.
The chef believes that once this is achieved, people from other cities will start to do this.
JAKIN (N) and social responsibility
Eneko is of the view that today chefs have become voices in society. “We need to work on causes and try to make a difference in the world knowing that we are just a voice and a restaurant. We have two options, we are either silent or we decide to take the other road and try to do something. People might say that it is marketing but we believe these are worthy causes worth supporting.”
The chef and his team were shown the Pachacutec kitchen in Peru and today they sponsor the institute. “It was a humbling experience for me to see what was being done in Peru. Gaston Acurio showed me what the young chefs were doing. They would walk a lot of kilometres to go to the institute and learn to cook in Lima even if they did not have any resources. It touched my heart. When I came back, I spoke to the mayor of Bilbao to get help to pay chefs to come here. We made an apartment available and started to bring trainees here from Peru. It was an amazing experience. The first trainee was Elba and she was an amazing chef. Today she works in Peru with Gaston at the highest level. We have been doing this from 2007, welcoming each year someone from Pachacutec. We are looking at more institutes that we can support and help bring people to train them.
JAKIN (N) and the Arts
Eneko leaves nothing to chance. He noticed in Japan that despite the digital age and despite it being a technologically advanced country, they still exchanged business cards. He is working on a sustainable business card by putting seeds in a business cards and also in the menus. In future people will be able to plant the business cards and the menus which will grow into herbs or vegetables.
He is also working on trying to recover as much Basque traditions as possible. We have discovered books that we never realised existed and through these books we are learning a lot about our culture.
“I am also focusing on neuroscience and on looking at the scientific side of pleasure and experience. I want to know how people think when they receive a plate, the sound which accompanies the dish and also the smell. We want to use this knowledge to improve the experience for our customers.”
Even music is not left to chance. At Azurmendi they work with two sister musicians to create music that works in the kitchen. “The noise in the restaurant is also studied and the musicians know exactly the noise levels in each part of the restaurant. We change our collection of music on a weekly basis and it depends on the season. Music is an integral part of the experience but people do not really think about it,” he said.