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Spanish chef Eneko Atxa: ‘You have to break a lot of plates before you can dance with them’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Name: Eneko Atxa
Age: 40
Nationality: Spanish
Occupation: Chef
Likes: Eating, running, art
Dislikes: Toxic people, jazz, airport security


1. Congratulations on opening Eneko Tokyo. How would you describe your style of cooking? Cooking is a language, behind which you can see the culture, the territory and character of the people. I am telling the story of the environment and culture of the Basque country, so my cuisine is very rooted in tradition but also looking to the future. I like to say, “I travel a lot, but at night I always sleep at home.”

2. What characteristics define traditional Basque cuisine? We have four seasons and a beautiful landscape with the sea and mountains, so the area is rich in products. We also have a wealth of traditional recipes, but the most important components are the mother sauces. The flavors of Basque cuisine are very powerful.

3. What are the three mother sauces? The first is Biscayne sauce, made from dried peppers; the second is black squid ink sauce; and the third is pil-pil (garlic- and pepper-infused olive oil cooked with salt cod to form an emulsion).

4. Are there any similarities between Basque and Japanese cuisines? Both encompass many categories, and eating is fundamental to the culture.

5. The Basque country is a culinary powerhouse, but there are relatively few Basque restaurants overseas. Why? I think Basque people didn’t feel the need to go outside of Spain before, but the new generation is starting to open restaurants abroad.

6. You opened Azurmendi in 2005, when you were only 27. How has the restaurant evolved? The first years were really hard. I wasn’t known, but I had a great responsibility to succeed for my staff. At times, I felt like I was being controlled by the restaurant, but it was a process of learning. You have to break a lot of plates before you can dance with them.

7. Has winning three Michelin stars affected you? Before each service, I remind my staff that you have to earn those three stars every day, with every client.

8. You experiment with cutting-edge techniques in your cooking lab. What are you working on? Now, instead of focusing on techniques, we are finding new ways to incorporate sustainability, health and charity into a more evolved cuisine. I’m working with many disciplines — a school of fine arts, anthropologists, designers and health specialists — to create a well-rounded experience for guests.

9. Azurmendi has been called the world’s most sustainable restaurant. Please explain your approach to sustainable architecture. Azurmendi is built on top of a hill. We wanted a space that would coexist with the environment, rather than “invading” it. We use geothermic and solar power, as well as rainwater and recycled materials. We planted 700 trees and created the first greenhouse in the area.

10. You also run a seed bank, right? Yes, we host the biggest seed bank in our region. We have “recovered” a lot of species of plants and animals that were about to disappear.

11. What are some of your other environmental projects? In our town, there is a compost center run by local farmers. We showed them how to use recycled organic material to make fertilizer.

12. What does sustainability mean to you? Sustainability is linked to people, not just food. It’s about the well-being of people.

13. Will you bring some of those ideas to Tokyo? Absolutely. We are now thinking about the possibilities, and I have some specific ideas for next year.

14. What kind of experience do you want guests to have at Eneko Tokyo? It will be less formal (than our flagship restaurant). We are trying to translate the essence of Azurmendi and create a fusion of the Japanese and Basque spirit.

15. Where will you source ingredients? We are using Japanese products similar to what we have in the Basque country.

16. These days, chefs are regarded as celebrities. How do you feel about that? You have to use your knowledge and the opportunities media attention gives to support sustainability, health and charity.

17. There’s a lot of discussion recently about stress in the industry. How do you manage it? At Azurmendi, we offer dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. The other days, we serve only lunch because it’s important for the staff to have free time and enjoy their work.

18. What issues will you focus on in the future? Health. We are now collaborating with hospitals to develop menus for them. We’re also working to empower women.

19. What’s something surprising that most people don’t know about you? I seem a bit cold at first, but once you get to know me, I’m actually warm. (Laughs)

20. Any advice for young people? Instead of dreaming about becoming famous, dream of making a better society. Let me leave you with this: A father and son are walking on a difficult path. The father turns and says, “Be careful, son, the road is treacherous.” He replies, “Father, you be careful because I’m following in your footsteps.”