Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit with the great Basque chef Martin Berasategui. Enjoy!
Martin Berasategui: Vasca España sans Borders
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner Clay Oven Irvine
When I think of chef Berasategui, the first thing that comes to mind is his smiling face and gentle demeanor. Although he is one of the most successful chefs to come out of the Basque country of Spain, with operations that range from Spain to Mexico, the Dominican Republic to Shanghai, China, he is a very grounded individual. Last year in San Sebastian upon seeing me in the audience while on his way to the podium for a demonstration he stopped and greeted me very warmly before proceeding to the stage. It is these qualities that make him so likeable. Whether in his restaurant or in a social space he is the same unassuming person, despite his six Michelin stars, content to stand back and let others take center stage.
Martin Berasategui is very well liked by other chefs all over the world whether it is Spain, France, Mexico or South America. He is the first to offer guidance and assistance to young chefs starting out in the business. I know numerous chefs who have done stages in his restaurants or sent their kitchen team members to train with him. It is to his credit that he is actively involved in training future talent in his beloved Basque region.
It is difficult to stand out in the many-starred countryside of San Sebastian where names like Arzak and Subijiana are known worldwide, but he has been more successful in terms of expanding his operations outside of his region. I admire him for still being in the kitchen and actively cooking for guests at his restaurant Martin Berasategui, in Lasarte-Oria, San Sebastian.
He is an accomplished businessman who founded the Martin Berasategui Business Group in 1996 which managed restaurants in the Kursaal, San Sebastian, Guggenheim Bilbao, Mugaritz, all no longer under his advisement. Then he went on to advise and open restaurants in Barcelona, Tenerife, Seville, China, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. He has come a long way from the young boy who slept on a mattress under the stairs at Bodegon Alejandro, his parent's establishment in the old town of San Sebastian. He has over a dozen cookbooks to his credit. Berasategui writes a weekly column, has weekly radio and television shows and is a motivator at numerous food events where I have seen him in action myself. He also runs a school and workshop to train dining room and kitchen personnel.
He was born into a restaurant operating family (Bodegon Alejandro) in 1960 and entered the kitchen at the age of thirteen where he started helping out while still in school. Cooking was in his blood and his determination and hard work has brought him to where he is in life now. His first teacher was his mother, and at the age of seventeen he decided to go to school at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie in Yssingeaux, France. Upon finishing school, he worked and trained with chefs like Andre Mandion, Jean Paul Heinard, Didier Oudill and Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monaco. To ensure a very well-rounded training, he apprenticed in butchery and pastry before moving to the savory side of cuisine.
At the age of twenty, he took over the family restaurant and at 25 received his first Michelin star. Twelve years later, he opened his flagship restaurant for which he holds three stars since 2001. At present, he holds a total of six stars between his various restaurants. He has received numerous awards and distinctions during his career locally and internationally. Berasategui lives in the region where he was born with his wife and daughter who are also involved in his operations. He continues to amaze and satiate his guests with his skillful combinations of flavors and the most beautiful plates using the best of the products from his region.
My questions for chef Berasategui:
You have had an extremely successful career in Spain as well as in other parts of the world. How has this journey been for you?
For me it has been a tremendously satisfactory journey with a lot of happiness enroute. Considering I have been able to follow my passion, I consider myself a very lucky man.
You are in an area of the world with a concentration of some of the best talent in your field. What differentiates you from other notable chefs?
The good thing is that we each have our own personality and that is what marks the difference between us. In my case I have been involved in a very forward cuisine, very deeply rooted and with deep attachment to my soil, but at the same time open to the world. I think these hallmarks are very visible in my style. You always work in search of perfection and excellence. The plates have to play with the same quality assurance and irregularity is something I do not like in the kitchen.
How important is it for you to keep the traditions of your Basque heritage?
It is important to me but at the same time I am open to the world. I have always enjoyed teaching what I have learned in this journey. Both in the house of my mother and in my restaurant in Lasarte-Oria we have tried to keep our traditions intact. (He shares weekly recipes on his radio show)
Do you enjoy attending food congresses and symposiums (Madrid Fusion, Mistura, Gastronomika, etc.) in Spain and overseas?
I do like to attend to share information and to interact with other chefs. With the hundreds of students that we welcome each year, with the congresses and symposiums, we open the doors of knowledge with no holds barred. It is the most useful tool we have to ensure that the new generation of chefs to come is as prepared as possible.
Which chefs have enjoyed getting to know recently?
I like to know all cooks who are active and passionate. Many of my best friends are in the profession, but what I enjoy most is to travel from time to time to visit them and see what they are doing and discuss proposals. In this sense this last season I have been fortunate to visit the grand restaurants of colleagues in Paris, London, New York, Copenhagen, etc.
Do you feel a responsibility to guide the future cuisine of your region?
It is very pretentious to believe that I can somehow guide the future kitchen of my region. On the other hand a fully seated dining room and establishment of a great future for my area is important. I am just trying to add my two cents to the conversation. As I said before I intend to teach the new generation all that I have learnt. If I can teach something to five percent of the people who have gone through my system I am fully satisfied.
In your opinion who should be the judge of a chefs talent, the diners or organizations who have their own rating system?
It is a complex issue, without diners we cooks are nothing. If they do not approve of our proposals or talent there is nothing we can do, but it is also true that there are organizations with very professional people at the front to do this work, and they deserve my respect.foe example the guide Michelin- they have inspectors who carry out their work with strict standards and are well prepared for their job. (Berasategui has been outspoken in this regard about the 50 Best Restaurants according to the Restaurant Magazine / San Pellegrino and their system of ratings)
Your restaurants in Spain, where I have dined in San Sebastian, Barcelona and Bilbao are very sophisticated establishments that cater to a specific clientele. Do you intend to open any that cost wise cater to those with limited means?
I recently opened a restaurant in Oveido (Asturias) named Llamado El Vasco that is more a kind of luxury tavern. It is affordable for every budget; here people can share plates in a more informal setting. At this time we must diversify and supply other more attractive options to diners (He has a gastro pub in his Dominican Republic operation in Punta Cana). For now it is working very well.
You have opened the first Spanish restaurant in Shanghai, China. What motivated you to do so?
It was proposed to me by a very good Chinese client and we became partners in this venture. I simply found it an exciting challenge and could not say no. It gave me a chance to build a bridge from Lasarte-Oria to a far away continent and I really appreciated that.
What is your opinion of the current focus on local and organic (bio) products?
I think it is an interesting and logical change and is going to become more important in the coming years. With our kitchens we have to support the local producers and artisans as much as possible to ensure their survival.
You followed your parents into this industry. Do you want your family to continue this tradition?
My daughter Ane does not cook but has already started to help me in management. I am delighted to have her in my organization.
The world economy is going through a difficult time; does that affect the operations of your restaurant group?
The current economic situation affects all fields logically, but we cannot complain much. We have to work relentlessly, immersed in our countless projects. This is the motivation behind our work daily.
You obviously travel a lot to visit all your operations in China, Mexico, Spain and now South America. Do you take time to be a tourist as well or are they only working trips?
Truthfully, much less than I would like to. I am often working alone. I have very little time to sightsee but I do try to visit the local markets and suppliers.
What do you consider the most important elements in the design of a restaurant and it's menu?
In the restaurants I like sensation, elegance, and comfort. Similarly I always seek excellence in my menus. They must have equilibrium, that is true in both cases, and have many variations.
What is your favorite family meal and who cooks it?
I love seafood, especially grilled fish, fish casseroles cooked in the traditional style of the Basque country. When I am not working I like to indulge in hake in green sauce, kokotxas, fried turbot are the kinds of plates I always cook at home. I am the designated cook at home and socially with my friends and it gives me great satisfaction to do so.
What is your favorite season of the year and why?
I love all seasons but spring is my favorite with its basket of gorgeous products. The sweet peas, new potatoes, the first asparagus the cherries, the raspberries...colorful and tasty, all the things I am passionate about.
Which chefs do you admire in the US?
The one I know best is Thomas Keller. He is an impressive cook who I admire very much. America is a huge country with too many talented chefs to list.
What are your favorite cities in the US and would you consider expanding there?
I especially like New York, and Chicago both cities have a special magic. Right now I have no plans to expand there but who knows, I never close the door to anything. (Chef Berastegui, please consider Orange County/LA too!)
What has inspired you the most in your life's journey so far?
First my parents by example in their professional and personal lives. Now my family, my wife Oneka (who is the manager of his Lasarte-Oria restaurant) and my daughter Ane inspire me and give me the most important things in this life.
Any advice for ambitious young chefs around the world who want to follow in your footsteps?
If you really want to pursue the kitchen, don't throw in the towel without a fight. Although there are moments of dejection, the key is tenacity and consistency. You must have patience, humility and honor. The goals are achieved gradually, that is something young chefs must understand for in their logical impetus, they sometimes have difficulty understanding. You have to proceed one step at a time guided by your passion to drive your life forward.
This advice is true for any individual moving towards their goals! Thank you chef Berasategui for sharing your thoughts.
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The last time I saw him he was surrounded by fans on the convention floor showcasing his line of cookware. I am fortunate to have encountered him on my journey and have learned a lot from him about facing and overcoming challenges in life.