by Zahra Al-Kateb
As a young boy growing up in the Basque County – a region widely recognized for its gastronomic cuisine – Chef Eneko Atxa watched his mother and grandmother, working for hours on end in the kitchen at home. “They were happy through making the rest of the family happy”, Atxa tells me. It was here that his love affair with food began.
At only 35 years old, Atxa is a chef with an impressive resume. He began his career at 15, has worked alongside the likes of Martin Berasategui and opened Azurmendi in 2005, gaining three Michelin stars within just five years.
Guests are welcomed with a tour of the restaurant, where they are invited to view the kitchen, garden and greenhouse. “We begin outside with some appetizers,” he says. “We then move all the guests to the kitchen to explain to them how we work. Then finally they arrive at the table with a main menu. That is the experience at Azurmendi.”
It is evident that for Atxa, fine dining is more than just about the cuisine: It is an all encompassing experience that takes everything into account. Unlike most Michelin-starred restaurants, for example, there is no ‘signature dish’ here. “I love when a guest asks for the same dish they had the last time. This is their signature dish. We don’t try to make something convenient for everyone. We try to create an experience for each guest,” he explains.
Not only does Atxa grow vegetables in the garden for cooking, the diners are also encouraged to take the vegetables too. He says: “I wanted to have my own garden, and not just to grow my own ingredients to use in the kitchen. I wanted to show the whole world our local products and to develop a showroom to have a view of everything that I use every season.”
When guests enter the garden, they are encouraged to take their pick from a selection of local tomatoes – only to discover they have in fact been stuffed and pinned to the bush. When guests do settle down to enjoy some of the finest cuisine in the Basque region, they can also expect to enjoy cocktails made via a wooden txalaparta, a specialist Basque musical instrument.
Not only is his love for the culinary cuisine and traditions of the Basque County evident, the restaurant itself is groundbreaking in many ways. Perched on a hillside just outside of Bilbao, the striking glass and steel structure showcases the latest in eco-friendly sustainable architecture. “We often speak about the dishes, the techniques and the service. But sometimes we don’t realize that the area where all these things happen gets a bit lost. I think the context of the message is very important,” says Atxa.
The restaurant boasts a rainwater harvesting system, with a tank collecting droplets on the rooftop, ready to be used in gardening. Solar panels help produce around forty per cent of the electricity used in the kitchen. A geothermal system transfers heat from the ground, ensuring that the building maintains a stable temperature of around 18 to 21 degrees all year round. “There are many things that are happening that the guests aren’t always aware of because they’re not seen. But I really believe it is important to be sustainable,” he points out.
Azurmendi may boast pioneering architecture, but one thing is for sure – Atxa’s philosophy is always about his guests. He was thrilled upon being named our Young Chef of the Year and coming third in the Elite Top 100 Restaurants. “I am very proud of achieving this award and I am very proud that everyone who has come to Azurmendi has enjoyed their individual experience,” he tells me excitedly.
The secret to his swift ascension to the top? “We make a goal at the beginning of everyday,” he says. “With each guest we must earn those three Michelin stars without fault. However our goal isn’t only to achieve Michelin stars. It is to make a special experience for each and every one of our guests. It is about making them happy.” And in that, Azurmendi has undoubtedly succeeded.