Foodies from around the world make the pilgrimage to San Sebastián for its famed Basque cuisine. But an English entrepreneur is shaking up Spain’s culinary capital and taking its gastronomyto even greater heights. Paul Richardson meets the man behind the food revolution.
The second I step into the Hotel Maria Cristina, I can tell that this is a place that takes food seriously. First, there’s the welcome snack I find in my room – a picture-perfect arrangement of contemporary petit fours, both sweet and savory, all to be nibbled with a fine Rioja (a far cry from the usual plate of fruit and bottle of bubbly found in hotel rooms). Then there’s the denda (Basque for fine food shop) on the first floor, worlds away from the jewelry and fashion stores typical of most five-star hotel lobbies. It is run by San Sebastián Food, whose founder and chief executive, Englishman Jon Warren, has latterly become the city’s leading gastronomic entrepreneur.
It is Warren himself who shows me around his shop, pointing out delicacies including top-of-the-range anchovies, Basque sweetmeats and whole Spanish hams that cost roughly $500 apiece. At the register, a Chinese woman has just bought 36 packets of pre-sliced acorn-fed ibérico. By the door is a case of Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most expensive red wine, awaiting delivery to a customer in Tokyo. “It’s not uncommon for people to order cases of wine and whole hams to be sent across the world – they don’t care what it costs,” Warren explains. His connection with San Sebastián dates back to a trip he made long ago with a university friend: they were on their way to southern Portugal but had their heads turned by the food and hospitality of this charming seaside town.
“Someday, I could end up living here,” Warren remembers thinking at the time. When, years later, he gave up his job as a banker, he came back here to seek his fortune. During stints as a hotel concierge he was often asked for advice on the city’s restaurants and became convinced there was a gap in the market. In 2009, still knowing little of Basque life, he opened a one-room venue on the edge of San Sebastián’s atmospheric and lively Parte Vieja (old town). But he was soon seeking bigger spaces, and in late 2013, Hotel Maria Cristina entered the scene. San Sebastián’s legendary hotel, founded by Spanish royalty and opened in 1912, had emerged from a glamorous refurbishment. But a first floor locale with views over the River Urumea was being used as a meeting room and the hotel’s former spa, in the basement, lay empty and unloved.
Fast-forward to summer 2015: the meeting room is the food shop, while Warren’s portfolio of gastro activities now includes tours of the Rioja wineries, excursions into the French Basque country, plus coffee tastings, ham-slicing demonstrations and gin and tonic workshops. Current plans include a pop-up butchery and a series of four-day courses in Basque cuisine with Ash Mair, the winner of UK television series Masterchef.
Meanwhile in the basement, something else is cooking. The San Sebastián Food Cooking School opened its doors in March this year in what was once a gloomy and charmless space, but thanks to Warren and his young American designer, Marti Kilpatrick, is now welcoming and light-filled. The interior lies somewhere between hipster chic and shiny functionalism, the stainless steel and micro-cement sitting nicely side by side with rough wooden furniture in a nod to Basque rural tradition. The school hosts everything from cooking courses with local chefs to wine tastings, supper clubs and cocktail parties. One morning I join a candy-making class in which Basque pastry chef Rafa Gorrotxategi reveals the secrets of almond-based goodies such as tejas de Tolosa and turrón de guirlache.
The following day I sign up with a group of foreign foodies for a Basque Cooking Masterclass that involves a guided shopping tour of San Sebastián’s La Bretxa market followed by a cooking session with chef Cristina Ibanez. On the menu are classic Basque dishes such as the gilda, a supercharged aperitif combo of pickled hot pepper, anchovy and green olive all threaded onto a cocktail stick.
After the class, the group sits down around a big oak table to enjoy the vegetable menestra and hake in green sauce that we have made ourselves. My fellow cooks include a Chinese American from New York who is spending his banker’s severance pay on a month in San Sebastián (“I’m going to eat my way
around this city,” he declares), a Filipino girl who is learning to surf on Zurriola Beach and a couple from San Francisco who gladly reveal their travel priorities:they book the restaurant tables first (last night was Zuberoa, the day before that Azurmendi, and tomorrow the great Arzak), and their accommodation second.
San Sebastián was, after all, always in the premier league of Spanish cities for the excellence of its food, which extends both to the gastro temples (the region is said to have more Michelin stars per resident than any other city in the world) and the pintxo bars, where haute cuisine comes in bite-sized portions. But something has changed. For many years the presence of ETA, the Basque separatist group, kept the gastro tourists at arm’s length. Now, thanks in part to the group’s near-disappearance, tourism is booming and the city’s three-star restaurants are packed with foreigners. The place is on a roll – that much is clear from the old-town pintxo tour Warren has organized for me. Even on this midweek evening, at an early hour by Spanish standards, the stone streets of the Parte Vieja resound with voices French, English, American and Japanese.
San Sebastián’s classic pintxo bars are a litany of excellence, and each has its own speciality: I revisit Txepetxa, famous for its cured anchovies with creative additions like foie gras with apple or blackberry jelly; Gandarias (chargrilled pork sirloin); and Nestor (possibly the world’s best tortilla de patata). Tonight at Ganbara, the wild mushrooms a la plancha with an egg yolk are to die for, as is the melt-in-the-mouth savory slow-cooked beef cheek at La Cuchara de San Telmo – a corridor of a bar so busy that customers are spilling out onto the street. The following morning in the food shop at the hotel, a Russian guest has just spotted Crusoe Treasure, a Spanish wine that is aged in cages at the bottom of the sea; he wants several bottles packed up to take home. Warren’s unbeatable food-world connections can fix almost anything,from the chef’s table at Arzak for a Hollywood star over for the Film Festival in September, to a trip up the coast to the farm of Jaime Burgaña, supplier of vegetables to the (Michelin) stars, whose Guisantes de Lágrima (”tear peas“) currently retail at $275 a pound. Warren also remembers a London-based client with a budget of $230,000 for his new wine cellar who wanted San Sebastián Food to do the buying for him. Then there was the party of English tourists in vintage sports cars who wanted a pintxo tour followed by a special dinner at one of the city’s three triple-starred Michelin restaurants.
The lesson of San Sebastián Food is that even in a gastronomic hub as vibrant as this, you can still put a creative spin on an old recipe. What Warren and his team have brought to the city’s culinary scene is twofold: for the locals, he represents a new class of foreign customer with a passion for good food and money to spend. For the traveler, meanwhile, he offers access to a food culture that, though rich and complex, never fails to leave a great taste in the mouth.