Gourmet Secrets by Karen Anand: What’s making Spain a food lover’s paradise?

So what makes a great restaurant? Well, I would say, a great dining experience. No matter what everyone says about the ambience and service and tablecloths, ultimately it’s the food which is the defining factor. Over the past century, the two bodies that seem to define culinary excellence and which are taken seriously the world over are the Michelin guide and the relatively recent World’s 50 Best. The Michelin guide with a red cover is the oldest European hotel and restaurant reference guide, which awards up to three Michelin stars for excellence. One star is “A very good restaurant in its category”, two is “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”, three is “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”.

The acquisition or loss of a star can have dramatic effects on the success of a restaurant. The French chef Paul Bocuse, one of the pioneers of nouvelle cuisine in the 1960s, said, “Michelin is the only guide that counts.” In France, when the guide is published each year it sparks a media frenzy, which has been compared to that for annual Academy Awards for films. Media and others debate the likely winners, speculation is rife, and TV and newspapers discuss which restaurant might lose, and who might gain a Michelin star. Produced by the French tyre company Michelin, it started over a century ago, but actually became a guide to restaurants in 1926. For years, France held the most amount of stars, but today it’s strange to note that Japan eclipses that completely and now has the most Michelin star restaurants in the world.

Spanish stars

I was in San Sebastian in Spain recently and was amazed at the number of fancy restaurants in and around this small Basque seaside town. I always thought Spain was a country of casual cuisine, of tapas, of local produce tossed with garlic and parsley, and lots of olive oil. I never really associated Spain with fine dining. They are second only to France in the number of Michelin star restaurants in Europe and have three restaurants in World’s Top 10 and several more in the top 50. In fact El Bulli in Roses outside Barcelona was No 1 in the World’s Best for many years and El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona in the north East corner of Spain was in the top 3 till last year. I was actually part of something called Gastronomika, which is their food conference and festival held every year for the last 20 years. Part of Gastronomika was a series of talks, demos and then tastings in their main auditorium by mainly Hispanic chefs including some culinary stars of Spain and I was able to see them at close quarters actually performing at Gastronomika.

So what are these Spanish chefs doing, which is winning them all these accolades? They seem to be divided into two schools – those using local produce, which they then refine and those following the school of molecular gastronomy with many international style dishes (especially Japanese influences) on their menus. Here is a list of what I saw and experienced and I firmly believe any serious gourmet should make a pilgrimage to Spain, and especially the Basque country to experience some really fine dining.

Here are the top Spanish chefs to look out for in northern Spain:

Carme Ruscalleda
With the closure of Sant Pau, which has three Michelin stars and is a world reference in avant-garde cuisine, Carme has closed one era to open another full of international projects. Carme has been and is the ultimate example of how to translate a landscape and an intimacy into a cultural and gastronomic story of the highest level and is now making waves in Japan.

Josean Alija (restaurant: Nerua, Bilbao)
Aroma, beauty, texture and flavour are what define Josean’s essential local cooking, which has been described by chef Paul Bocuse as “one of the best cuisines” he had seen in his life. Alija has been awarded numerous prizes such as the award for best Young Chef in 2000, Best International Chef by Identitά Golose in 2009 and Award for Conceptual Innovation in 2010.

Hilario Arbelaitz (restaurant: Zuberoa ,Oiartzun)
Zuberoa is located in the village of Oiartzun, 10 kms away from San Sebastian. The house is more than 600 years old. Hilario began working at the age of 20 with his mother in the kitchen and learnt Basque traditional cuisine with her. After 10 years and a fortnight with Maurice Isabal at Ithurria restaurant in Ainhoa (French Basque country), he opened his own restaurant serving modern Basque dishes.

Juan Mari Arzak (restaurant: Arzak,San Sebastian)
Born in 1942, he is the father of Spanish contemporary cuisine. As the creator and alma mater of the movement known as New Basque Cuisine in the 1970s, his culinary and social influence has been decisive. He has worked with Bocuse, Troisgros and Senderens. His restaurant, located in the old house where the family business was run, which dates back to the late 19th century is a Mecca for all lovers of contemporary cuisine. It is now run by Juan Mari’s daughter Elena. The restaurant has three Michelin stars.

Eneko Atxa (restaurant: Azurmendi, Larrabetzu)
Eneko Atxa was born in Amorebieta (Basque country, Spain). The philosophy of Bizkaian chef Eneko Atxa is that in addition to making people happy with his cooking, his aim is to cook a better future. Always committed to health, solidarity and sustainability, his 3 Michelin starred restaurant Azurmendi has just received its second award for the most sustainable restaurants from The World’s 50 Best list in which he is ranked 14. Eneko Atxa won the National Gastronomy Award in 2015 and was part of European Young Leaders. His dish of prawns, vegetable and ripe tomato was one of the best at the Carme Ruscalleda’s chefs dinner

Martin Berasategui (Restaurante Martin Berasategui, Lasarte)
Ten Michelin stars, international fame and a culinary empire; a tireless traveller and curious by nature, he has worked with Jean Paul Heinard, François Brouchican, André Mandion, Bernard Lacarrau, Alain Ducasse and Didier Oudill. In 1993, after running the Bodegón Alejandro for years, where he won a star in 1986, he opened his restaurant Lasarte. Martin, whose cooking could be defined as light, imaginative, fresh, immediate also writes and runs a beautiful farmhouse. In 2017, Martin’s Lasarte restaurant (Hotel Monument) was the first three-star restaurant in Barcelona. His dessert of lemon with basil sauce, green beans and almonds is legendary.

Joan Roca (restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca, Girona)
His contributions to low-temperature sous vide cooking have probably transformed the way Spanish chefs look at techniques in the 21st century. He has worked with various university programmes including Harvard. El Celler de Can Roca has maintained its three Michelin stars since 2009; Joan Roca was in the top 10 of the Le Chef list of the best chefs in the world, voted by a jury of 512 Michelin star holders (2015); El Celler de Can Roca, best restaurant in the world, 50 Best Restaurants of the World Magazine (2015); Joan Roca was selected by more than 1,000 cookery journalists as one of the 20 most influential chefs. His dish of suckling pig and turnip tatin bowled us all away at gastronomika.

Pedro Subijana (restaurant: Akelarre, San Sebastian)
Pedro Subijana took over the Akelarre restaurant in 1975 and since 1980 has been its sole owner. Restless and involved in everything to do with the world of cookery, products, research and innovation (he has an R&D centre in his own restaurant), he forms part of the Board of the Basque Culinary Centre as a promoter. Akelarre is also now a luxury hotel by the sea. The char grilled oyster olive oil emulsion and pig tail terrine contrasted with the simple Umami sea bass he presented at a dinner.

Author bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is curated food tours.

From HT Brunch, November 10, 2019

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