A Sit-down with Spanish Sensation Martín Berasategui

From Basque Country to Barcelona, Lisbon, Tenerife, and the Balearic Islands, Martín Berasategui’s 13-strong restaurant empire has amassed a whopping 12 Michelin stars. Dedicated to bringing joy to diners through his food, the chef’s modern take on traditional Basque cuisine has brought him international acclaim, and with it, has cemented his name in the gastronomic hall of fame.

Hailing from San Sebastián in northern Spain, Martín Berasategui’s culinary journey started at the young age of 14. His parents owned a local restaurant, and it was growing up immersed in this world of food that prompted Martín to start cooking, laying down the foundations for what would soon become a prolific culinary career.

“I was born in General Echagüe Street [in San Sebastián], next to the old town, but the truth is that we didn’t spend much time at home. My parents owned the Bodegón Alejandro, a renowned restaurant in our city, which is where we spent most of our time. I’d head straight from school to the Bodegón, which was divided into two areas, one on the left-hand side for guests and another one on the right, separated by a door, which was just for family and close friends. Here we used to have lunch and dinner; it was basically the epicentre of our lives. We only went home to sleep and have a shower.

“We played games, listened to our elders’ stories, learning all about life really, it was my own personal university. My father was a well-known personality. A butcher by profession, everybody knew who he was. He had a passion for everything on our land, and he surrounded himself with like-minded people. He didn’t like the kitchen so much and spent most of his time in the main restaurant entertaining guests.

Basil cream with Iberian ham, pig-tail cannelloni and aubergine tortellini

“On one table, you would see bertsolaris or popular bards such as Uztapide or Basarri, and journalists from the Diario Vasco. On another table, you would find players who were going to the Urumea pediment, boxers, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, students and high-school teachers — all of them enjoying a chorizo or cooked meat dish, an omelette, a steak, some fish or whatever my mother and aunt were cooking. A good hot soup was always on the menu. We also served many football players from Real Sociedad, the first football team in my city, or artists such as Jorge Oteiza.

“I remember with nostalgia those years between 1965 and 1975, and I realise how special that time was — quite a meeting of personalities would be impossible to see nowadays. I yearn for this atmosphere, maybe because it is unattainable. I can achieve great things, I’m sure that with hard work and dedication almost everything is possible, but all of what I lived during that time is forever gone.

“My mother, Gabriela, was always moving about the kitchen and the living room, serving customers and looking after us. She didn’t take a minute to relax during the day. I enjoyed staying in the kitchen with her, and if I noticed that I was getting in the way, I went out to have a walk around, play fronton in Trinidad Square, or visit the wharf to see the fishermen catch seabass, hake, tuna and anchovies.”

Hare á la royale

Surrounded by this world of light, colour and character, Martín inherited the love for his profession from his mother and aunt. After leaving school, he spent twelve years training under France’s best chefs, honing his culinary skills and expanding his gastronomic knowledge. First, he learnt to make cakes and pastries with André Mandion in Anglet. Later, François Brouchican taught him about meat and how to handle ducks and geese. Then Martín played in the big leagues, working with Didier Oudil, Michel Guérard and Alain Ducasse, where he discovered all the intricacies of haute cuisine.

In 1993, the time came for him to open his own dining venue. Together with his wife Oneka Arregu, the duo founded Martín Berasategui Restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, just seven kilometres from San Sebastián. Within six months, their debut restaurant was lauded with its first Michelin star, followed by its second three years later, and in 2001, it was awarded the coveted three stars.

“At a professional level, the most memorable moment was when we received the third Michelin star in 2001. I remember we were sitting at the table in the kitchen, and I was astonished. That first night, I couldn’t sleep; I went out at 1:00 a.m. and had a walk around San Sebastián, alone, slowly. As a professional, you cannot expect more.

“From a personal point of view, the Tambor de Oro (Golden Drum) I was awarded by my city in 2005 was really exciting to me. San Sebastián is the most atomic city I know, where I lived and where I was born, where my family and friends are. Receiving a nomination as its best ambassador in the world is something that I cannot explain with words.”

Since then, Martín has published over twenty books and opened several restaurants, of which seven boast a combined twelve Michelin stars. His other awards include an Honorary Doctorate from François Rabelais University of Tours and various Chef of the Year titles. But even with all these accolades, there are no signs of complacency from Berasategui, who is determined to keep learning wherever and whenever possible.

“It has been a hectic and very enriching journey, I feel like an eternal learner, and I still have a lot to tell and do; I feel privileged. My family environment and being born in the most gastronomic city in the world are what have most influenced and still influence my training and day-to-day.

“This vocation can appear anywhere, at any moment, but I’m quite inspired by my land. At home, a new dish means years of well-organized work, with lots of discipline and precision.

“Today’s cuisine has no limits; I am indeed open to all kinds of influences and products. However, each one starts from its roots, its own personality and sincerity. Only from that point on you can let your imagination go, on a solid base and with focused experimentation.

Red mullet with crispy scales, saffron and lime pearl barley, Algarve prawn and red mullet jus

“The best cookbook is written by nature every day. I am attentive to the passing of the seasons, and I make sure that my clients enjoy my cuisine. I drink from the sources of Basque cuisine, and I have spent my whole life revolutionising my own cuisine and making it avant-garde to sublimate the territory and make my clients happy.” Although Martín humorously compares his complex process of day-to-day dish creation to that of the adventures in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas novel, all of his plates start with one core concept.

“First of all, we have to look for the idea, then the details and necessary elements to develop it, and all this ends in a creative dish that has to be perfect. Sometimes what you finally create has nothing to do with the initial idea. It seems incredible that you have done it, but if once you taste it and it doesn’t work as expected, it’s time to begin the process again. The creation of a recipe depends on the thoroughness you put into it, and I put in huge quantities. There is no place in my kitchen for improvisation; it’s something that goes against high cuisine. Everything must be perfectly measured and decided in advance, although the truth is that sometimes improvisation can create nice accidents and unexpected surprises.

“In my restaurant, there is a consignment that we call the testing ground, and it is dedicated to exploring new combinations, textures and flavours — to basically create new dishes that we can incorporate into the menu.” It is this very test kitchen, where he experiments with his Chef de Partie and brigade of other chefs, that has given rise to one of his favourite menus of all time: the 2021 Tasting Menu, which features highlights like red mullet with edible scales and red shrimp carpaccio. Other dishes that stand out as his favourites are the classics — those dishes which have remained stalwarts on his menus for years. These include the vegetable-heart salad with seafood, cream of farmhouse lettuce and iodised juice (2001); “Luismi” sirloin grilled on a bed of chard chlorophyll and cheese bonbon (2011) and vanilla apple pie with granny smith sherbet (1995).

Royal pigeon, apple and fennel chutney, ravioli stuffed with cepes and Périgord sauce

Although inspired by anything that stimulates his mind, including life itself, it is perhaps his four decades of experience in the industry that have had the greatest influence on his dish creation and final menu selection. In particular, it is those recipes that bring together modern cooking techniques with past culinary traditions, that he favours.

“I think that the main inspiration has been my path of forty years cooking. During this time, I have always looked for the best recipe, the most delicious, surprising and creative. Thanks to this career path, I can now offer updated recipes that combine past, present and future.

“I normally describe my cuisine as complex and close at the same time, capable of opening new ways for the next generations, making people understand that it’s necessary to take into account lots of details to make everything work to our standards. Products and suppliers are an essential part of the gear that we need to make the creative cuisine we offer at my restaurants. My producers are part of my team, and I take care of them as if they were my children. I look for the best, wherever I am.

Sourdough and pancetta brioche served with five different butters: beetroot, spinach, tomato, cep and natural

“I believe that the most important ingredients are work, humility and sacrifice. With them, you can cook in the best way. As for products, I think that in Spain and in the Canary Islands we have the best provisions in the world, the greatest kitchen garden in Europe is situated in Spain, the best seafood and fish come out of our coasts, and furthermore, we have products such as the olive oil and jamón which are admired all over the world because of their high quality. My cuisine is indeed very close to my land and my roots but open to the world. This is unquestionable.

“Ultimately, I want to offer guests a global experience from proximity, good treatment, letting them taste the best recipes born of over forty years’ experience. I want them to have fun, to enjoy the restaurant, to share and laugh. The main objective is that customers enjoy and repeat the experience; may they leave happy and never forget me. Seeing the face of a satisfied diner is indescribable.”

Looking back over the years at his success and all the diners he’s managed to impress, there’s a simple answer to his triumph: “Being a good person and surrounding myself with extraordinary people and teams. And work, work and more work.”

Kokotxas al pil pil with fine herbs

“I would say that if you really want to devote yourself to the cuisine, struggle for it and never surrender, although there are moments of dejection, it is essential to have perseverance and determination, as well as being patient, humble and honest. Goals can be achieved little by little, this is something that the younger ones find difficult to understand due to their energy, but it is very important to go step by step, focused on that deep passion which drives your life.”

But food isn’t the only driving force in Berasategui’s life. A devoted family man, there is nothing that brings him more joy and pride than his daughter, Ane, who just gifted him with a beautiful granddaughter, Jara.

“My dream is to see my granddaughter grow up healthy and stretch as much as I can this life in which I am having such a good time.” Here’s to the future and beyond, chef!

Strawberries, rhubarb and champagne

Love reading about top chefs? Take a look at this feature on chef Adam Handling here.

Sourced from http://fourinternational.com

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