Bittor Arginzoniz, Chef at Asador Etxebarri Bittor Arginzoniz (1960) was born and raised in the farming community of Axpe, a tiny village nestled among the mountains in the Basque Country region of spain.
When he bought the restaurant building in the center of the village, he and his family rebuilt it entirely themselves. He is self-taught and has only ever worked in one kitchen -his own- where he designed and built his famous adjustable-height grills. He rarely leaves the restaurant except to tend to his farm animals, which supply many of the raw ingredients for his tasting menu.How does it feel to run the 6th best restaurant in the world, according to The World’s 50 Best ranking? Is it daunting? Do you feel vertigo?
No. Absolutely not. To be honest, I feel today exactly the same levels of vertigo that I used to when I wasn’t on that list. I feel equally responsible for all my work. All I can say is that I am deeply grateful for such recognition and for so many customers that have visited us over the years and have helped us achieve it.
How do you explain it? What do you think led Asador Etxebarri to obtain the nomination?
I don’t really know if there is any specific explanation for that. I guess it must be a reflection of the people who come to Etxebarri, of what they see and taste here, of what the establishment offers and makes them experience.
For those readers who haven’t been at Etxebarri and don’t know the restaurant: What is Etxebarri? What do customers find there? How would you define your style as a chef?
Probably lots of things could be said here. I could mention so many characteristics and features… But, to summarize the three questions in just one, my answer would be: simplicity, humility and respect.
What makes charcoal grill cuisine so special?
Cooking using charcoal grill is special because wood provides very characteristic aromas which are easily recognized by everybody. It somehow ends up reflected in the final dish as one more ingredient which cannot be seen but is clearly perceived.
Lots of articles and reviews highlight that, at Etxebarri, food is the core element of everything, and especially the raw material. You aim for nothing less than the best ingredients. Is that true?
That is at least what we constantly try. Sometimes it is not easy and, of course, it is not always possible to achieve, but that is our aim and our desired policy, and we focus our efforts on attempting to accomplish it.
They also mention that a remarkable number of the ingredients used are sourced from your own farm. How influential is that on the final result of a dish?
It is probably not decisive, but it does have an influence. I consider it of vital importance to have a deep knowledge of the product itself, of its origin, of what processing it has undergone, and using products from our own farm of course allows me to accomplish that.
Is there any ingredient that you have discovered recently and that has become essential to your cuisine?
Common sense is the most valuable ingredient. It would be very hard to get anywhere without it.
You are known for being a self-taught chef. Was it a matter of instinct, of trying different formulas until finding the right one, of following advice… or a bit of everything?
It’s true, you could say that I am basically a self-taught chef. On the one hand, I do follow my instincts very often, I rely very much on them. But on the other hand, it is also true that I like to listen to others -I value people’s opinions very much. I guess that all of it has contributed to defining our style at Etxebarri.
Did you expect, when you started, to eventually achieve the worldwide fame that you have today?
Not at all. And, in fact, I never pursued it. I am not really a friend of fame. What I did start with is a lot of enthusiasm, and I still have it. I have always had a lot of passion for what I do.
At this point, what are your dreams for the future?
My only dream is to improve on what I did the previous day.
When you run the world’s best 6th restaurant, what do you do at home, on your days off, or at family reunions? Do you cook yourself? Or do you prefer to go out and try other restaurants?
Honestly, I do cook at home as well, but from time to time I go out and try other restaurants too. However, when I do so, I go there as a regular customer and not as a professional: I am only seeking to enjoy the food and the experience, not to try and compare.
Why do you think a region as small as the Basque Country has two restaurants among the world’s 10 best, and 4 among the world’s best 50? What is it that makes Basque cuisine so special and successful?
Each restaurant of course has its own characteristics, but as a common pattern for Basque gastronomy I would mainly mention its fresh products, which are the basis for everything. And I would also point out the seasonality of this cuisine: Menus and dishes are tightly linked to the products in season. I understand that to be a sign of authenticity and freshness. Besides, cuisine and gastronomy are an essential part of Basque culture, it is very present in people’s lives and it permeates all social layers and sectors. Basque people are passionate about cuisine.
You are also a keen user of nuts and dried fruits in your dishes.
Exactly. Everything has importance, and we do make some of our dishes with nuts and dried fruits. They represent a very interesting element when it comes to combining tastes, and they are also helpful when searching for texture combinations. Additionally, they are also an aesthetic element which enhances the look of the final dish. Plus they present a very rich nutritional profile and, as regards the particular gastronomic style of Etxebarri, I have to say that nuts make a great match for charcoal grill cuisine.
Where is contemporary cuisine going? Do you think there is sometimes too much paraphernalia, or is it all about styles and tastes?
The line that separates those two things is very sensitive, very weak… And it can lead to confusion.