Eneko Atxa: «i seek to cook a better future and create hapiness»
He boasts a spectacular CV, solid experience as a chef, entrepreneur and restaurateur at just 42. Eneko Atxa Azurmendi (1977. Amorebieta. Basque Country) won the National Gastronomy Award in 2015. He holds five Michelin stars and is the proud owner of the restaurant that bears his surname, Azurmendi, with others in London, Tokyo and Bilbao, under his first name, Eneko, as well as a wedding and events concept called Eneko WEP (weddings, events and parties). He is one of the most recognised young chefs in the world for his involvement with sustainability, with Azurmendi twice being named the World’s Most Sustainable Restaurant on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It has also been named Best Restaurant in Europe by OAD (Opinionated About Dining), and the Elite Traveller Magazine. Eneko was also part of European Young Leaders. His core philosophy is “make people happy and cook for a better future”, always with a commitment to health, solidarity and sustainability. His unique way of viewing gastronomy has two parameters – technique and flavour – two concepts that at his parent restaurant, Azurmendi, are understood as a direct link to the environment, the produce and classic Basque recipes, which is what elevates his cooking to a whole new level.
The architecture at Azurmendi is an example and reflection of Eneko’s thought process and his commitment to the Basque land and its cultural heritage, which he embraces here with his rural setting, staff, society – all pillars of sustainable development. The bioclimatic building was designed along these principles and has become an international benchmark. In 2018 Azurmendi was named the World’s Most Sustainable Restaurant on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the second time. Local, recycled, minimally invasive materials were used for the construction, along with the most advanced renewable energy technology on the market. The roof of the building accommodates the vegetable plots; it has a greenhouse, a garden, natural lighting in the kitchen, an atrium that works as a climate damper, exceptional heat insulation and a germplasm bank. “Creating pleasure, generating value, achieving excellence, sharing wealth and knowledge” are the fundamentals of creating a personal experience and growing in a sustained and sustainable manner. After a visit to his temple of sustainable gastronomy, Eneko Atxa tells Diario de Ibiza about his present culinary exploits between London, Tokyo and Bilbao.
How would you define the current cuisine at your different restaurants and other catering projects?
It is cuisine based on our seasons, our products and our tradition, and then executing each recipe to provide pleasure to the customer, always seeking succulence and the power of flavours. I try to make every bite in our restaurants help you understand our land, our culture and our way of understanding gastronomy
For those who don’t know your restaurant, how would you define Azurmendi and the surrounding environment?
Azurmendi is situated on the outskirts of Larrabetzu, a town with approximately 2,000 inhabitants, very close to Bilbao airport, in a very lush, green location. We decided to create a space where the building was surrounded by nature. We invite nature to literally come inside. That’s why it’s very present in the décor.
The construction has been a complete challenge of architecture and functionality.
During the building process we worked with state-of-the-art techniques: water accumulators, solar panels on the glass roofs, geothermal heating, photovoltaic installations, vegetable drainage, using recycled materials, installing recharging points for electric vehicles … These are just some of the pioneering energy resources used at Azurmendi to create a sustainable and bioclimatic space.
This has resulted in several prestigious international awards. How do customers visiting you from all over the world assimilate and enjoy it?
Azurmendi is designed for people that enjoy a full experience. An experience way beyond simply ‘turning up, sitting down, and eating’. It’s much more personal, starting with a welcome ‘picnic’ in the interior garden, then moving into the kitchen where they can taste our cuisine up close and discover our philosophy. From there guests are taken to a new, ever-changing space where we recreate the four seasons and they can sample some ‘snacks’ that reflect our culture. Finally, diners are led to the main dining room with views that connect them to the environment and where they can enjoy the specially designed tasting menu. There is a choice of two tasting menus: ‘Roots’ and ‘Branches’.
What are your tasting menus based on?
The choice of dishes on the menus isn’t just down to us; the seasons have quite a big say in them too. The producer is the interpreter for nature and advises us on the seasonality of the products. There are certain products gifted to us by nature that only grow at a specific time of the year so we naturally take advantage of this fact to incorporate them into our menu. Menu changes often depend on the environment and the weather, etc.
What importance do you give the local products of each place?
No one can cook well without good products. I always say I am privileged to live near the sea, the mountain and the countryside; for having four seasons distinguished by completely different climate conditions, all of which supply me with a wonderful and varied pantry.
What is the secret to the massive success of Basque cuisine and its current chefs?
I believe that it’s down to the territory. We are close to the sea and also the mountains, with a gastronomic culture inherited from our ancestors, which contains numerous recipes always inspired by the land, the season, the knowledge of the products and above all, the housewives. Our culinary heritage is a vital part of our culture. We have deep roots but are also restless for innovation and transformation. I believe in technique as a tool for highlighting the products.
Do your restaurants in London and Tokyo maintain the same gastronomic and work philosophy? Is it feasible?
At Eneko Tokyo and Eneko London they offer an adaptation of our cuisine with their own individual style. We are inspired by our seasons, our products, naturally always seeking optimum succulence and flavour, incorporating into each recipe what I believe will bring pleasure to these customers who come to us looking for enjoyment.
How do you manage your frantic schedule and travels? Do you have a special diet or do you eat everything?
I sleep very little. I don’t have any particular diet. I love to eat and enjoy it enormously.
Is sustainability the trending buzzword of current gastronomy? Do you believe, from your experience, that it truly reflects the concepts of a real commitment to sustainable development at a global level, as you predicted some time ago?
To me it’s not a trend or an idea that I decided to put into practice. I believe it’s pure common sense. If you are inspired by your environment and it helps you to obtain better products for your pantry, and furthermore, it’s a fundamental conditioning factor for your life, the obvious thing to do is to care for it and be aware that it is your responsibility to pass on your environment to future generations, just the way you received it, and even better still, if you can improve it.
How do you view the cooking of the future: robotized, more human, more affordable, sustainable or different?
I believe that the future has to be down to the younger generation. The new generations have to undertake a different revolution, where they learn and show us all how to use gastronomy to provide better meals in hospitals, and to put food waste to better use, etc. They not only have to revolutionise the world of gastronomy, but the world in general.
Is a three-star restaurant like Azurmendi worthwhile and profitable? Has being awarded your third star changed your performance as a chef?
We are located in Larrabetzu, a small town with 2,000 inhabitants and the third star has put us on the world map. Obviously it is going to change our lives, and very positively too, because now on any given day we receive guests from all over. Without this visibility this could never have happened.
What has the impact been for your winery Gorka Izagirre after winning the recent award for Best White Wine at the International Wine Contest in Brussels, which was chosen from 9,150 wines from 46 countries?
For a 2015 Txakoli wine from Biscay to win this award is very significant for the winery. It has proven that apart from producing young wines, we can produce great, award-winning wines. This type of recognition for a small winery like ours helps us to become known and creates an interest in our wines, which were totally unknown before. It has definitely opened some doors.
Do you have any new projects on the go?
Yes, but they’re not projects for now.
What makes Eneko Atxa tick?
he truth is, normal things, like being happy with myself, or being with my family. That’s where happiness lies, in the little big moments.