Martín Berasategui: «¿Can cooking be unsustainable?»

Martín Berasategui: «¿Can cooking be unsustainable?»

He describes himself as fun-loving, simple, direct and ‘unfiltered’ when it comes to saying what he thinks. He is a tireless worker and a self-made man who only goes home to sleep. He has built a gastronomic empire on the foundations of a popular eatery in his hometown. Now he opens restaurants in cities and luxury hotels that have franchised his name. This is Martín Berasategui, a unique chef who just loves to cook.

What makes you different?

I don’t have a filter, I am completely genuine, I am not afraid, or lazy, or shy. I do what I think is right. I try to avoid doing what I wouldn’t like other people to do to me. There is an unfiltered side to me that is different and I always empathise with the person at my side. This is the way I was taught by my parents, who didn’t have any formal qualifications; this is what has helped me get to where I am today. I’m not your average chef. I’m not a stereotype. I’m different.

How did your collaboration with the Palladium Group come about?

There are a lot of people out there who are crazy for my cooking. When they meet me in person they fall in love with my personality and offer me projects that I simply can’t refuse. This is the story of my life. The first place I worked in after leaving home was the restaurant El Amparo in Madrid, as a gastronomic consultant at the age of 31. Carmen Guasp came and hired me. To me, she was the great architect of gastronomy, an authority on Spanish cuisine.

Did you juggle working in two restaurants?

I worked six days a week at my restaurant in Lasarte, and on my day off I went to Madrid, all year long. I had the good fortune to get to know Amparo’s family and later I arrived in Madrid with my right hand, Iñigo Urrechu. He is an incredible chef, a great person and as a colleague, totally unique. It was a wonderful city, and now I have returned with the Etxeko project. I can’t just go there to cook; I experience Madrid, I feel Madrid and I cook Madrid, the same thing that is happening to me right now in Ibiza. The world has changed during these years – Madrid, technology, cooking and Martín.

Is your collaboration with Bless Collection Hotels and the Matutes family a regular occurrence?

I share the Bless Collection Hotels project with a property very dear to my heart, and with a fresh, sporty, elegant concept that I love. I have full control over the gastronomy in Madrid and Ibiza. They are two restaurants that are not so much luxury as they are elegant and sporty, where you can feel at home but surrounded by professionals and with Martín paying tribute to his heritage.

Detalle del restaurante Etxeko en el Bless Hotel Ibiza.
Detalle del restaurante Etxeko en el Bless Hotel Ibiza.

You define yourself as naturally fun-loving.

I come from a background of fun people. I was brought up in a popular, bustling restaurant, with tables full of people from all walks of life – local Basque sportsmen, fishermen, sculptors, butchers… all sorts. I flitted from one table to another when I was bored, and this shaped me from a very young age. We are born humble, we live humble and we die humble. Egotism and arrogance in the kitchen are definitely things of the past. Life is too short for bullshit.

How do you find the time and energy to become involved in new projects?

Time is what I make of it, as there are different types of chefs. I come from a country where being a cook meant nothing. The gourmets went to France to eat. In this regard the Italians, French and Japanese defend themselves very well and have marketed themselves better than us. This new, renovated vibrancy that is happening in your kitchen is because you are a different, new and creative type of cook, this makes you more comfortable as you are surrounded by new blood. I find the time thanks to my capacity for teamwork; I have always believed in the success of teamwork, I never do anything that I wouldn’t like someone to do to me. I always put myself in the other person’s shoes. I’d like to meet another Martín like me. I am attending your interview and I understand your profession. This is important.

Are there different types of chef or are they all the same?

There is another style of chef. We are not afraid to make the first move and with the support of a top team and new, rejuvenated blood. This helps you open new shop windows to the world. It makes you think, and you realise that if you had just stayed in San Sebastián or the Basque Country, and you hadn’t taken the risk to go a step further, you would have missed out on so much in your kitchen and your brand, and the prosperity of your profession. Thanks to being able to transfer my knowledge to this eager new generation of young chefs we can open up to the world. I am an ambassador for my profession. I feel honoured to live in such a privileged country.

This is called roots.

The more apples there are on the tree the more roots it needs and the more deeply rooted it needs to be in the ground; otherwise it can get blown away with the wind.

How would you define the new Etxeko culinary concept?

It’s like my home and my origins. My house if different to yours; we each have our own experiences. I only ever used to go home to sleep. I grew up in a very popular restaurant. When I was sitting at a table with taxi drivers, sculptors, butchers or fishermen and I got bored, I moved on to the next one. There were different rooms, and noises, and chargrilled food… When the first noises and smells you experience are these ones, you know this is your home. Forty-four years later I am more or less the same kitchen apprentice as before, and this is what I try to express with Etxeko.

How have you adapted it for an island as unique as Ibiza?

Madrid wasn’t anything like the Basque Country, and the same goes for Ibiza. There is nothing better than to thank the land that chosen you, from so many other cooks, to be responsible for your gastronomic project. They are totally different projects. The added touch the young chefs have here is different, they don’t mess up. They are hungry to make a difference. What happens is we put the breaks on them when they are small and this slows them down.

Are you familiar with Ibizian cuisine?

I have had Ibizan chefs in my restaurant studying under me and it was the first time I got to know your cuisine. Etxeko has been alive for over a year with them at the helm. Ibicencos are my brothers and sisters. I have been working with Ibizan chefs for years at my restaurant. I feel very well supported by the team I have here because my philosophy is good teamwork. I am here to offer new things and learn and I don’t intend to let anyone down. You’ll see. I have come to this land to humbly learn, because the sky, cuisine and the people have surprised me, they speak quietly and slowly – there is a great sensation of relaxation here, as if time had stood still – and I love it. I want to pay tribute with a red prawn and sea cucumber paella and transport the dishes of Lasarte to the enchantment of Ibiza.

Other great chefs including, Paco Roncero, Sergi Arola, Albert Adrià and Nobu Yamashita have all launched businesses here. How will you compete?

These great talents are culinary royalty; they are people I feel a great deal of gratitude and admiration for. I feel honoured to form part of this family together with the greats of Ibizan cuisine, it’s very special. Moreover, they are friends and form part of the success story of Spanish cuisine.

Why do you think that a place as small as Ibiza has achieved such an international gastronomic boom?

The island may have a small surface area, but it is coveted the world over. Distances apart, it reminds me a lot of San Sebastián. One is a city, the other an island, but both are of a certain size that can’t be increased. Both are small, but very big in terms of quality, these are things that can’t be measured.

Is this fashion of having restaurants in hotels with famous chefs a new way of understanding gastronomy?

We have done some amazing things with gastronomy, and others not so great. What we cannot allow to happen is for stratospheric investments to be made in hotels but where the cuisine is totally overlooked. Gastronomy is an important way of transmitting happiness, which is forgotten if the food isn’t right, and I say this from a very humble point of view. I feel very proud to have my food in Bless Hotels.

Is Spanish gastronomy experiencing its best moment?

Spanish cuisine is in the best of health and we have to take advantage of the situation. Not so many years ago people went to France to sample the cooking of the great French chefs. In Spain we have been capable of changing the course of our cuisine to reach this great moment.

El cocinero vasco en una pose típica suya al grito de 'Garrote', su lema favorito para motivar en la cocina. D.I.
The Basque chef in typical pose shouting ‘Garrote’, his favourite expression for motivating his team. D.I.

You have a total of ten Michelin stars. How have you achieved it?

I am extremely proud of the Michelin stars they have awarded me with. I have been focused on gastronomy for so many years and worked so hard to make it into the best gastronomic guide. Michelin has changed my life. I was working in a popular restaurant and I won my first star at the age of 24, before anyone else had got one. This opened up new horizons for me and I decided to get married to my girlfriend of 22 because I felt that I had something to say as a chef, which is where the founding project started, that of Martín Berasategui Lasarte.

There are a string of important chefs that renounce their stars due to pressure and the added work of maintaining them.

My Michelin stars are the result of a very generous effort by my family, my team and all those who made it possible. Michelin has changed the life of cooking, that’s the long and short of it… yes of course there is pressure… But what other professions don’t have pressure? My pressure is enjoyable. You can’t add any more pressure to that which I already have. Thanks to Michelin, chefs have been rightfully rewarded and recognised. Technology has changed a lot in the world of cooking. Forty years ago it meant nothing to be a chef, the worst job in the world, and now we are famous and newsworthy.

Are you aware of the great moment you are experiencing?

We have seen a historical moment in cooking, which has been turned upside down with great maestros such as Arzak, Ramón Roqueta, Arguiñano… and with new values. I have so much passion for this work that I don’t always realise what is happening.

Have you had to make a lot of sacrifices to be successful?

I’ve had to leave a lot of things behind in order to stay on top; my drive and enthusiasm have always spurred me on.

There is a lot of talk about sustainable cooking lately. Can you tell us something new about this?

One must protest when cooking isn’t sustainable. Is there such a thing as unsustainable cooking? Students have to be educated every day so that every book, film or textbook talks of sustainability, 0 km food, etc. How can you value a product that has travelled 15,000 kilometres, a fruit, for example, which if you looked carefully was already there on your doorstep? The seasonal shopping basket offers us some marvellous products. Mother nature provides the very best.

Are we forgetting the true nature of the product?

We would have to be doing something wrong if we were debating if something was sustainable or not. Before we had aeroplanes, the journey of these products wasn’t discussed so much, and it was a privilege to have the fresh products to hand that you already had. I have the added good fortune of the place I was born in. The menus I prepare for Christmas, spring, summer and autumn are sustainable because I look at the product being offered to me by nature for every season.

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