You can ask any chef in the world about their favourite restaurants on the planet, and most likely, Asador Etxebarri will be in their top five — in many cases, even the top one. The restaurant located in Axpe, a small idyllic village nestled in the mountains of the Basque Country, gained prominence through the work of its creator, the 62-year-old cook Victor Arguinzoniz (Bittor Arginzoniz).
In recent years, Asador Etxebarri has consistently been among the 10 best restaurants in the World’s 50 Best list. At the 2021 awards ceremony in Antwerp, the self-effacing, Arguinzoniz was announced as the winner of the Chef's Choice Award, demonstrating how well-respected he is among the global culinary community (something he achieved without a marketing department or a presence on social media, and almost oblivious to today’s food media circus).
Etxebarri has become a place of pilgrimage, and Arguinzoniz a kind of gastronomic deity. It’s difficult to know which one is most admired in the food world - the restaurant or the chef - because it’s impossible to separate creator and creature: Etxebarri is Arguinzoniz, and vice versa. The chef’s life has been the same almost every day. “Since April 27, 1990,” he recalls, precisely. Early in the morning, he goes to the restaurant to light up the braziers with wood (from holm oak to vine trunks) that he collects mostly in the surroundings of the Atxondo valley, where he has lived his whole life.
Then he starts preparing the starters and organising the mise-en-place. He doesn't return home until late evening — not before he's got the dough ready for the next day's bread. "It's infrequent for me not to see him roaming around by 8 pm," says Mohamed Benabdallah, the restaurant's sommelier and front-of-house manager.
Victor Arguinzoniz, photo by Mariano Herrera
"He is so obsessively dedicated. For him, Etxebarri is not a restaurant; it's more like a son," he says. Benabdallah adds his boss taught him that, while excellence is an elusive concept, one must always be in pursuit of it. "Some people are fine with the idea of serving something good, even if it's not yet the best. He isn’t.”
For more than 30 years, Arguinzoniz has actively devoted himself not only to the restaurant (which is located only a kilometre away from his house), but to his craft as a fire cook — or ‘fire whisperer’, as he came to be known — so diligently that his work forged his life at the kitchen. He is a kind of craftsman who understands that he has to keep alive the flame of a time-honoured tradition lest it might vanish, as if he were one of the last survivors of a millennial order that is in danger of extinction.
"I remember very well the first time I went to eat at Etxebarri; I was impressed by that absurdly outgoing, detail-oriented, attentive gentleman. I thought, this is the biggest cuisine revolution I can see today," recalls chef Alex Atala. It was the "El Bulli era, where we were all obsessed with techniques and technologies, and he did something completely opposite with his fire”.
The lauded Brazilian chef also recounts a class Arguinzoniz gave to a group of chefs, including Andoni Aduriz, Joan Roca, Francis Paniego and himself. "He talked about how to cook perfect asparagus and asked everyone's opinion. In the end, he prepared his asparagus on a baking pan with many small laser holes that he covered with moss. By controlling the time and heat, the moss dehydrated before the asparagus lost moisture; there was a smoky flavour and a perfect texture, not woody or stringy at all,” he says. “We were all stunned.”
Behind this philosophy of life is an ongoing search to improve his fire techniques and to perfect the symbiosis between tradition and future, between local and global, that has made him a reference point for chefs from all over the world — many of whom journey every year to the foothills of Etxeondo to see what came out of his restless mind.
"It's impossible to talk about the chefs I admire the most without mentioning Victor Arguinzoniz," says Dabiz Muñoz, from Michelin-starred DiverXO in Madrid. The Spanish chef says that what fascinates him most about his colleague's work is his relentless ability to keep improving his cooking skills. "The perfectionism with which he manipulates the ingredient is something admirable,” he adds.
To find the best way to cook his ingredients, Arguinzoniz created several utensils (such as a pot with a hole in the centre for cooking seafood over wood steam, or latticed pans in the manner of a colander) to achieve unprecedented results with fire — being able to take to the grill ingredients that had never been placed over it, such as delicate caviar or smoked milk ice cream. He also devised memorable signature dishes that transformed the gastronomy around the fire, such as the crispy-skinned yet gelatinous-textured eel, and his insurmountable soufflés.
"In addition to his mastery of fire, his sensitivity to work with simplicity to enhance the ingredient is also inspiring. He uses this so-called simplicity to take different aromas and textures to the apogee", says Portuguese chef Alexandre Silva, who runs Michelin-starred LOCO and Fogo (Fire, in English), in Lisbon — the latter directly inspired by Arguinzoniz' work. “You may have tasted shrimp in different restaurants, in different ways, but you've never tasted anything like the one he serves at his restaurant."
Smoked anchovies from the Cantábrico sea (image by Oscar Oliva)
Arguinzoniz is also a little opposed to the press in general. Still, speaking to Fine Dining Lovers moments before starting another service, he says he believes there is still ground to innovate with fire cooking. "I've dedicated my whole life to this art to develop a practical skill to be able to control times and temperatures over the ambers meticulously, which makes this craft purely artisanal.”
He says many people come to Etxebarri in search of his recipes and secrets. "They don't exist. Sorry to disappoint everyone. It's just a daily job, nothing more,” he explains. For him, the craft of fire is impossible to teach, it can be only acquired with experience and a lot of dedication. "And, to be honest, I don't see people willing to sacrifice themselves to learn it. It takes time, patience. Of the more than 30 years I've been here, few people who came to learn something were really able to capture it," he says.
Hector Gran is a young cook who has been working with Arguinzoniz since 2015. With stints at Quique Dacosta and Mugaritz, he is now the apprentice of one of the world's most respected chefs and fire artisans. If at first the idea of having a boss so focused on work concerned him a little (Arguinzoniz can have a fiery temper when an ingredient passes a few seconds from the cooking point), their exchange has been very fruitful.
"In Etxebarri's world — which is Victor's world — there is a golden rule that it is paramount to have the best product available every day and to treat it in the best possible way,” says Gran. "Victor can understand the potential of each ingredient: while the flames may just caress some, others need to rest over the embers. That sensitivity is what makes him such a unique chef.”
It's hard to predict whether Gran or any other cook working below Asador Etxebarri's mastery will be able to carry on the legacy of Arguinzoniz and his beloved restaurant. But there’s no doubt his name will be perpetuated in the gastronomic world. Not only for the way he changed fire cooking, but also for how he may still influence younger cooks. "He is an icon of our trade, a legend,” says trailblazing chef Rene Redzepi. "I see Victor also as a futurist.”
For the Dane, Etxebarri is a proper definition of what will be mandatory to relieve the pressure on the environment, by focusing on food systems that are cleaner, where we use what's in season and cook only with the products around us. "This is the extreme expression Etxebarri is, and it is the future [in the gastronomy world] we need. Victor has dedicated his life to one chore, which goes against the grain of expansion that took our sector. He has been able to focus all his energy, love, and care into one single, self-owned, unique project.”
"This is where I belong, Etxebarri is the epicentre of my life,” explains Arguinzoniz, just before going back to the kitchen at the end of our chat. "I still marvel at the embers today just as I did when I was a child. I'm not a person who likes to talk a lot, to communicate. I communicate with the fire and through the fire, and I try to convey my feelings in the dishes I serve to my guests.” Something he has been doing masterfully.
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