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Times are changing. There was a time when 3 Michelin starred restaurants followed the classic French model, and were synonymous with luxury, elegance and rigid principles only. However, last year was a special year for the Spanish Michelin Guide. Two avant-garde chefs achieved the maximum red guide rating, after many years of consistent work with their restaurants: Quique Dacosta and Eneko Atxa.
Atxa earned his fame by creating a sustainable restaurant in the Basque Country becoming in the process a model to be followed for its ethical and environmental principles.
At only 35 years old, he is already a chef with impressive skills and determination. He began his career at 15, worked with Martin Berasategui among others, and opened Azurmendi, just outside Bilbao, in 2005.
Azurmendi is impressive by its size and own production. In fact the research area resembles a small factory complete with a laboratory and wine production: unique in its genre, on top of being ecologically built. The architect Naia Eguino created a sustainable, bioclimatic structure that mimics nature. The building can be distmantled and most of the materials are recycled. There is a water resevoir, natural lighting, and a glass roof with a solar system. You can admire the surrounding landscape by the large windows while trying some of the locally produced dishes.
Azurmendi's laboratory has the support of the Alicia Foundation and Basque University, currently focusing on aroma research and cooking processes. He says: “The analytic chemist, Juan Manuel Madariaga, is responsible for the scientific implementation of our ideas, using high-tech laboratory equipment to investigate new techniques and methods to improve flavours. He also advises us on interesting research possibilities. However, no synthetic products are created, in this lab. Our agenda is to engage in improvement of the dining experience by having a better understanding of our senses!”
Atxa's menu is a love letter to the Basque Country: infusion of red onion skins, oysters tempura with seaweed, are some examples. The dishes come to life thanks to his own organic greenhouse, vegetable and herb production, and by working closely with wine makers and farmers to advice them on their products. Some local wine producers also work together with him at the restaurant.
The new menu highlights “eating out of the soil” with a visit to the greenhouse. The chef replaced some of the soil by food that looks like soil, and put chocolate truffles that looked like cherry tomatoes next to real tomatoes, the garden was in fact magic. The guests can pick up carrots and tomatoes from the green house: “You can eat the earth too”, he says. Back at the restaurant area, you are taken by the hand to an imaginary tour of Basque culture and its local ingredients.
"Our dream was to create a restaurant where people could feel nature not only in the dishes but as an overall experience. Our roots and our identity define our cuisine” adds Eneko Atxa.