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The culinary giant from the Basque Country: Martín Berasategui

By: Reading Time: 5 Minutes

Martín Berasategui has been shaping Spain’s rise to a culinary world power for almost 50 years – and is breaking all records among Spain’s top chefs. Why he’s nowhere near done – and why the youth today is the best culinary generation ever.

It’s not that nobody knows the Basque country. In fact, the opposite is true. Today, this idyllic region of Spain along the Atlantic coast is practically a place of pilgrimage among gourmets who like to travel. Restaurants such as Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz and Etxebarri prove this with their annual stars and rankings.

iCombis in the kitchen of Martín Berasategui

Image: Rational

The Spanish culinary wonder

However, very few people know that this is where the famous Spanish culinary wonder began. One of the reasons for this is that Spanish top cuisine is still associated with the buzzword molecular cuisine. And in the mid-1990s, it finally gained its stronghold, not in the Basque country, but in Catalonia, more specifically on the Costa Brava, where the legendary ElBulli became the culinary epicenter of the world under Ferran Adrià. This stole the show a little from the Basque country.

Because as much as the Spanish culinary wonder is associated with molecular cuisine à la Adrià – without Nueva Cocina Vasca, i.e. the New Basque cuisine, it would never have existed. So Spain’s rise in the gastronomy Olympics actually began not only in the 1990s, but 20 years before. In the mid-1970s, when the young revolutionaries in the culinary world, Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana, went to France to be inaugurated into the secrets of the French Nouvelle Cuisine by Paul Bocuse and other Grand Masters of the Grande Nation.

Back in their homeland, Arzak, Subijana and co. reinterpreted traditional Basque cuisine – laying the foundation for the Spanish success story that continues to this day. In short, this story is long, very long. And yet over the years, it has been shaped consistently by one specific chef like no other: Basque-born Martín Berasategui.

 

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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Martín Berasategui (@martinberasategui)

New beginnings in the Basque Country

Twelve stars in the Michelin Guide, honorary doctorate titles, medals of merit – the number of prizes and orders awarded to the Grand Master in recent decades is overwhelming. One thing’s for sure: He is Spain’s most highly decorated chef and, in a very specific way, the most influential. Why is that? What makes the now 63-year-old such a giant in Nueva Nouvelle Cuisine? And how did it all begin?

First thing’s first: Martín Berasategui is not limited to the individual Martín Berasategui – he insists on that. “‘I’ consist of a large Basque ‘we’: the fishermen who cast the nets, the shepherd on the pasture, the livestock breeder in the barn, the farmer on the farm, the beekeeper with the honey. We have such incredible products from great people here in the Basque country. It feels unfair to talk only about me. I’m nothing without my country!”

 

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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Martín Berasategui (@martinberasategui)

And also without his family, as Martín Berasategui points out several times. In fact, his career without family is hardly conceivable. Born in San Sebastián in 1960, the young Martín began working in his parents’ restaurant, Bodegón, at the age of 14. “To this day, I still feel very lucky to have learned from my parents and aunt in the restaurant,” Berasategui remembers. “Everyone believed in success through teamwork and this laid the foundation for what we would later call the New Basque cuisine. To this day, I still remember all the pastry chefs, bakers, ice cream makers, butchers and all the other people who were passionate about their profession in this era of new beginnings. I learned an incredible amount from all of them.”

Even today, I still feel more like an apprentice than when I started 48 years ago. I’m in my element in the kitchen. I’m happiest here.<span class="su-quote-cite">Martín Berasategui</span>

And yet the young Martín Berasategui wanted more. So he went across the border to France during the holidays, and often on his free days, to learn the latest techniques. “I noticed that we still had lots of room for development at home”, he says, summing up these defining experiences. At just 20 years of age, he took over the kitchen management at his parents’ company and thus gave free rein to his ambitions. So much so that five years later he managed to achieve the almost unimaginable – and received a prestigious Michelin star.

 

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Ein Beitrag geteilt von Martín Berasategui (@martinberasategui)

Martín Berasategui also offers à la carte

Today, Berasategui calls this star “the foundation of my parent company.” And this means his flagship restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, a small town not far from San Sebastián, which opened in 1993.

At that time, the Spanish culinary wonder had already picked up speed, and molecular cuisine was on everyone’s lips. But while the entire Spanish gastronomy industry began to serve avant-garde, adventurous menu spectacles and push the limits of human taste the max, Berasategui was already swimming against the tide.

He wasn’t interested in dishes that were edible art installations. And even today, you can still order à la carte in his restaurant named after him, which is not a matter of course in Spanish three-star restaurants. But his product-focused kitchen with a well-balanced sense of innovation, which has always been based on RATIONAL units, still caused ripples. Very much so. His mille-feuille with smoked eel, foie gras and caramelized green apple, for example, is still legendary today. Or oysters with cucumber, sour fruits, kefir and coconut. Or the seaweed with edible fish scales, bean sprouts, semolina and squid. Not to mention countless variations based on cod cheek.

There is no better job than making guests happy with the cooking or service.<span class="su-quote-cite">Martín Berasategui</span>

Martín cooks with passion. With dedication – for the products and for the people. You can see and taste it. Above all, however, he is grateful, as he emphasizes several times. Grateful to have achieved something that seemed unattainable, to have a profession that makes him happy, to be able to pass on his knowledge to the young chefs and to have a family that supports and loves him.

As a grandfather, there’s nothing better than cooking for my granddaughter whenever I can.<span class="su-quote-cite">Martín Berasategui</span>

Martín Berasategui next stop: Dubai

All of this led to the third Michelin star in 2002, which Berasategui has successfully defended ever since. As if that wasn’t enough of a sensation on its own, the enterprising creative spirit has opened several restaurants to this day, for example in Barcelona, Bilbao, Ibiza, Majorca, Lisbon.

Martín Berasategui in front of an iCombi Pro by Rational

Image: Rational

The deep connection and gratitude that Martín feels towards his family and surroundings is also reflected in the names of his restaurants. “All the names of my restaurants are related to things close to my heart, such as the Martín Berasategui, which I opened on 1 May. I have the same name as my father, who I lost a long time ago,” says the head chef, explaining the name.

And at the end of 2023, the next one will follow in Dubai. This will also have a special name: Jara Martín Berasategui. “Jara is the name of my granddaughter, who is two years old. So it’s called Jara and the name of the grandfather, but not me, the other grandfather.”

So it’s not surprising that Berasategui doesn’t set much store by retirement. “I will never be someone who can just sit around,” he says.

His unwavering drive and positive attitude reveals a refreshing confidence. Martín Berasategui is certain: “The young people today are the best generation ever in the kitchen. They are all educated, sometimes speak several languages, know what they want. We must all applaud these young people. And most importantly: We need to teach them everything we can and know. The future of cooking is in their hands!” Hands that will continue the Spanish culinary wonder in the coming decades. According to Basque tradition, of course.

 

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