25 years of Martín Berasategui. Interview with the Basque master

The restaurant of the most awarded chef in Spain celebrates its 25th anniversary. But he’s not agitated: "We’re still having fun"

29-06-2018

In the middle, Martín Berasategui, 56, for 25 years at the helm of the restaurant named after him in Lasarte-Oria, in the Basque Country, in Spain. Beside him, his wife Oneka and daughter Ane (photo from Lobo Altuna/Gastroctitud)

A good cook and an even better person. This is how Martín Berasategui would like people to remember him. Popular, charming, caring, generous, enthusiastic... He’s always ready to encourage, with a big smile and an arm ready to pull a fist to the sound of "Garrote!", the motto he invented at 21, now his trademark. A perfectionist, intuitive, tenacious and hard worker, he was ahead of his time in many ways. First in the kitchen, then in business. His palate is impressive: few other professionals are capable of combining so many ingredients and in such harmony. He’s the Spanish chef with the largest number of Michelin stars, a total of 8. He runs his personally owned restaurants, offers consultancy and manages his public image.

In Spain he’s the closest example to the Robuchon model. His restaurant in Lasarte, which recently turned 25 (it opened on May 1st 1993), has been one of the best cooking schools in the country. Among others, Pepe Rodríguez ReyDani GarcíaAndoni AdurizJosean AlijaIñigo LavadoRodrigo de la Calle have spent some time in his kitchen… Martín is proud of this, of having contributed to improving the restaurant industry. Today, at his restaurant you can enjoy the Gran Menú Degustación 25 Aniversario, which Berasategui and his team created especially for the occasion. It's a sort of edible summary of 25 years of accomplishments.

The restaurant turns 25, but how long have you been in this profession? What’s your evaluation?
I’ve been working for 43 years this September. I’m very happy, it wouldn’t be right to say or think differently. Six months after opening, we got the first Michelin star. Three years later the second, and in November 2001 the third, the maximum. We’ve also been the only restaurant that TripAdvisor’s users chose as "Best in the world" for two years in a row. I’m also the Spanish speaking chef with the largest number of Michelin stars and (American) Diamonds. I enjoy everything, including the awards that still await me because for me, on top of the above mentioned ones, every project is a great award. Given I’ve accomplished all this while having fun, what can I say? I can only continue to have fun.

The entrance to the Basque restaurant, 3 Michelin stars since 2001. On top of these, there are 3 stars for Lasarte in Barcelona and two for MB at the Ritz-Carlton Abama, in Tenerife

The entrance to the Basque restaurant, 3 Michelin stars since 2001. On top of these, there are 3 stars for Lasarte in Barcelona and two for MB at the Ritz-Carlton Abama, in Tenerife

What have you learnt over the years? What did apprentice Martín used to think? Are you enjoying it as much as you used to?
Just as much. When I was a kid, they offered me a job as a delivery boy for banks and insurance companies. My friends said that if I accepted, I would have been able to live without many difficulties. But I wanted to be happy. A great part of my success lies in the fact I’ve always done what I love and I continue to do so.

Tell us the story of your restaurant: how could a young man little over 20 take over a farm? Who helped you?
When we got the first Michelin star, at Bodegón Alejandro, it was me and my wife Oneka. We wanted to open a very different place compared to the one in the Old Town, so we started looking for different places. Bodegón had many limits. We couldn’t accomplish our dreams there. I’ve always trusted myself, I always had in mind that I wanted to do something significant as a chef. I wanted to do fine dining, I wanted to cook freely, to express myself, be creative. The farm in Lasarte-Oria belonged to my father-in-law, but turning it into a restaurant wasn’t easy, because of the local town planning.

Among others, we visited the house of the Count of Romanones in Oiartzun and the Gris de Ulia. Ana Urchueguía, the then mayor of Lasarte-Oria, one day came to dine at Bodegón Alejandro. She said that given the family of my wife was originally from the town, we could turn the farm into a restaurant. She showed a strong interest in the project. Indeed Lasarte-Oria has always supported us, this is why we moved here. With hard work and perseverance I created restaurant Martín Berasategui. It was a huge leap, with hundreds of extra square metres, and a thousand changes to make. Eusebio, a shepherd from Igueldo, helped us: he supported me with the bank, and told off the director, who didn’t want to give me a loan. I never forgot it. I will always appreciate it.

It’s important to receive some support at first. You did the same with Andoni Aduriz and the Mugaritz project, but it didn’t work. However, a few months ago the two of you were hugging on the cover of Diario Vasco. Is it the end of years of misunderstandings or is it just a picture?
It’s not true it didn’t work; in fact, it worked perfectly, we got many awards including two Michelin stars. I feel the success as my own too, because I was an essential part of his debut, in 1997, and I worked on the project until 2008. What failed was the human project of the Martin Berasategui Group, formed by David de Jorge, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Bixente Arrieta and I. But today each one of us is doing very well, this can only please us.

Berasategui’s famousTorrija (photo from esdiario.com)

Berasategui’s famousTorrija (photo from esdiario.com)

Ostra tibia, a more recent recipe

Ostra tibia, a more recent recipe

What would you avoid doing again?
Hindsight is easy. But I think I’d retrace the same journey. Young people, like everyone, always have a huge energy. Not that I feel I’ve lost my energy: I still have enough to stop a train. But over the years I’ve acquired serenity, new perspectives, new opportunities for analysis, a new temperament. There’s health, maturity is much better than you’d think.

Is there anything you didn’t do that you regret not doing?
Rather than things I would have done, I always wish my father didn’t die so young, so that he could see what we’ve become.

If you look back, do you miss anyone? Who would you like to thank?
My father, as I mentioned, my aunt Maria and my father-in-law. I miss them the most. It’s incredible how many people I should thank. I remember all the trainers and teachers I had, my family, my Arraun Lagunak kayak team... They had a crucial importance. My grandparents, my parents... I made the best of all they gave me when I was very young. This led to new possibilities in the kitchen, which is my own work.

What’s the first thing that you learnt to cook from your mother and aunt?
I remember this perfectly: garlic soup. I was 15. I listened to their advice. There are dishes that made a mark ever since they were born. Not because they were the best, but because of what they represented. 

With your torrija [pan brioche with custard, almond cream and coffee gelato] the same happened to you that had happened to Michel Bras’s molten cake: did anyone think it would have made you famous? Today torrija is everywhere...
It gives me the same pleasure I get when I see people copying my dishes. Every time it happens, I think I’ve done something good for the restaurant industry.

There’s a touch of Italy in the Martín Berasategui group: in the photo, Paolo Casagrande, from Treviso, chef at Lasarte in Barcelona, 3 Michelin stars. Among others, Matteo Torretta and Floriano Pellegrino have worked in the maestro’s kitchen 

There’s a touch of Italy in the Martín Berasategui group: in the photo, Paolo Casagrande, from Treviso, chef at Lasarte in Barcelona, 3 Michelin stars. Among others, Matteo Torretta and Floriano Pellegrino have worked in the maestro’s kitchen 

The Basque chef in a portrait by Bob Noto

The Basque chef in a portrait by Bob Noto

A man surrounded by women: your mother, your aunt, your wife Oneka, your daughter Ane ... The topic of women’s demands in the kitchen I guess doesn’t surprise you. What happens to women in fine dining? Perhaps they don’t adjust?
I don’t know. I can assure you that in my career, in the past and now, there have always been very important women. On top of my mother and aunt, who cooked and gave happiness with the family, on top of suppliers and clients, I was lucky enough to meet many good female chefs. We’ve worked with Carmen Ruscalleda, Fina Puigdevall, Elena Arzak, Susi Diaz, Macarena de Castro, Aizpea Oihaneder. Perhaps we are the ones who don’t adjust [he laughs]. Women can do four things at once, and always well. I still work with Oneka, Ane and I’m happy the way it is.

What do you think of how your world, restaurants, have turned into a show?
I’ve been one of those chefs who was capable of giving value to the profession and this makes me very proud. When I was young, families rejected the fact their children could have taken on this career; today it’s the opposite. Cooking must be based on sound foundations. Fake trends quickly die. I’m sure that, following this road, what new generations are doing, cooking will still have much to say. This profession is like a marathon: to reach your goals, you must be a good runner in the long run.

Are chefs the stars they seem to be these days? Does fame go to your head?
I feel I’m still the same Martintxo that got lost in the streets of the old town. And I’m also convinced that I will leave an important heritage as chef even if people will remember Martín as a public figure. I try to be as professional as I can, continuing the lessons I learnt from my parents.

Chef or entrepreneur? Today, at 56 and given your past career, is it more important to have talent in cooking or in business?
I’m a cook, without any doubt. When people make an offer and speak of money, I look at the brand: it must be immaculate. It’s something very important, to which I pay a lot of attention. Knowing how to cook is much more important than any economic consideration.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I walk a lot, I go hiking. Or I cook for family and friends. Most of all, I enjoy what I believe is the best city in the world, San Sebastián.

Berasategui in a photo from when he was young (cadenaser.com)

Berasategui in a photo from when he was young (cadenaser.com)

With friend and colleague Ferran Adrià (ecodiario.eleconomista.es)

With friend and colleague Ferran Adrià (ecodiario.eleconomista.es)

Any projects?
A few. Two restaurants in Madrid, very soon: the first, All all by Martín Berasategui, inside the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, will be ready by the end of the year; and another at hotel Velázquez, on which we’re currently working. And many new restaurants abroad, but little by little.

What will your restaurant be like over the next 25 years?
We’ll keep on working with the same infinite passion, the same daily expectations, the desire to exceed ourselves. We follow an attitude: if people expect two, we always try to give four. This is what we’ll try to continue doing, following our team spirit.

© Gastroactitud
(adapted by Gabriele Zanatta for identitagolose.com)

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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