Food & Drink

On the Grill: taming fire and flames with Chef Bittor Arguinzoniz

Mar 8, ’21

The original article is published in Más Raro Que magazine – The Gastronomy issue (Sep. 2020)

There’s no one quite like him. For chef extraordinaire Bittor Arguinzoniz, food is religion and ingredients are sacred. He mastered the art of grilling any food, capturing the heat of the fire and honing the skills to achieve legendary levels of cooking. As a result, his famed Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Region was voted the third best restaurant in the world according to World’s 50 Best, and he’s gathered a cult of followers from across the globe. ‘MÁS RARO QUE’ magazine catch up with Arguinzoniz to hear what inspires him to keep grilling every day.

“At work with the embers is where I feel happy, and I try to do it in the best way possible,” says Arguinzoniz, speaking with a humility that has characterised throughout his journey. “When you work with the same tools and every day you do the same thing, you can get tired of it. And that day came to me and I asked myself: ‘Why can’t other ingredients be cooked on the grill?’”

Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Those who have had the good fortune to eat at his restaurant Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, Spain know these principles well: Arguinzoniz breaks all preconceptions, using coals to cook mushrooms and elvers, artichokes, thistles and borage, foie gras, sea bream, sea urchins and even egg yolks. All cooked with special utensils, designed by the chef himself, to get the most out of them on the grill.

Based on a winning formula of fire and effort, Asador Etxebarri has come to be recognized as the third best restaurant in the world according to the World’s 50 Best guide. Amazingly, winning this award has not altered the soul of the humble Basque restaurant in the slightest. Arguinzoniz alone is still in charge of the grill, because after 30 years in front of the embers he has not yet found a successor. He knows that his success does not depend on good marketing, but rather on doing a good job in the kitchen and leaves diners satisfied. This is why he dispenses with communication agencies, social networks and advertisements. Arguinzoniz makes bread, beer, sausage and mozzarella, made with the milk of his own Italian buffaloes brought from Lazio. He raises and feeds chickens in the open air, and harvests vegetables from his garden at their optimum point, all efforts to ensure the highest quality. Allegedly, he even rebuilt the farmhouse with his own hand. It was previously the bar and the grocery store in Axpe, the village where his restaurant is located.

Asador Etxebarri
Asador Etxebarri. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

In fact, Arguinzoniz practices a freedom that makes him the strangest of all chefs. “From the outside, Bittor seems strange because he is a purist as well as a perfectionist, because he does what he wants and leads the life he wants,” says Juan Pablo Cardenal, who got to know him closely during the preparation of the book Extebarri (published in 2017, available in Spanish, English, German and Italian), “In today’s gastronomic world where what prevails is the accessory, he focuses on what is important: on the raw material, on the seasons, on something as important as chewing. That is not what is fashionable, and that is precisely what makes it rare.”

Mariano Herrera, who also photographed him for that work, was similarly impressed. “Being at the head of the third best kitchen on the planet, he does not fail to put himself in front of his grills  everyday. If for some reason he is unable to do so, the grill will remain closed. Submitting to such a commitment shows an overwhelming discipline.” Iñaki Arteta, director of the documentary Bittor Arguinzoniz, was able to verify this same discipline in Living the Silence, 2019: “He’s someone who can’t sit still…. The year that we have spent visiting him – keeping our distance – has shown us a man who is intellectually intrepid and very reflective.”

Bittor Arguinzoniz
Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

However, the chef’s perception of himself is very different: “I am a normal person and what I do is totally normal. I do what I believe in, and this is the path that I have chosen for a long time and that I continue to walk under my own criteria,” says Arguinzoniz during this interview.  He’s unwaveringly clear about his guiding principles: “I have never worked for validation from the media, a guide or anyone else, and I never will. The only qualification I seek is that of the customer who comes here and that qualification for me is through his happiness, the pleasure he feels here at mealtime. And nothing else.”

Asador Etxebarri swims against the tide at a time when haute cuisine is defined by the belief that the more technology the better to intensely transform the ingredient. Where the trompe l’oeil is king, Arguinzoniz plants a T-bone steak. Where there is Roner, Arguinzoniz has oak wood. Some point out that there is no value in the use of such an ancient technique, and yet they are wrong: there is as much or more value in this perfect control of fire than in the spherification of the olive. “For me, this technique, although primitive, is modern,” concludes the chef.

Bittor Arguinzoniz
Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Whatever the critics may say, the success of Etxebarri is indisputable. The restaurant Arguinzoniz started in 1990 had strong roots in Basque gastronomy and the noble purpose of being a sustainable business. Today, reservations sell out within four minutes of opening, at the end of every month. “Everything is based on a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, trying to do the things I like in the world of this ancestral technique. But, in reality, for me, success is the sum of small daily achievements,” Arguinzoniz explains. Those small daily achievements are adjustments, changes and improvements.

Although it may seem that Etxebarri is a static restaurant where control prevails over evolution, it is quite the opposite. “Our job is not to create one thing and stay there, but to improve everything we do on a daily basis. At the same time, if we can continue to create and innovate in the world of embers, much better,” the Chef points out.

Bittor Arguinzoniz
Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

Over the past 30 years, the restaurant that began with grill and griddle cuisine has become a steakhouse, going beyond the classic cod, chop, turbot, bream to abandon charcoal in favor of oak wood for fish and seafood, and olive wood and vine shoots for meat. Arguinzoniz has worked to create independent ovens for a greater mastery of fire and to design the most perfect utensils for cooking each product. In fact, the changes are daily: no two pieces of meat or fish are ever the same, but he always serves them all perfectly grilled.

At the foot of Mount Anboto, which Arguinzoniz hikes up every Monday come rain or shine, the solid-walled farmhouse will remain the only Asador Etxebarri as long as he is in charge. “To all those who ask me why I don’t open another restaurant, I say no,” he says. “My cuisine is linked to the roots of where I was born, where I have lived, in the middle of nature; it is the environment, it is the rusticity. At the end of the day, cooking is feeling and my feelings are here, in Axpe; that’s why this cuisine only makes sense here. Feelings cannot be exported anywhere. Nowadays we no longer think about feelings or anything else: the only thing we think about is money, business. That is not my case. This is my way of life. And I’ll go on as long as my body can take it.”

Bittor Arguinzoniz
Bittor Arguinzoniz. Ⓒ Joan Pujol-Creus

GRILLED EGG YOLK WITH WHITE TRUFFLE

Bittor has a special appreciation for something as seemingly simple as egg yolks, which he uses to prepare a dish of grilled egg yolk with white truffle. “First, I love it because it comes from my own hens, which are free-range in the countryside. And then because of the technique we use: grilling. The impossible becomes reality in Bittor’s hands; the simple ingredient takes on a new dimension of complexity. The idea, which came about in May 2019, has led to the invention of a new utensil suitable for roasting the yolk on the embers without damaging it. The operation consists of cocooning the yolk in ball-shaped filters, like those used in tea infusions. In this filter, which Bittor calls a teapot, two bars are inserted to hold the yolk, which in turn are anchored to a motor that turns them gently, just like a spit. “When you have a product like the egg I have and you want to grill it, necessity forces you to invent these things,” says Bittor. To finish off the dish, he shaves sheets of white truffle.

Magazine: Más Raro Que – The Gastronomy issue (Sep. 2020)
Publishers: El Perro Verde & McCann
Curator: Jon Sarabia
Photographer: Joan Pujol-Creus
Text: Rosa Molinero

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