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Martín Berasategui on Gastronomika and Staying Relevant

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The Basque chef Martín Berasategui speaks with a rasp and of hard work. His eponymous restaurant in San Sebastian, which he opened in 1993, holds three Michelin stars, but the chef doesn't bang on about creativity or the avant-garde as some of his contemporaries might. His achievements suggest that he certainly could, though. He's known the grind of the kitchen since he was thirteen, when he started working at his family's Bodegón Alejandro. He eventually took over that restaurant when he was twenty, after having spent time studying in France, and earned a Michelin star there after just a year of work. In the following decades, he'd come to be one of the most important chefs in the world and a key player in putting Basque haute cuisine on the map. In the following interview, Berasategui talks about his career, the upcoming Gastronomika festival, and his relationship to France, the country that will be the focal point of this year's congress.

How long have you been involved with Gastronomika?
I've been in this from the beginning, which was about fourteen years ago, when they were doing Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia. I really do think that congresses have been and continue to be crucial to cooking. That not only applies to Spanish gastronomy, but to gastronomy around the world. Some may be saying it's outdated, but it's very, very important for chefs to be able to teach each other.

Some say that the age of the demo is over. Why do you think it's still relevant and valuable?
I think it makes chefs more knowledgeable. Most of all, it makes them more confident to see that other people are taking risks and trying new things; they're not alone. But of course, you have to go to the good festivals and congresses. You should be seeing the best from the best at these things — that's the point.

And why France? I remember interviewing one of the festival's organizer's last year, and one of his points was that the country had fallen behind in terms of cooking.
The truth is that France opened up the doors to all of us and formed the foundation of our cooking. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for France. I will always owe it a great debt. When I went to France and worked there, I learned about making ice cream, charcuterie, baking, and cooking. I learned about everything. It's long overdue to honor the country, in my opinion. It would be extremely difficult to deny how crucial that country has been and always will be to cooking.

What do you see in this new wave of French chefs like David Toutain and Iñaki Aizpitarte?
What I see in these young chefs is that they are colorists and artists. They are delicate and have an amazing sensibility, but behind that is an extremely strong foundation in basic cooking. They've pushed that country's cuisine forward, and they're really authentic guys, from what I can tell. They're the result of what I saw there when I decided go and learn there many years ago. I learned about discipline, culture, organization — so much. I would wake up at four in the morning on days when my family's restaurant was closed and go to France to learn. I never forget that at one point I was a novice and that France has in some way shaped or helped every single chef in the world.

What makes Gastronomika stand out and stand the test of time, in your opinion?
I'd say that San Sebastian and Gastronomika were the ones responsible for putting gastronomic congresses on the map, and it's still relevant. It's always looking forward, and it remains an example for young congresses around the world. There may be newer ones, but this is one of the most valuable and admired of them all. We try to make it better every year, and it involves the work of countless chefs and thinkers that have dedicated their lives to these ideas.

What do you think of the word vanguardia, or "avant-garde," which so many Spanish chefs tend to use?
I like the word, but I'm of the group that would say that it's always been here. We've always had innovation. People talk about it as if it had been invented yesterday, and that's not true. Every day in this craft there has been a push forward. The vanguard has been around since man appeared on the earth. It's been the case for a long time that diners want to be surprised and see different things, so that has pushed us always. That's how you stay viable in the market.

The question that seems to get asked a lot these days is what happens to Spanish gastronomy after elBulli, which strikes me as kind of a silly question. What I'm more interested is how you see the landscape at the moment?
It's amazing what we have now. There's a level of professionalism we may never have had before. Most of all, there's a beautiful balance: there's naturalism, sensitivity, artistry, technology, all existing in a harmonious way. There's so much variety.

Even in the face of a major economic crisis? There are restaurants closing, and great chefs like David Muñoz have said they're considering leaving the country.
I think that great projects can come from great crises. I opened my restaurant in 1993 when things weren't going so great, and look, we're still around! I've come to realize that for people that work hard and try to defy the odds, there's usually a nice prize in it for them. That makes it all the more powerful — to see all of these great things happening in a pretty dire economic climate. I'm not worried about the future, and I'd even say we can celebrate what's going on right now and be very, very happy about it.

You talk about remaining relevant and surviving in the market. So, how do you see the evolution of your restaurant and what are you thinking about these days as a chef?
The way I look at life, it's about hard work and going all-in. And that's what I keep doing. I think about new dishes, about naturalism — and I have a wonderful team — but it's mainly about hard work.

I'm always changing, though. More than that, I'm always going to try to get better. If there's a dish of salmonete on the menu this year, it has to be better than the one I served last year. You have to set those goals if you want to be relevant. That's what I've learned over the past 37 years, spending most of my time in kitchens. It's hard work, but it's also what has brought me happiness.

You always seem to emphasis hard work, but how do you view the importance of creativity and artistry?
I'm a cook, not an artist or craftsman. I can say that even more easily now, when people respect the profession more than they used to. The beauty of what I do is that it's a mix of all of those things that always keeps you on your toes. It can be a real party.

I'd ask you about your thoughts on the World's 50 Best...
Better not touch that!

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Restaurante Martín Berasategui

Calle de Loidi, 5 20160 Lasarte-Oria, Spain

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