A chef influenced by place
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Though that meal happened more than a decade ago, the memory remains vibrant as ever. Who was this person who’d created such ethereal food using the most elemental tool of all? I returned to Atxondo, Spain, to find out, although I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Famously shy, chef Bittor Arginzoniz, 56, would rather scrub grills than submit to a grilling himself. As the chef joined me at my table, he promptly hunched his tall frame forward, crossing his forearms protectively.
As I discovered, the best way to know him is to know the place he’s spent his entire life. A village straight out of Basque central casting, Atxondo is nestled at the foot of jagged limestone cliffs, its central plaza ringed by a church, a jai alai court and several tiled-roof stone buildings — among them Etxebarri, formerly the town’s bar and general store.
Arginzoniz grew up just a few hundred yards away. “We didn’t have gas or electricity, so the cooking was done over the hearth. Mealtime was sacred then.” He’s at his most relaxed recalling the past, and even breaks into an almost-smile. “I remember those aromas, the smell of firewood, the taste of the stews the grandmothers used to make.”