Interview with Martín Berasategui
We were lucky enough to speak with one of the most awarded Spanish chefs: Martín Berasategui
Martín Berasategui is a household name in Spain, holding 12 Michelin stars - more than any other chef in Spain. It is safe to say the Basque chef is one of the best in the world, and his restaurants both in Spain and beyond are outstanding.
For our readers in the UK, please can you describe the region of Spain you are from, and explain how this has influenced your career as a chef?
I was born and raised in San Sebastián, a city located in the Basque Country, in the North of Spain. A very privileged place for its local ingredients and its location, as it is surrounded by the coast. The Basque gastronomy is varied, versatile, incredibly rich. It has first-class products that allow us to prepare balanced and nutritious dishes on a daily basis. I like that the restaurant guests, wherever they come from, realise that my cuisine is from the Basque country.
All this, together with the enthusiasm, the desire to innovate, the talent and the conscientious work of many chef teams, turned San Sebastián into one of the cities in the world with the most Michelin Stars per inhabitant. However, the world is very big, and there are brilliant cooks everywhere. We have to continue working hard and looking for innovation.
You started your cooking career at 15. What did your early jobs entail?
My parents and my aunt ran Bodegón Alejandro, a restaurant that actually was a ‘popular institution’ in our city, specifically in its Old part. It is there where my siblings and I mostly spent our time. As soon as I left school, I used to go to the Bodegón, that was divided into two dining rooms, one on the left for the general public, and another one on the right, separated by a door, and that one was for the family and closest relatives. There we had lunch, dinner and did everything. That was the epicentre of our lives – we only went home to sleep and take a shower.
My parents and aunt tried to take away my desire to be a cook, they said it was a very hard profession, that there were better things in life, that any other job would make me happier… but it is difficult to beat my stubbornness and I was also very clear on it, it was in my blood. Therefore, one day they told me that, if I wanted to be a cook, I would have to start working at eight in the morning, like everyone else, and be non-stop until midnight. I learned the basics, the foundations of the traditional cuisine, the basics of everything that I would have to develop later. But, above all, they taught me to love cooking, to choose what for me is the best profession in the world despite its hardness. Later, between the ages of 15 and 27 I visited France on my days off to be trained and acquire knowledge. Little by little I started to take on more responsibility, and that is how it all started.
You hold more Michelin stars than any other Spanish chef. What is the key to your success and how does that make you feel?
Being motivated on a day-to-day basis, continuing to improve, and seeking maximum excellence… this is the premise that we always set for ourselves. Awards are always a very important landmark in anyone's career, but the Michelin stars – for the thoroughness and professionalism that characterises the guide – seem to me the most important distinction of all. They are very hard to get and maintain, so I am over the moon.
What is your favourite way to enjoy olive oil, Martín?
I cannot choose one. There are a lot. A bread with oil spread on it with a pinch of salt is a delicacy. And any elaborate dish, be it simple or more avant-garde, made with the best olive oil is wonderful. Olive oil is undoubtedly one of the pillar ingredients of gastronomy.
Tell us a little about your new partnership with La Española Olive Oil.
This partnership with La Española is one of those beautiful things that happen in your professional life, for which I am very grateful and proud. La Española and I share many values and ways of doing and thinking.
What is the one ingredient you could not do without?
This is a very difficult question. I especially like the spring and summer ingredients. I love spring peas, asparagus, anchovies, plums, raspberries, strawberries, and so many other products. Each have their own character but the best advice that can be given is that, when finding an exceptional product, it must be respected in all its naturalness and freshness, giving it the importance it deserves.
Almost five decades and 12 Michelin stars later, is there anything you know today that you wish you had known from the beginning of your career?
In Spain it is said that "Después de visto, todo el mundo es listo", meaning that after seeing something, everyone is smart. I usually say that I am an eternal learner and I love being so. I think the beauty of life also consists of learning as time goes by. We are passing through and life is there to be enjoyed and accumulate experiences.
At La Española, we like to bring the traditional and the contemporary together in the creation of our olive oils. Do you feel it is important to capture that balance in your own work, remaining true to traditional Spanish flavours and techniques while pushing culinary boundaries?
Very important indeed. I think that whoever made squid in its own ink or marmitako (tuna pot) for the first time was an innovative genius. Painters, sculptors, architects ... Almost all of them sign their works and record their authorship, but we know nothing about those who created our gastronomic heritage. We have received it "from word of mouth", but we know that those people have marked history for having left us that culinary gold. I deeply despise those who do not take traditional cuisine into consideration.
It is true that when I make a completely original dish, I want it to have certain resemblance to something known. I demand that it has, at least, the quality of the great dishes that have been passed to us.
What is next for Martin Berasategui?
The last “post-pandemic” project inaugurated in May was the Txoko de Martín (new restaurant) in Palma de Mallorca. I am not closed to anything, I am tremendously restless and I can never stop, my head always craves for more. New challenges are always presented to me, but basically, I want to continue doing what I have always done, while growing more passionate about cooking and making my guests, and my people, happy.
What would be your message to the next generation of chefs?
I would encourage them to work hard, to put enthusiasm and perseverance on everything they do and not to think that great success happens overnight, as you have to be patient and very careful.