My Trip to Spain

My Trip to Spain

February has become the month I travel to rejuvenate my culinary spirit. Each year I choose a different food destination where I spend one week on an exploratory food journey. Last year it was Paris with a side trip to the Sportsman in England. Following a bit in the footsteps of George and Paula, this year it was Madrid and San Sebastian.

I have wanted to go to San Sebastian since I was in high school; it is a place that has always held a romantic image for me—a seaside town with great surf, great food and a sense of independence. This trip my travel partner was Jason Knibb, chef of Nine-Ten restaurant just down the street from George’s and someone I have known and cooked with for 20 years. We started our trip by cooking a celebratory anniversary dinner together at Joe’s Restaurant in Venice, California, a kitchen that Jason and I both spent time in as younger cooks. The next day we left from LAX to Madrid.

We arrived in the morning, checked into our hotel and took off to find the Mercado San Miguel, a renovated market with plenty of tapas options. We toured the market and settled into a tapas place that looked good, ordered a couple of beers and a few tapas, as well as an order of Pulpo a la Gallega (Galician octopus) off their cooked menu. It was a good start to what would end up being a very interesting food trip. Rather than go into the details of every course of every meal we ate, what follows is an overview of what I came away with. I never go on a trip like this with a particular goal in mind, and it is not until after I return home that I realize what I really got out of it.

Mercado San Miguel

As a chef, I always strive to broaden my knowledge and experience because it helps me sort out my feelings about the food we do at George’s and focus my attention on our message and what is most important. Spain has always worked well for me because it is ingredient-driven, with clean flavors, and has a history and culture of creativity.

We chose a mixture of places. In Madrid, we went to Sergi Arola for modern and upscale, Juana La Loca for tapas as well as both Mercado San Miguel and Mercado San Antonio for tapas and browsing. We flew from Madrid to Bilbao, had lunch at Etxanobe then drove to San Sebastian. In San Sebastian we went to A Fuego Negro, Arzak, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Gambara and Borda Berri. Just outside of San Sebastian we went to Sidreria Zelaia, Elkano and Akelare. On the way back to Bilbao we stopped for lunch at Asador Etxebarri.

Each place we went to exposed a different element, or layer, of what I needed to see. The places that focused on the ingredients—Elkano, Sidreria Zelaia and Asador Etxebarri—were the best meals of the trip. The tapas, or pintxos, were excellent overall, but rich and heavy with cod tripe and pigs ears being the highlights.

Running a creative restaurant is a challenging thing. Where does the inspiration come from? How does it continue to grow while still staying true to its original direction? As a chef whose been doing this a while, I try to stay current on trends without being too influenced by them. I am always very interested in seeing restaurants that have been around awhile to understand how they have developed and stayed relevant, because if you keep doing the same thing you will eventually run out of guests or at the very least fall off the creative restaurant list and become a classic (not necessarily a bad thing). Arzak and Akelare are both restaurants with a long history and three Michelin stars that have continued to stay modern, in a sense. The influence of El Bulli is noticeable in both of these restaurants, and the use of many of the techniques that Ferran Adria and his team made famous are everywhere on these menus and border on the gimmicky. To me this is dangerous territory and they both pull it off with varying degrees of success.

(Arzak) Chocolate Spheres / Juan Mari Arzak, Jason & Me / Venison Course
(Akelare) Foie Gras with Fake Salt & Pepper / Restaurant Entrance / Apple Tart Edible Paper

The cuisine I appreciate the most is simple, with intense, pure flavors, plated beautifully to showcase the ingredients rather than to manipulate them too much. Asador Etxebarri is my kind of place. It is a restaurant that does not show the influence of others and is technically flawless. It is cuisine that is built on the exploration of drawing out the maximum flavor of the ingredients. The entire meal was exceptional. At the end of the meal we were served two desserts, both with ice creams. The first was a reduced milk ice cream that was so intense with such a deep milk flavor it struck me as a meditation on how good an ice cream could be. Jason and I were both floored by it. After all the pyrotechnics we had seen, we had no idea how they got so much flavor into a quenelle of ice cream.

Asador Etxebarri

While I appreciate the technical skill and showmanship of more manipulated cuisine, it most often strikes me as a show of ego. Look, I can turn a mango puree into an egg yolk, or a mussel into a rock or black bean! Look I’m going to burn a cutting board at your table or light some prawns on fire. We had all of these items on this trip and the question I cannot stop myself from asking is, “Why?”