The Chef who Overlooks San Sebastián
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
Image: Spanish chef Pedro Subijana
The first impression of Pedro Subijana (born in San Sebastián in 1948) is a big moustache and a smile. His reputation as one of the leading Basque chefs has been gained over 30 years of hard work, leading in 2006 to his third Michelin star.
Subijana works alongside Ada, his wife and the mother of their three children, in a restaurant in a spectacular location. Akelare (a Basque word that has entered the Spanish language, meaning a coven of witches) is on the slopes of the Monte Igueldo, one of the symbols of the beautiful city of San Sebastián, and looks over the Concha bay, the island of Santa Clara and the restless Bay of Biscay.
Pedro started out in Akelare in 1975 but only after extensive travel and training. His decision to become a professional chef was a last-minute one, taken just before he was about to start studying medicine at a prestige university in Pamplona (Navarre). First, he entered the Madrid Hospitality School, then returned to the Basque Country when he learnt that a new school was to be opened in Zarauz, that of Luis Irízar, whom he always names as his maestro.
After marrying, he started working at a typical asador grill restaurant in Tolosa, then moved to the nearby town of Hernani to take charge of the restaurant at a club for the Basque sport of pelota. Hearing how well things were going, Luis Irízar informed his former student about a new French-style restaurant to be opened in Madrid, the famous Zalacain. Subijana worked for one year at what at the time was considered Madrid's top restaurant. In 1974 he was taken on as chef at a restaurant in Estella (Navarra), bringing him close to where he really wanted to be, his home town of San Sebastián. But he did not have to wait long. Twelve months later, he was chef de cuisine at the restaurant perched above the city's spectacular bay.
New Basque Cuisine
Once he was in charge at Akelare, he soon found himself involved in one of the most interesting phenomena in Spanish gastronomy, New Basque Cuisine, which started out in the late 1970s. The seed was sown by a group of local chefs, under the influence of Paul Bocuse and French Nouvelle Cuisine, who decided to give a new look to traditional Basque cooking. In the words of Subijana, "New Basque Cuisine aimed to focus on seasonal products but adding a large dose of imagination and pushing back the frontiers".
This movement, under the leadership, amongst others, of Juanmari Arzak , planted the seed of what was to become the avant-garde of Spanish gastronomy. Pedro Subijana has never looked back. That was when learning new things became a passion. Recipes were updated but always based on respect for Basque tradition and the best possible local produce. Above all, he says, "Throughout the meal, we take care of every last detail to ensure that the occasion is a memorable one".
His continued devotion to his profession leads him to change the menus at his restaurant every two months, to collaborate with several cooking schools, including the one where he himself studied, to participate in TV programs and to publish books on both home cooking and high-level gastronomy.