EN VOYAGE – Bilbao Revisited – PART TWO

Bilbao’s greatest symbol of change has to be the Guggenheim Museum. A strong cultural institution was needed to revive the city in the post-industrial era, and it was decided that a modern art museum would be placed near the Puente la Salve bridge (a traditional reference point for sailors arriving up the river) near the disused steelworks on the docks. In 1991 architect Frank Gehry’s design won the international contest offered by the Bilbao Guggenheim Foundation.

Gehry’s ingenious idea was to incorporate the Puente de la Salve in the new museum by placing the foundations at river level, below the road. The building consists of curved interconnecting spaces—twisted, rounded shapes, crooked interlocking cylinders rising to the sky, covered with titanium tiling, cold shiny mirrors for the waters of the river, a solemn hallucinatory sculpture against the backdrop of the city and the surrounding mountains. In 2002 alone, the 100 million dollar investment represented a positive factor for Basque economy equal to 162 million euros, and has welcomed 5 and a half million visitors since its inauguration in 1997.

They say that for the Basque people every occasion, ritual or meeting must somehow be connected with food, that cooking and eating are the basic foundations of their lifestyle and that a fondness for food traditions is part of their culture. Accordingly, not only does the Guggenheim Museum, an important symbol of revival and the future, have a restaurant, it is managed by one of the country’s greatest and most famous cooks: Martìn Berasateguì. “I’m a Basque chef”, he says, “which means I belong to a world in which the art of cooking has become the symbol of a collective identity”. Just like the titanium towers of the Guggenheim, which have become a symbol of a new developing model for the citizens of Bilbao.

Martìn started working at an early age in his family’s restaurant; his mother Gabriela and aunt Maria brought him up in the kitchen of Bodegòn Alejandro (Fermìn Calbetòn 4), near piazza Brecha, in the old quarter of Donostia-San Sebastiàn. In the early seventies, young Martìn discovered his vocation thanks to the patient teaching of these two Basque women, who passed on their love for things well-made, loyalty to tradition, and a taste for simple foods—but, above all, taught him that thanks to popular expertise, the pleasure of food is not the exclusive privilege of the well-heeled.

Martìn worked hard, travelled, learned, and devoted himself to his profession as only those who really love their work are able to do. The recognition soon poured in: the first Michelin star was awarded to Bodegòn Alejandro in 1986; in 1993 he opened the restaurant Martìn Berasateguì at Lasarte-Oria, 15km from San Sebastiàn. This marked the beginning of a string of successes and milestones, the latest being the three Michelin stars awarded in 2001 and the prestigious job managing the Guggenheim Museum restaurant and the Kursaal in San Sebastiàn.

How can a person who describes himself as “a cook, and proud to be” simultaneously manage so many challenging businesses? “I’m a firm believer in teamwork and I believe that when you give someone a chance to show their worth, you’ll be repaid.” Thus, in the huge Lasarte kitchen 20 young cooks work among the rows of shining steel work surfaces, although the restaurant only seats 40 – one cook for every two clients.

Martìn Berasateguì’s strength is his ability to create a team and pass on his knowledge and passion, forming a real school around him.

Young Josean Martìnez Alija is in charge of the Guggenheim restaurant. He studied at the Escuela Superior de Hostelerìa de Leioa in Bizkaia, and specialized with stages at El Bulli (Ferràn Adrìa), before becoming part of Martìn Berasateguì’s group. The restaurant, with the huge light wood walls designed by the Californian architect, offers two different sampling menus, from 42 and 52 euros, plus VAT. The cuisine is minimalist in presentation, simple in appearance, but actually complex and subtle, “clear cooking which hides nothing”, its essential nature enhancing the individual components with peaks of flavour.

A haute cuisine restaurant inside a museum: this sort of challenge could, perhaps, only succeed so well in the Basque Countries. But visitors to the art exhibitions do not always have the time or finances to take advantage of such an opportunity. So the Guggenheim now offers a lunchtime set-menu, served in the room next to the restaurant, at the price of 12.62 euros plus VAT on weekdays, and 16.63 euros at weekends and holidays. This lighter, cheaper alternative does not, however, exclude the chance to savor delights such as consommé of lightly smoked leeks on a thick creamy bed of cod; glazed shin of pork with puréed cauliflower and dark beer salsa; organic orange cake with cocoa salsa and sorbet.

“I’m a chef because I like making people happy,” explains Martìn Berasateguì, perhaps echoing his mother Gabriela and aunt Maria in the kitchen of Bodegòn Alejandro.

Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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