The prestige of Martín Berasategui, the Spanish chef with the most Michelin stars in Spain – seven – took off spectacularly in 1993 when, together with his wife, Oneka Arregui, he opened his restaurant in Lasarte- Oria, 7 km from San Sebastian, at the age of 33.
His training as a chef, and a large part of his life, are connected with Bodegón Alejandro, a charming eatery in San Sebastian’s old quarter, which earned him his first Michelin star in 1986.
“I was born in 1960 at number 4 in the street Calle General Echagüe, between the fishing harbour and the Brecha market”, he explains. “When I was little, I watched the fish arrive in carts pulled by mules from (the districts) Igueldo and Ayete. Eggs, milk, mushrooms and vegetables were sold at the door. My childhood was spent around that market.”
Many personal experiences mingle with adolescent memories, including those of the influential figure of his now deceased father, who ran Bodegón Alejandro at the time. “I was named after him, he was honest and generous, and he believed in teamwork, an idea he managed to instil in me.”
His recollections are so seared in his mind that when he was presented with the San Sebastian “Tambor de Oro” (Golden Drum) in 2005, the award that has meant the most to him, Martín publicly enthused his gratitude, speaking about his mother, his aunt, and heaping endless praise on his father.
Between the ages of 15 and 27, Martín visited France to train and learn. He went without sleep and used his days off time and again to travel to areas in the neighbouring country, sleeping at night on a mattress under the stairs of Bodegón Alejandro.
That’s how he came to steep himself in the secrets of haute patisserie and the science of bread making. In Bayonne, he studied alongside Jean Paul Heinard, and in Anglet with André Mandion. In charcuterie, his knowledge was furthered by François Brouchican in the village of Ustaritz, and in cooking by Bernard Lacarrau in the town of Labatut. However, it was above all with 4 Didier Oudil, an extraordinary professional, the top head chef at the glamorous Les Prés D’Eugénie together with Michel Guerard, that he came into contact with haute cuisine. And then with Alain Ducase, at the restaurant Le Louis XV in Monaco.
Finally, after overcoming many difficulties, on the 1st of May 1993, he opened the doors of his new restaurant in Lasarte, which is called Martín Berasategui. A risky undertaking which, however, catapulted him to fame. Six months after the opening, he regained the Bodegón Alejandro’s Michelin star. Three years later he received the second, and in 2001 he was awarded the maximum classification by the emblematic guide: three stars.
Besides international fame and prestige, Berasategui also stands out as a business owner and manager. In 1996, he founded and led the Martín Berasategui Group.
He associated with his best disciples to manage the restaurant Guggenheim Bilbao, the restaurant Kursaal in San Sebastian (which obtained a Michelin star in 2007), Bodegón Alejandro, and Mugaritz (which achieved two stars under his influence), among other establishments. In 2009, he dissolved the Group which he had himself created.
Since 2005, he has been advising the gourmet restaurant of Hotel Abama, in the south of Tenerife, which has obtained two Michelin stars under his tutelage. The second star was awarded in November 2013.
He has also been advising the restaurants Loidi and Lasarte of the Hotel Condes de Barcelona. Under his tutelage, Lasarte obtained its first Michelin star in less than a year, and the second three years later.
In 2012/2013 he undertook several projects. In Spain, Martín opened the Restaurant Doma Bilbao in the 5 star Hotel Silken Gran Domine Bilbao; in San Sebastian, EME BE Garrote, a former cider house, remodelled and characterized by a contemporary “basquandinavian” style. In the American continent, he opened two restaurants in Mexico in collaboration with Hotel Meliá, “Passion by Martín Berasategui” at the Hotel Paradisus Playa del Carmen, and “Tempo by Martín Berasategui” at the Hotel Paradisus, Cancún. Likewise, in the Dominican Republic two “Passion by Martín Berasategui” (gastronomic restaurants), one in Punta Cana and the other one in Palma Real.
“The years have shown me that I have enough strength to create united groups and emblematic restaurants. I am a teamwork enthusiast.” Self-discipline, concentration, a constant drive to excel, an abundance of personal energy and human values – the features of a generous chef who unreservedly shares his knowledge.
“I teach new generations, and then I let them do their own thing. To manage a three Michelin-starred restaurant such as mine, you need to be able to lead, be disciplined and like communicating with people. You have to make the people around you feel important. You can’t achieve anything without control. I am demanding because I give everything I have in exchange.”
To sum up, he is a man of simple tastes, who declares his enthusiasm for croquettes, potato omelettes, fried breaded cod cheeks, and tripe, as long as it is well seasoned.
Those who know Martín will tell you that he expresses himself best through his dishes. We could say that he is like those artists incapable of explaining the strokes they fill the canvas with. Perhaps that is why he uses phrases connected with his feelings when asked about his cooking style: “My cooking is a reflection of my palate, my sensitivity, and many small dreams. First I think how I want to finish a dish, and then I find the system to achieve that. A chef needs to realise that an important part of his work consists of thinking. The creation of a dish starts off in the head.”
Berasategui’s career has been dotted with awards and recognitions of considerable importance such as the Honorary Doctorate degree conferred by the François Rabelais University of Tours (France) in 2013. Within the last recognitions, in April 2014, he is appointed Gentleman of “L’Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne”. So many, in fact, that listing them would be almost impossible. However, he has been extremely grateful for each one, spreading his passion for and knowledge of cuisine via the various media.
And to cap it all, he has over a dozen publications on the market, ranging from “La joven cocina vasca” [Young Basque Cuisine] (1996) to “Mas de 999 recetas sin bobadas” [Over 999 no-nonsense recipes] (2011).
“For 40 years, I have devoted body and soul to what I like doing best in the world: cooking.”
We have always tried to be precise with our gestures, prudent with the oven, accurate with the blade, refined with our sense of smell, sharp at the marketplace, and strict at the stove. It’s not very difficult to get food right. You just need to know how to make the most of what you’ve got and improve it, because we live in a privileged country. If you want to see all this for yourself, come visit our home; our doors are wide open for you.”
Photograph by: Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiría