First Impressions

Ah, finally le weekend (monday and tuesday for me) has arrived. It’s been a long but fantastic first week at Restaurante Martín Berasatégui, now aptly dubbed “El Castillo” (The Castle). I’ve been learning so much I don’t even know where to begin. The food, the management, the people, the singing, the passion, the movements, the aromas…the more I learn, the less I know. The entire, magical experience of being here every day and spending the 80+ hours at the restaurant fuels my curiosity and tickles my mind. I can’t get over how intellectually stimulating this is. Woosh! Okay, let’s focus on these bits.

The Jefes, The Management, King Arthur and his knights:

I’m referring to the top dogs at Restaurante Martín. Did you know they congregate around a [rectangular] table in the middle of the kitchen? Genius setup. This is the hub of power, intellect, decades of experience. From here the jefes (chefs/bosses) can see and manage their teams during prep and also congregate to review details of the day’s work. It’s also their gathering place for meals, guest diners and fútbol viewing. Yes, you heard me right. There is a huge LED televisión in the kitchen and Martín puts on the fútbol action every night. iEpa! Again, genius. Another reason why he is the King.

The Food

What is most ‘Basque’ and most ‘Martín’ about each dish is the composition of layered flavors throughout. Dishes in Basque country are very ingredient driven and unlike Asian cultures, there is very little use of complex or exotic spices. Take for instance, the squid ink ravioli dish on the pescado station. The filling comprises of tinta (squid ink), fish stock and a medley of vegetables. This is wrapped in paper-thin slices of squid. The ravioli lies in a broth of seafood stock, accompanied by a txipiron a la plancha (grilled baby squid) and a toasted tinta rice txip (Basque for chip). It’s about discovering and rediscovering the various strata of squid. This philosophy is present throughout the dishes and not just in pescado. In fact, check out this ensalada:

The array of vegetables and textures are so satisfying and in my opinion, exactly what a salad needs to succeed. This ensalada is pure harmony. The crunch of the asparagus and radish, the juicy baby tomatoes, the supple gelatinous dressing beneath and the purity of the olive oil come together to form possibly the best ensalada I’ve ever had. A memorable salad? We know how I detest salad but indeed, es posible! It’s one of those moments I quote the Adidas in my head and all the soccer posters in my room that read “Impossible is nothing.”

The Stages

The majority of the 60 or so stages (french term for culinary interns) arrived three weeks ago. There is a huge range of age and experience. My pescado station is comprised of 10 stages, only one of which is older than 25. I’ve befriended a Korean lady on my station, Hyun-Ju and she has been tremendously helpful in acclimating me to the restaurant. We work on a lot of projects together from breaking down monkfish to wrapping squid ink raviolis to joking with Joseba, Martín’s #2 jefe. Okay, that’s not really a project but the three of us get along really well. Joseba teaches us Basque phrases and we teach him Japanese, Korean and Chinese phrases.

For the most part the other stages have been very friendly to Athena and I. There isn’t much time to socialize but we chat during staff meal. I’ve found a few people who share interests in things like spicy food, guacamole and knives–hurrah! However, no matter the background or the amount of experience, there always seems to be some Debbie-downers. I don’t know what they expected from a 3-month stage at a 3-star michelin restaurant. I think we should all count ourselves very fortunate to have this opportunity where Martín is opening his doors and entrusting us to prepare food well with such a reputation to uphold. Though stages are all unpaid, a typical practice in this industry, Martin provides free room and board. What’s the fuss? To expect to walk in to a restaurant of this caliber and instantly be granted the position of line cook is absurd. A title, a status, a trust–all must be earned.

The Credo

On multiple occasions now, Martín has insisted, “Mi casa es su casa” (my house is your house) to reinforce his philosophy, that we are there to learn. Multiple times a day, multiple times a service, he will come up to me, take me by the shoulders and make sure I am learning, that I am doing, that I am happy. The encouragement and enthusiasm is uplifting in so many ways. It pushes me harder to want to make him proud. The night always ends with a firm double handshake where he stares me in the eyes and says “Sammic! Gracias. Estas bien?” That is a practice I plan to take with me for my future staff. The chefs at Menton did the same when I staged there. It’s an unbelievably powerful gesture and I hope more chefs embrace it.

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