Eneko Atxa is the youngest of eight Spanish chefs currently holding three Michelin stars. His are for his Azurmendi restaurant, perched atop a hillside in Larrabetzu, a brief 20-minute drive from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The modernist steel and glass structure in the midst of 40 acres of vineyards and gardens exposes guests not only to his superb modernist cuisine but also to the diversity of the products of the Basque region, sustainably produced using advanced alternate energy systems. Atxa's restaurant, which was relocated to its present location in 2012, is a true representation of a sustainable operation. In a record seven years after its opening, it received its third Michelin star, setting the bar even higher for the other incredible culinary talent in nearby San Sebastián and Bilbao. Post-culinary school, Atxa trained with some of the most well-known chefs in the area, including Martín Berasategui, and at restaurants such as Etxebarri and Andra Mari. Two years ago, he ventured overseas, far from his Basque home, to open another standout restaurant: Aziamendi in Phuket, Thailand.
Azurmendi is a true example of sustainability, utilizing solar energy harnessed on the roof of the structure, tapping geothermal energy to provide radiant heating, and using a self-sufficient sewage plant, water collection tanks, photovoltaic systems. The restaurant also recycles all materials, provides electrical outlets in the compound for charging the electric vehicles, and grows a majority of its produce. In 2014 Azurmendi was named the Most Sustainable Restaurant in the World by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Restaurant Magazine, where Atxa's Azurmendi presently holds the No. 24 spot.
Nature not only envelops the building, but unobtrusively seeps inside, blurring the lines between the exterior and interior. Diners enter the stunning reception area, a two-stories-tall space, which is a lush green enclave with tall trees, plants, and water features. Picnic baskets with aperitifs appear as guests check in, each delectable bite served a veritable piece of art and a precursor to what is ahead. They then tour the greenhouse on the upper level, where there might be tiny vials of juices, marinated tomatoes hanging from the tomato plants, or Atxa’s signature edible leaves among the real ones for the diners to taste and marvel at.Nature not only envelops the building, but unobtrusively seeps inside, blurring the lines between the exterior and interior.
Atxa wants to welcome his guests into his home; and the heart of his home is his kitchen. Dinner service begins in the huge steel-lined kitchen, where guests perch on stools, sipping their drinks, while the chef and his team deftly plate and serve one delectable bite after another from across the counter. Finally, guests are led to their tables in the dining room, with its glass walls open to the verdant green vistas of this area in the northern reaches of Spain. It is a unique and unforgettable experience — the visions of and tastes on the plates and the exceptional wine pairing — which might even include the txakoli wine from Atxa's on-site winery— linger on the palate. This destination restaurant offers a unique experience in an atmosphere that’s alive and interconnected with the land.
The Daily Meal: These days reputed chefs like Joan Roca at El Celler de Can Roca, Albert and Ferran Adria at Heart in Ibiza, and Grant Achatz at Alinea are introducing mixed media, sensory experiences, and performance art into the guests experience at the table. What are your views regarding this?
Eneko Axta: I am inclined towards a special experience but a very real experience, and not one in 3D. Right now for example we are working towards a new concept for the gardens at Azurmendi.
Every year we change the experience in the gardens and by the end of the year one of the ideas we are introducing is of putting an indoor vegetable garden in the greenhouses. It's more like a cave with plants.
So you are building a grotto. Will it have water elements too?
Exactly, a grotto but the walls will be lined with plants. In the middle of this space there will be a map of my region of Bizcaiya; and it will highlight the different and special plants from various parts of this region. All these different elements shown on the map will be accompanied by information about these plants allowing the guests to discover these little towns and villages along with their special produce. The guests will also be able to taste these products to get a real sensory experience. As you know we serve little edible surprises during the tour of our greenhouses in Azurmendi. It is not a huge space but rather an intimate one, romantic and connected to the greenhouse. The water element may be there as it is still a work in progress.
Since your guests are given a tour of the greenhouses prior to dinner, why is this tasting experience important?
By the time they go to the kitchen, where as you know we begin the first part of our dining experience, they will be familiar with the taste of the products of our Basque region. It is going to provide them with a condensed tour, so to speak, of the area in the form of this interactive map experience.