Basques with Toques

Basques with Toques

 Aylin Öney Tan -

In late1980’s we had a driving safari all the way passing from Biarritz to Algiers. Our mission was to bring a car to our office there. Back then; the Basque country was definitely not a touristic destination, not a gastronomic one for surely. We drove through the region swiftly, not bothering to stop for a few days. We were in a hurry. I later followed all the debates stirred in the architecture circles when the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was in the course of being built, regretting that I have not seen the city before this transformation.

After the museum opened its doors it was a center of attraction. Basque country was suddenly captivating the interest of people from all over the world, architects and serious museum fans mostly, but also the general public. Still the metallic glamour of the Guggenheim did not necessarily allure the gastronomes. To keep it short, Basques were not yet recognized for their culinary merit despite their own enthusiasm for good food and drink shared happily together.

Then all of a sudden a miracle happened. The Basque Country became synonymous with gastronomy. Not that its cuisine was not worthy of a detour before, but something new was happening out there. Actually the transformation had begun even before the architectural transformation, when a group of young chefs came up with the idea of the so-called New Basque Cuisine back in the seventies. In contact with French cuisine, they started researching, innovating and extending the repertoire of traditional Basque cooking; today some of the leading chefs in this movement are household names.

First it was a few family restaurants that attracted attention. People starting talking about the hidden gems they discovered. People were mentioning star chefs like Arzak or Mugaritz, just as name-dropping starchitects such as Gehry or Isozaki; it was not only the Guggenheim that attracted people, but also restaurants with renowned chefs. It has to be noted that the Guggenheim itself was mentioned with its restaurant that was later added to the scheme, Nerua with its talented Bilbaon chef Josean Alija started to become a destination for devoted diners. Now the toque blanche, the iconic chefs’ hat is one of the representative symbols of the Basque country.

It was not only luxury restaurants that were targeted by visitors. The masses were attracted to the bar culture, bar hopping with endless pintxos sampling and txakolí imbibing was a budget-friendly fun way to explore local cuisine who could not afford the fancy tasting menus of top chefs. The Basque culinary transformation was finally adorned by a center dedicated to gastronomy, blending once again two important pillars of this phenomenon, architecture and gastronomy. Basque Culinary Center (BCC) opened its doors in 2011 designed by VAUMM Architecture & Urbanism group, perched on a steep slope in a tangential site to the Miramon Technologic Business Park. Today, the site is buzzing with students from across the globe wearing toque blanche, carrying their white, starched, pleated hats with pride.

Recently, Gastronometro, the first gastronomy platform in Turkey, has started collaboration with the Basque Culinary Center. Gastronometro established within the Metro group aims to be the meeting point of professionals, students, restaurant owners, producers, researchers and food writers, also organizing workshops and training opportunities for young chefs. They will be conducting intense courses twice a year introducing innovative cooking techniques to Turkish chefs, hopefully starting a mutual channel of new inspirations that will contribute to gastronomic scenes of both culinary cultures. The first intense week is already over, chefs Alfredo Taboada Redondo and Eneko Izcue Conio lead an inspirational program in Gastronometro, ending with a tasting dinner executed all with Turkish ingredients performed in their own innovative techniques, an exciting way to see the potential of local ingredients performing in the hand of Basque chefs. When asked, chef Alfredo said he was totally taken by isot, the dried roasted Turkish chili pepper with a smoky, raisin-like hot taste. Apparently he is fond of spiciness, when we were waving goodbye to him, he still held a bottle of şalgam suyu, a fiery fermented purple carrot/turnip drink at his hand. Who knows, we’ll perhaps soon see some inspirations transplanted to the Basque country from Turkey, as well as experiencing innovative ways applied to Turkish cuisine, inspired by Basques with toques!


Aylin Öney Tan,