SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — This picturesque seaside town of less than 185,000 people is home to nine restaurants that boast a total of 16 Michelin stars.
But there’s no need to go to a touted restaurant to enjoy the region’s excellent food: pintxos — elaborate miniature cuisine — make just about any hole-in-the-wall bar a top choice. And soon this gastronomical expertise will flavor more kitchens at home and abroad thanks to the Basque Culinary Center.
Though recipes are passed down through the generations in this region, where cooks are an institution and bars compete for the best ground-breaking pintxo of the year, a group of Basques felt there was a need to elevate cooking to the university level to preserve their cuisine and continue to innovate.
A degree in cooking now requires two years in trade school — not enough to become a high-level professional, argued Joxe Mari Aizega, the Basque Culinary Center project director. Cooks and students felt further advanced education was needed. Seven renowned chefs — including Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana and Martin Berasategui — plus the rector from Mondragon University are pouring their collective efforts into the creation of the center. Funded by San Sebastian’s townhall, Guipuzcoa’s regional council, the Basque regional government and Spain’s Ministry of Science and Innovation, the center aspires to become a world standard for higher education in cooking and food-related businesses and technologies.
The Basque Culinary Center will have two pillars: a faculty of gastronomy and a gastronomy sciences investigation and innovation unit. Europe has reportedly only one other university for gastronomy, in Piedmont, Italy. Many culinary institutes exist in France, for example, but they don't offer university degrees.
Housed in a building designed to look like a stack of plates, the center aims to make the Basque region “the Mecca of the world’s high cuisine,” according to a press release from the Basque Culinary Center, whose motto is “Passion, Roots and Vanguard.”
Aizega explained there has been an increase over the last few years in the number of foreigners, mainly from Europe, Latin America and Australia, who come to San Sebastian to improve their culinary skills. The English-language name of the center, and the use of English along with Spanish in class, are signs of its international mission (and a relief to those unfamiliar with how to pronounce Basque names — try unibertsitatea for university or the last name of a center’s architect, Muniategiandikoetxea).
“Cuisine integrates many areas of knowledge,” Aizega said. “We’ll cover three big aspects: art, culture and anthropology; restaurant management; and science and technology.”
Beginning in 2011, the faculty will offer a four-year university degree in culinary arts; four one-year masters degrees for chefs and professionals from other sectors, such as the media, food companies’ communication departments and managers from hospital and school restaurants; and — don't worry — courses for cooking “enthusiasts.”
“Cooks often work by intuition, but we need scientific methods to innovate,” argued Aizega. “The center will integrate different perspectives and knowledge,” he said. “New technologies and innovation will play a big role, as will research to recover and integrate traditional local products.”
The investigation and innovation unit will focus on the research of cooking techniques and ingredients, technology development, education of eating habits and social responsibility. Aizega said agreements with Spain’s High Council of Scientific Investigation will help the center whip up newly discovered or lab-developed components into morsels that are pleasant to the palate and good for your health.
“Research in food and cooking is as important as investigation in medicine. Food goes in through your mouth, you don’t put it on [like clothes],” said Marili Calvo, co-owner of Zeruko, a bar in San Sebastian with traditional and innovative pintxos. Calvo said the Basque Culinary Center will further strengthen the town’s culinary fame.
There will also be an observatory of food trends. “We are losing our Mediterranean cuisine, and, as a result, we have one of the worst rates of child obesity in Europe,” Aizega warned. The center wants to be a model for healthy eating too.
“Food does not just come from a factory. It involves farmers, fishermen, ranchers. We want to build biodiversity and quality by balancing proximity goods within a globalized industry,” Aizega said. That is the social responsibility ingredient. Downtown San Sebastian streets are lined with bars and restaurants, packed with locals and tourists hopping from bar to bar to indulge in Basque cuisine samples. The procedure is simple: customers are given an empty plate to fill up buffet-style with the pintxos of their choice, invitingly displayed on bars’ counters. When they finish, they simply tell the waiter how many they had and pay accordingly.
Tables were hard to come by on a weekday last month in Casa Bartolo. Traditional combinations reign supreme here: Cold artichoke heart under a vinaigrette tossed with finely diced onion, green and red peppers on top and an anchovy-stuffed olive; a pastry base stuffed with smashed spider crab and crowned with fried tomato sauce and red pepper pieces.
Ingredients are often held together with a toothpick; pintxos are finger food for the indecisive — the delight is in trying so many.
“The diversity is great, there’s a lot of thought put into the food,” said Mike Herbert, 30, a tourist from Manchester. “I’ve never been anywhere where everything is spread out on the bar. Seemed a bit chaotic at first, but then it’s great,” he added.
Zeruko does not abandon conventional food, but it also dares to innovate. Blood sausage with pistachio and raspberry sauce; a rose made up of a green leaf (bread) and red petals (dehydrated strawberry) stuffed with lobster and foie cream, served in a tall glass — the rose fragrance emanating up from an aromatic oil at the bottom of the “vase.”
Josean Calvo, Zeruko’s chef, adds 20 to 30 new creations a year to his 500-pintxo catalogue. “One of the reasons we come to San Sebastian is its gastronomy,” said Raul Escudero, a 31-year-old Spaniard from Cordoba. “Ingredients are the same as anywhere else in Spain, but here it’s all about innovation and creativity.”