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San Sebastian has traditionally been chock full of ace chefs. With a new culinary school in the works, soon you can be one of them.
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.”