As the Food for Thought strand in this year’s Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival 2020, we have a superb documentary from award winning director Iñaki Arteta with what looks like the double title of The Art of Cooking with Fire and Living in Silence: Bittor Arginzoniz and Asador Etxebarri.
Bittor Arginzoniz is the man not behind, but totally at the centre of, his Basque grill restaurant, Asador Etxebarri. Opened in 1990, it was ranked number 3 of the world best restaurants in 2019. Arteta’s film gives the viewer a unique insight in to Bittor Arginzoniz’ philosophy of life and what drives him.
Set in Bittor’s native village of Axpe, that houses his prestigious and self-built restaurant, the opening shots show a sapphire sky under which Bittor steps the grassy rocky hills that he’s known since childhood. Just as the embers of the fires he cooks with infuse the food he cooks, his strong sense of utterly belonging in his environment infuses the film throughout. Steeped in the notion of what the French call terroir, this perfectionist lives and breathes his craft as he treats the seasons and the landscape with love and respect. It is completely credible that he said to one of his staff that he was Japanese in another life!
His respect for his client and devotion to paying close attention to detail shows in everything he does. From checking the wood that will be burned to create the embers and cinders, to examining the meat that will be cooked over it, to choosing each day’s menu and its ingredients, he exemplifies his mantra that it is the love of what he does that is the goal in itself – not star ratings. His focus has allowed him to shift the boundaries of possibilities by creating utensils and kitchen machinery to do incredible things like grilling egg yolks!
When Bittor cooks elvers (small eels), the star dish of the Basque country, for Rafael Ansón, the President of Real Academia de Gastronomia, the latter declared it “…couldn’t be better. …wonderful”. High praise!
The film gives close ups of the exquisitely detailed delicate starters made in a kitchen of calm with no shouting or swearing. We are given an insight in to what is the very hands-on family business of Bittor and his wife Patricia Vela who operate together successfully without any external agencies. Such confidence must come from the deep and secure sense of belonging that is evident in every scene and particularly warming in the scenes of rustic family meals. His easy conversation with the man he describes as his ‘motivation’, Rafa García Santos, exemplifies the value he places on real friendship over mere acquaintances.
A gently haunting soundtrack from Eduardo Basterra adds to Iñaki Arteta’s enlightening and superbly filmed documentary that is both informative and a pleasure to watch.
Asked why he doesn’t open elsewhere, Bittor answers that his ‘cookery can’t be exported’. So when’s the next train to Bilbao?!
English translation is by Joanne Maddocks.
Running time 84 mins
Screenings on 22nd and 23rd October