Most men think they were born to grill, but Victor Arguinonziz has smoke and fire in his DNA.
He grew up in Axpe, a high-mountain Basque village with a few dozen inhabitants, in a home with no electricity and no running water. “Everything was cooked by fire. I have strong memories of the aromas of firewood, of the flavor it brought to all of our food,” he says.
It was those memories that drove Victor to drop his job as a forester, purchase a neglected old restaurant in the main plaza of Axpe, and set his sights on elevating the food of his childhood—traditional Basque grilling. His plan was to bring to the grill the type of precision and imagination that countrymen like Ferran Adria and Juan Maria Arzak were introducing to the rest of the kitchen.
To do that, he needed to reimagine the grill itself. His handmade six-grill network has a system of wheels and levers that raises and lowers the height of the grates; two wood-burning ovens house handmade charcoal that he chops and burns himself each morning; and a kitchen dispensary is filled with dozens of grilling tools he’s invented over the years. With his arsenal of grill gear, Arguinzoniz can cook ingredients previously considered ungrillable: baby eels, egg yolks, even mounds of caviar.
This steak is the last of the savory courses you’re served at Etxebarri. Before it, there is smoked butter and thick coins of house-made chorizo and two giant shrimp from the Catalan coast so good that after sucking out the warm brains from their heads, you go back to chewing on the shells; after it, there is a single scoop of ice cream made with fresh milk smoked over fruit wood.
But no plate better expresses the genius of Victor than this steak. The beef comes from Galicia, skirted with soft deposits of fat that melt into the flesh as the flames take hold. It wears a whisper of smoke and a thick, carbonized crust that crunches as you bite down—a perfect contrast to the warm, rare meat below. A better fusion of fire and flesh I have never tasted.
After my lunch there, I sat in the bar and drank a gin and tonic with Victor. We talked about living in a tiny village, about leaving behind his job tending to the forest, about spending the rest of his life doing exactly one thing.
In the distance a giant stone peak loomed over the valley. Victor pointed to it and with the first smile I had seen him show, told me he hiked that peak every Monday, his only day off. I asked him what he does when gets to the top.
“I stare out at my country, then I come down.”