Bacalao al Pil Pil
Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar, San Sebastían
I came to Barcelona to study abroad in the winter of 2002, and when my classes ended in the early summer, I needed an excuse to stay in Spain. I enrolled in a summer course at the Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar, a small, renowned cooking school overlooking San Sebastian’s famous half-moon beach.
Up until that point, I had largely survived in Spain on whisky cola and Whoppers. I loved to cook, but I didn’t know a damn thing about Spanish food—about the respect for ingredients, the importance of impeccable technique, about the fact that when done right, it could compete with any cuisine in the world. Over the course of the summer, I learned those lessons one by one at the hands of one Spain’s most important (and overlooked) chefs.
Luis Irizar is one of the founders of the modern Basque cuisine. He opened the Basque Country’s first culinary school in 1967, and his students would go on to reshape the country’s culinary DNA. He had turned over the reigns of the cooking school years before to his daughters—my professor Visi, a gifted cook and teacher, continues the Irizar legacy to this day—but he loved to be around the kitchen, telling stories, demonstrating technique, feeding off the energy of the hungry student body. This dish, made by slowly emulsifying olive oil with the natural gelatin released by the salt cod, is perhaps the most resolutely Basque of all. Luis loves to hammer home the proper technique—the gentle, steady stream of olive oil with one hand, the constant swirling of the pan with the other, both actions working in unison until a thick, pale, two-ingredient sauce magically forms. Alchemy of the highest order.
Luis’ students—Karlos Arguiñano, Pedro Subijana, and others—would go on to be more rich and famous than he. Such is the fate of the teacher. But you can draw a straight line between Luis and the galaxy of Michelin-starred restaurants around the country. Just as I can draw a straight line between Luis and my life in Spain.
Gol de Messi
El Celler de Can Roca, Girona
Dinner had just ended. Or so I thought. Twenty-seven courses, five hours, all of it mind-bending, all of it eaten alone. I landed in Spain a few days earlier, a stopover on my way to Italy, where I hoped to find a quiet town where I could start life over.
This was my first confrontation with the avant-garde Spanish cooking, and the results floored me: an oyster covered in a clear distillation of earth (“everyone has eaten dirt before” Joan Roca told me when he brought it to the table); a futuristic steak tartare goosed with sherry-soaked raisins and mustard Dipping Dots; a warm puree of foie gras and figs that gives me goosebumps to this day when I think about it. I found myself fighting back tears more than a few times—whether from the generous beauty of the food and service or the fact that I was having the best meal of my life all alone, I’ll never know.
Just when I thought dinner was done, Jordi Roca, the youngest of the three Roca brothers, emerged from the kitchen and told me he had a dessert still in its experimental stages. Would I mind tasting it?
And so it was that a half soccer ball was placed before me, hollowed out and filled with real soccer turf. A zig-zagging metal track wove its way through the grass, punctuated by white meringues (representing players from Real Madrid, colloquially known as merengues). An edible soccer ball filled with dulce de leche was placed on one end, a sugar-spun goal on the other. Jordi told me his newest piece was called “Un Gol de Messi”. To bring it all together, a futuristic radio played with a famous Catalan announcer works himself into a furious state of ecstasy describing one of Messi’s most spectacular goals. I couldn’t stop laughing; it took me 15 minutes to eat.
Everything about the meal was a lesson for the life in front of me—the soul-soothing touches of Catalan home cooking, the breathtaking precision, the relentless generosity and good nature of the chefs and the staff. Above all, the belief that food—even food at the restaurant that three years later would be named the best in the world—is meant to be fun. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously,” Joan told me that night.
Many years later I was shocked to find that some eaters and critics thought the Rocas’ homage to Messi was ridiculous, and maybe it was ridiculous. But when you are as good as these three brothers, you’ve earned the right to be ridiculous.