01 Oct Etxea, a Basque home in the centre of The Hague
This week we visited Etxea, a Basque restaurant in the beautiful Hooistraat, a side street off the Denneweg. The terrace faces one of the few remaining canals in the city.
I’m half Basque (my mum is from Bilbao) and being at Etxea brought a rush of homey memories and delicious aromas from my childhood.
As you surely know, there is a strong rooted food culture in the Basque country. Everyone, and when I say everyone is everyone, loves cooking and eating.
In the famous list with the 50 best restaurants in the World published yearly, there are always at least 3 or 4 restaurants from the Basque country. This year there are two of them in the first 10 positions.
I’ve inherited from my grandparents and mother a deep love for good food and the respect for the animals and the ingredients. In the Basque country you don’t take good food for granted, you elaborate, savour and enjoy every minute of the cooking and eating process, since the carefully choice of ingredients until the moment they are served on the table.
And this is exactly what I felt in Etxea. A sentiment of love and respect for food and a feeling of being at home. After all, Etxea means home in Basque.
Since the 1st of September, Extea is being run by a new chef and a new manager. Seeing them at work and, after talking to them, it is clear to me that they form a perfect team. They both have extensive experience in the hospitality business and, more importantly, they are both genuinely passionate about food.
They are both full of positive energy and a sincere will to provide an unforgettable gastro-experience to guests at Etxea.
It was a real pleasure to talk to them and share our love for food together.
So, when I arrived in the restaurant I left Dave preparing the lights and setting up for the photos and went directly to the kitchen to talk to Francisco de Almeida the new chef. After the introduction I went straight to the point!
Elena: This dish looks amazing. Tell us, what are you preparing here?
Francisco: Our new menu at Etxea is inspired by some of the best restaurants in San Sebastian. This particular dish is inspired by a recipe at Arzak, a 3 star Michelin restaurant. Arzak, together with El Bulli, are the fathers of the Molecular gastronomy. Our menu is inspired on this type of cuisine but adding our personal touch.
Here we have an Arzak egg, we call it like to honour Juan Maria Arzak who came out with this new way of cooking an egg: poaching the egg with goose’s fat inside and wrapping it in foil, that gives to the dish a very specific flavour. Then we add a combination of fresh truffle, leaks and mushrooms (shiitake, shirole, anis, etc).
Now it’s the season for mushrooms so we have a wide variety in our kitchen. The violet crispy slices are truffle potatoes, mashed and dehydrated afterwards, for a crispy texture.
Elena: It looks delicious. Francisco, tell me, when did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
Francisco: I studied Arts back in Portugal, I took the speciality in wood sculpture and restoration. After finishing my studies I came to Holland in the year 2000 and worked in a shop where we restored antique wooden French furniture here in The Hague.
I loved my job but it wasn’t enough to live. So, when a friend of mine told me there was a Portuguese restaurant in Rotterdam looking for staff, I applied and started working in the kitchen. The chef was really good and I learnt a lot from him.
I fell in love with this profession little by little so I decided to follow some education in order to learn more and get professional qualifications.
Elena: You come from Portugal where there is a strong food culture too. Was there already in your family that love for food as well?
Francisco: My mother is a great cook, my sister as well. Actually, my mother worked as a chef for 10 years. When my mother started working I had to cook for myself and I always liked it. Now that I think about it I remember I was already cooking some crazy new stuff that would always surprise people.
I liked to experiment with Chinese food that was becoming popular in Portugal at the time. When I look back I realise that I already enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and thinking out of the box.
Elena: What do you like the most about your job?
Francisco: The creative part is something very important for me, also the satisfaction you get when you are pleasing other people, I feel I can make them happy with my food.
So, in reality it’s also a kind of art. You can make a person very happy, or angry if they didn’t like it, you create an emotion in others, you stimulate people’ senses and emotions. I like that. Also, the fact that, after a certain number of years, you get addicted to the adrenaline in the kitchen.
Elena: Here we have the next dish. Tell me what is this beauty about?
The bottom of the Sea
Francisco: This is actually, the least Basque dish we have in our menu. The idea is to use some lekker eel, since they also eat it in Basque country, but fresh, here we use the Dutch smoked type, so we can define this dish as a blend of Basque and Dutch flavours.
There are also scallops which are very present in the Basque cuisine, we have avocado cream, the white cream is made with cauliflowers and the third cream is made of a broth with different parts of the eel. We have a very good fish supplier in Rotterdam who really delivers excellent quality.
I add now pickled white and purple cauliflower and some sea rucola from Portugal. Actually, the dish has three different seaweeds, they look very similar but the taste is very different.
Elena: Indeed (after having tried a couple). What do you like the least about being a chef?
Francisco: Well sometimes when you have a leading role, it can be hard, you want to be focused in your cooking but then you have to manage other things, you have to say sometimes to other people what they did wrong. This is the ugly part of this profession, when you have to disappoint somebody because you have to criticise what they have done.
Elena: How would you define your cooking style?
Francisco: I try to follow the trends and what other chefs do. I do research and see what the season offers, this is very important of course, to use seasonal ingredients. As a chef you need to adapt to the concept of the establishment where you work. So that’s what I’m doing at Etxea, I use modern techniques and recipes without abusing the molecular concepts, I don’t like to process food too much, I like natural, fresh, seasonable, close to nature.
I use a few modern techniques but without losing the roots of the ingredients. When you work with beautiful ingredients you have to do less and let the flavours “speak” for themselves. It would be a shame to have an excellent piece of meat and ruin it with some modern technique or by adding too many spices or broths.
Elena: Who are your references?
Francisco: Alex Atala, a Brazilian chef, I really like his philosophy, not only his way of approaching food but also of running the kitchen, the staff. I also like Jan Bernard, the French chef, he is really creative with sauces. There are others of course, nowadays with social media I’m constantly looking at images for inspiration.
Did you know that Alex Atala has even ants on his menu?
Elena: What?! Ants?
Francisco: He goes to the Amazon to get this particular species and cook them. I tried them once in Mexico. Apparently, there is only one hour in the year when you can find this particular species of ants. It’s one of the most amazing products I have ever tried in my life. It tasted like white chocolate, and vegetables. So many flavours in one little ant! It’s unbelievable.
Elena: Is there anything that you have refused to try?
Francisco: There are things I don’t like of course but I will always try something new so I can be sure I don’t like it. I’m not a huge fan of organs, for example, but if I have to work with them I will try it of course.
Elena: We talked before about managing and working with people in the kitchen. What kind of people do you like to work with?
Francisco: Ambitious, motivated, hands on mentality, passionate about this profession. All of that is important.
Elena: Mmmm! here it comes the next dish. Tell us more about it
Francisco: Here we have a compote made of Reineta apples, also very present in Basque cuisine, with thyme, the thick sauce is made of wild mushrooms. We add very crunchy potatoes, we boil them first, then we break them in rough pieces, or sauvage as the French say, and then fry them for a short time. We add some radish and pickled pumpkin circles for the decorations. We add fried parsnip. We add quinoa and mustard seeds on top of the pork.
The meat has been cooked for one and half hours at a low temperature so the inside is cooked the same as the outside, uniform. Then we cook the meat on a pan for a last touch with honey, thyme, lemon and confit garlic oil. The sauce that we have put aside is made of pork cheeks, wild mushrooms, Rioja wine, thyme and honey. So there is a fine blend of flavours in this dish.
Elena: Do you have a fetish ingredient? Anything recurrent in many of your dishes?
Francisco: Mushrooms definitely. I love them.
Elena: What is the most remarkable dish you have ever tried in your life? I know it’s difficult but maybe you remember a dish you tried somewhere that you could never forget and maybe couldn’t replicate.
Francisco: Yes, white truffle, it’s something we don’t use because it’s very expensive and difficult to find. Not so many restaurants have the ability to use it in a profitable way. So for me a risotto with white truffles and mushrooms is something to die for but I can’t really cook it all the time.
Elena: What was your favourite dish as a child?
Francisco: We used to have a wooden oven outside where my mum would bake bread. One of my favourite dishes was this special bread she used to bake. She would put inside the dough a stew made with chicken, paprika, onions and garlic. So when you cut the bread you would have the delicious chicken stew inside the bread.
That’s something I remember dearly. I guess because when my mum started working she didn’t have time to bake bread anymore and that’s why the memories are so fresh in my mind.
Elena: You need to build a wooden oven at home then!
Francisco: Yes, I should (laughs) But no matter how hard you try to replicate what your mother cooked when you were a child that it will be always different. Because it also had a meaning for you, more than only the flavours. You can’t really replicate those memories.
“You can replicate a dish from your childhood but not the feeling behind it”
Elena: Yes indeed. And who cooks now at home?
Francisco: I do cook at home when I’m off but of course the rest of the week, it’s my wife doing the cooking for the family. It’s like when you work in an office, when you come back home you don’t feel like sitting behind your computer again, so when I arrive home I just want to eat something simple. My wife does a really nice homemade pizza. I’m happy with that.
Elena: Wow what a nice piece of meat we have here! This is the most Basque thing of all. The famous chuletón. I can picture now my uncles and my grandfather eating a huge piece of meat like this one with a nice glass of Rioja! It was always a party!
Francisco: This is the star dish at Etxea for meat lovers. We get our meat from the same supplier that works with Arzak and other famous restaurants in Basque country.
The cows and oxen are breed in the north of Portugal in the traditional way. It’s so touching to see with how much respect the farmers treat the animals. There is a genuine love for the animals and you can taste it in every bite of a steak like this.
In this video you can see where the animals come from, how they have lived and how they have been treated until it was their time. This provider only slaughter’s the animal when there is a specific order so the meat stays fresh.
We believe in this way of eating meat.
This video reminded me of the importance of treating animals with respect. We are sadly forgetting how imperative is to have principles in the food chain and the fact that you can taste love in a piece of meat.
I let Francisco continue working in the kitchen and left Etxea with the feeling of having travelled back to my Basque ancestors.
Etxea is definitely a fine Basque restaurant with a beautiful and genuine philosophy of food.