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The Silent Chef

Hilario Arbelaitz

Hilario Arbelaitz

A drive through a green Basque valley very close to Oiartzun, just 20 km (12½ miles) from San Sebastián, leads the gourmet traveler to one of Spain's most highly-respected gastronomic shrines, Zuberoa. This restaurant is the refuge of Hilario Arbelaitz, a chef who is very sparing about his public appearances, preferring to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen, supervising the staff as they work and available for questions from customers. In spite of Zuberoa's one Michelin star, Hilario is not much in favor of attending gastronomic congresses, or TV or radio interviews. In fact, he travels to Madrid every Wednesday to advise the El Bodegón restaurant but only because Wednesday is the day that Zuberoa closes. He hates to be away.

Hilario is one of those cooks who started experimenting alongside his mother, from whom he inherited his love of traditional recipes and, above all, of prime-quality ingredients. But he decided to go a step further and take advantage of the synergies created in the New Basque Cuisine (Nueva Cocina Vasca ) group back in the 1970s and early 1980s. Hilario and his colleague Martín Berasategui followed the trail laid by Subijana and Arzak , and created new ways of expressing traditional dishes. Arbelaitz set up operations in the oldest farmhouse in the Oiartzun valley, almost six centuries old, and turned it into a culinary mecca. Andoni Luis Aduriz , in the prologue to his book Foie Gras , names Hilario as the maestro for dishes including this poultry product, and states, "this notebook from Mugaritz is dedicated to Hilario Arbelaitz, who has been cooking for many, many years at Zuberoa, like no-one else does any more in this old country. In silence".

The extensive menu at his restaurant, which is updated regularly, allows customers to choose from a selection of dishes featuring classic ingredients, such as hake, salt cod, bonito, veal cheeks, and pigeon. His dishes have plain names, without any fancy descriptions, offering only flavor and aromas, careful preparation and guaranteed enjoyment. Sophistication appears on the palate, not in groundbreaking presentations. He offers food that shows clearly how the taste memory can be recovered and the importance of tradition, in combination with the updating that is necessary to ensure the recipes never die out. Gastronomy at its purest. Hilario likes to cook with his hands, at the stove, using techniques for a reason, not out of habit or to follow trends.

The food writer for the International Herald Tribune, Patricia Wells, described her impressions after eating at one of the Zuberoa tables. "I can't imagine anyone feeling unhappy in this restaurant". A relaxed atmosphere, thoughtful cooking, exquisite service and a wine list with over 3,000 references. Hilario Arbelaitz feels at home in his Zuberoa universe, where he has everything he needs to delight visitors to his valley.


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