The Making of a Culinary Mecca

Some people eat to live, others live to eat. Among those for whom food is an end rather than a means, there is a subset of individuals who also travel mainly for the purpose of eating. These gastronomic tourists, sometimes referred to as gastronauts, roam the planet in pursuit of gustatory pleasure, their itineraries usually dictated not by sightseeing guides but by the Michelin Guide. Like ordinary tourists, they carry cameras and collect souvenirs; however, most of what they photograph is food, and most of the souvenirs they lug home are menus. These globe-spanning diners are not to be confused with culinary adventurers, who travel to exotic locales in order to eat repulsive things and then return home to boast about their exploits (preferably via TV shows or books). The true gastronomic tourist tends to choose more conventional vacation spots and is interested only in educating his palate and giving it maximum satisfaction.

For the food-obsessed voyager, there is no more compulsory destination these days than San Sebastián, Spain, the city also known by the Basque name Donostia. This compact, genteel seaside resort, located just over the border from France, is the epicenter of Spain’s culinary revolution and is said to boast more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any city in the world (18 as of November, when the 2008 ratings for Spain were released). As a result, it has become a magnet for gastronomes, who flock there to sample the city’s avant-garde cooking and its much-admired quotidian fare, which is showcased in its famous pintxos (tapas) bars and its equally renowned eating clubs. The locals are famous for the pleasure they take in good food and for the enthusiasm with which they dine, which makes the visiting feeder feel right at home. Gluttony loves company and finds plenty of it in San Sebastián.

Two decades ago, this city of 180,000 made headlines mostly because it was a stronghold of the Basque separatist movement and was often the scene of violence carried out by ETA, the militant group whose campaign in support of Basque independence has claimed more than 800 lives over the last four decades. Although the number of ETA attacks has fallen sharply in recent years, the organization carried out a bombing at the Madrid airport last December that killed two people. With the arrests near San Sebastián in October of the entire leadership of a Basque political party allegedly linked to ETA, there are fears that a renewed wave of violence may be in the offing.

I went to San Sebastián with the half-baked notion that perhaps the city’s hedonism was partly a response to all this bloodshed and tension—that San Sebastián ate, drank, and partied with such gusto because every supper might be the last supper. Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre, a native New Yorker who now lives in San Sebastián (her husband was a professional pelota player) and leads gastronomic tours (business is booming), quickly torpedoed my hypothesis: She said that the Basques have always indulged themselves at the table and that the political violence neither encouraged nor inhibited their love of cooking and eating.

So, how did tiny San Sebastián became such a gastronomic colossus? (It’s a peanut even by Spanish standards; it doesn’t even rank in the country’s top 25 cities by population.) It is primarily a function of geography. San Sebastián sits on the Bay of Biscay, which coughs up a huge variety of pristine seafood. It is here, too, that the mountains—the Pyrenees, to be exact—meet the sea. Drive 15 minutes inland from Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián’s horseshoe-shaped beach, and you’ll find yourself traversing heavily wooded hillsides and lush green valleys. From here, San Sebastián derives a rich array of meats, poultry, game, fruits, and vegetables. There’s wine, too: The Rioja, Spain’s most famous viticultural region, is just a few hours from San Sebastián by car.

But this natural endowment, vital as it was, did not turn San Sebastián into a Mecca of new-wave cooking. Much of the credit for that goes instead to France—a textbook example of no good deed going unpunished, since many gastronomes believe that Spain has now eclipsed France as the culinary world’s lodestar. Here’s how the story goes: In 1976, iconic French chef Paul Bocuse took part in a culinary conference in Madrid, during which he shared some of the central tenets of the nouvelle cuisine movement that was then shaking up the French food scene. In the audience that day were two young chefs from San Sebastián, Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana. They were intrigued by what they saw and heard and made their curiosity known to Bocuse, who invited them to visit him in Lyon to learn more about what he and other French chefs were up to. Arzak and Subijana spent 10 days in France and returned to San Sebastián determined to give Basque cuisine a similar facelift. With several like-minded chefs and a group of freethinking diners happy to be lab rats in exchange for complimentary meals, they began holding regular get-togethers at which updated versions of classic Basque dishes and original creations were presented. Thus was born New Basque Cuisine, which became the foundation of the New Spanish Cooking, otherwise known as La Nueva Cocina.

But although the Basque country birthed Spain’s gastronomic revolution, it was the futuristic cooking in Catalonia, on the other side of the Pyrenees, that first caught the world’s attention, back in the mid-1990s; and it is a Catalan chef, Ferran Adrià, who has become the movement’s leading figure. This doesn’t seem to be a source of resentment in San Sebastián, nor should it be: Adrià himself has said that he considers San Sebastián the best place to eat not just in Spain, but in all of Europe. It is a claim that I was eager to put to the test, along with my appetite.