After three years of cooking in Manhattan I was done. Burned out by seventy to eighty hour work weeks, the World Trade Center disaster and a relationship destroyed by tragedy. Not really knowing what to do, I just went home, quickly finding a job at a small local restaurant in the Santa Maria valley After a short while things just felt, for lack of a better word, stale. I’d become accustomed to the food and lifestyle of NYC, and quickly grew tired of a slower pace of life and lower quality of food. At the time Spain was the epicenter of modern cooking, so, Spain it is.
In June I dispatched letters to the top twelve restaurants in Spain looking for work, paid or unpaid. The three Michelin star Restaurante Martin Berasategui was the only one that replied. The restaurant lies in the small town of Lasarte, near the city of San Sebastian in Basque Country. Their letter invited me to Spain in mid July with the promise of work in trade for room and board. This is a common arrangement in many high-end European restaurants. That was enough for me. I quit my job, bought a plane ticket and stuffed a backpack full of clothes, books and hope for a new beginning.
My plane landed at Barajas airport in Madrid after one week stops in Colorado Springs and New York. I’d booked a tiny hotel room on the Grand Via in the heart of Madrid for five days to do some sightseeing and meet up with a friend from New York. Madrid is an energetic city with long paseos and vibrant, beautiful people who thankfully for me, love to eat. I spent most of the time there just eating and drinking. Whisky con limon, empanadas made with tuna, Cruzcampo with Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp cooked in olive oil and garlic), Guinness with olives bread and cheese and a whole lot of ham at the museos del jamon (Ham museums). Madrid was amazing but work in San Sebastian was calling and it was time to focus on the future.
We arrived in San Sebastian after a six hour bus ride. Not even sure where to sleep, I just wandered the streets of San Sebastian for about two hours until bumping into some Americans who knew their way around. They pointed me in the direction of the beach and some hotels. After booking a room with the little Castellano that I could muster, I headed to a beach called Playa de la Concha. It was the most beautiful beach I had ever laid eyes on up to that point in my life. It cradled the Cantabrian Sea with pale sand, stone buildings and green forests. A small green island hung near the mouth of the bay. The paseo above the beach was dotted with artists, musicians, locals and tourists enjoying the warm Mediterranean evening. Even fifteen years later the vision of my first sunset over Playa de la Concha is still firm in my memory.
That next morning was my first trip to the town of Lasarte. Few people spoke English and my Castellano was terrible, plus all towns and streets have two names, one in Castellano and one in Euskara, the Basque language. Finally, after an hour of searching and unsuccessfully trying to talk to the townspeople I stumbled up to the service entrance of Martin Berastegui.
Sweating, and anxious from having traveled thousands of miles on the promise of work that I never actually called to verify, I took a deep breath and walked in. The kitchen was huge, full of bustling cooks in white jackets speaking Castellano, Euskara and different forms of Latin American Spanish. There was a group of men standing in the middle of the kitchen, not really doing much but barking a lot of orders, those were definitely the chefs. I threaded my way through the staff and introduced myself. Nobody spoke English so they just looked at me with some suspicion. Fortunately the pastry chef was from England and he was able to translate for me. Even though there had been some communication with the restaurant about my arrival, they had no idea who I was. There was a brief conversation between the Executive chef and the English pastry chef,. It tuned out they had a place for me after all.
The following morning I checked out of my hotel in San Sebastian and boarded the Euskotren for the ten minute ride to Lasarte. Backpack in hand, I strode into the kitchen at Martin. One of the cooks took me downstairs past the banquet kitchen into the basement where the other stagiaires slept. There were nearly thirty other stagiaires at the restaurant. For some it was a requirement for school, but for others like me, it was about the experience.
The facilities were, let’s say, “unique “. There were three separate rooms built as bedrooms and a communal area with a round table and chairs. They had two small washing machines but no dryers, so there were ropes going wall to wall that served as indoor clotheslines. There was one main bathroom that had four shower stalls, two toilets and a sink. I was bunking with nine other guys from Argentina, Mexico, Japan and the U.S.. I put my bag down and sat on my bed for the first time and fell right through to the floor, my bed was broken. This would be a sign of things to come.
The first big mistake came right away. Some of the cooks were going out for drinks that night and invited me along, “sure” I said, not realizing that Spaniards are world-class party people. We arrived at the local tavern around one in the morning and drank awhile. The crowd was lively and time went by quickly. I checked my phone and it was after four in the morning. I had to report to the kitchen for my first day at a three Michelin star restaurant in a little over four hours.
I left the bar in a slight panic, headed back to the restaurant and quickly got lost. This being my first full day in a new town I was totally unfamiliar with the streets, I just knew it was at the top of a large hill. So there I was, intoxicated, lost in the dark, in the rain, in a foreign country, and unable to communicate. There was a large cobblestone wall in front of me so I just climbed it and kept climbing, across streets, over fences and hedges, all the way to the restaurant. I plopped down in my broken bed at 4:30 AM soaking wet and shivering. Some kind soul put a blanket on me in the dark.
To be continued…