Interview with Joxe Mari Aizega

General Director of the Basque Culinary Center

Joxe Mari Aizega is the general director of the Basque Culinary Center, one of the world's leading gastronomic centres, comprising the Faculty of Gastronomic Sciences and the R&D Centre for Food and Gastronomy. This centre was the first Gastronomic Faculty in Spain with an Official Degree in Gastronomy and Culinary Arts.

Joxe Mari Aizega was the founder and pioneer of this centre, which has the support of public institutions, the most important international chefs, private companies and the University of Mondragón.

Joxe Mari Aizega holds a degree in Business Science and Law from the University of the Basque Country and a PhD in Law from the University of the Basque Country.

He has worked as a lecturer at the Faculty of Law of the University of the Basque Country and the Faculty of Business Sciences of the University of Mondragón, head of the Legal Department of the Mondragón Corporation and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mondragón.

Mr. Aizega, first of all, how does a professor of law and economics become one of the world's top leaders in the world of gastronomy?

I was Vice-Rector of the University of Mondragón about 14 years ago, when some of the chefs who today make up the Basque Culinary Center's board of trustees contacted us and told us about the idea of creating a training centre that would respond to the needs of gastronomy. I was fortunate enough to hear this idea first-hand and I began to meet with these chefs and learn more about what they were doing. I discovered an exciting world for many reasons, certainly for the passion they transmitted and also for the different disciplines they dealt with in their work.

As a university, we did not hesitate to link them, and I also committed myself personally. From there, I have been deepening my knowledge of gastronomy, understanding its potential, promoting multiple initiatives and, above all, meeting spectacular people, many of whom are now friends. Since the Basque Culinary Center opened its doors in 2011, it has been non-stop.

Do you feel more like a gastronomic manager, a scholar, an apprentice chef...?

I adapt to different roles throughout the day. I feel like a student, because we are always involved in learning processes; gastronomic manager, because my activity as director requires me to develop all the management and coordination of the centre. I also try to give free rein to my interests in the kitchen as an apprentice in my spare time. We can say that, in this case, I apply the interdisciplinary vision that we develop in training and research to my day-to-day work.

You have shared and are part of the club of the great chefs of the world, what do you value most in these great international chefs?

What I value most is their passion and ability to share knowledge, to work in an open network that integrates different visions, perspectives and ways of doing things. Since I started in this sector, I have always felt welcomed, and that is due to their generosity and desire to share. Another aspect that I value highly is their focus on excellence and continuous attention to detail. We apply these two premises at the Basque Culinary Center.

And when you are at home, what dishes do you like to prepare and why?

As a fan of Basque gastronomy, I especially like to prepare dishes that are linked to this tradition: freshly prepared fish or a good grilled meat. Lately, I have also been making artisanal products such as marmalades with seasonal fruits.

The Basque Culinary and Joxe Mari Aizega are inseparable parts, have you fulfilled your dream, and what are your future projects?

My dream is still being fulfilled. It has taken a lot of effort to set up the centre and now our energies are focused on a key project for us as GOe (Gas-tronomy Open Ecosystem), which involves the construction of a new 9,000 m2 building in the heart of San Sebastian. GOe is a further step in taking gastronomic knowledge, innovation, research and entrepreneurship to another level. It aspires to attract talent from all over the world, to work with companies and to be linked to the public. The exciting thing about gastronomy is that, as a constantly evolving sector, there are always dreams to develop.

Tell me a little about the training at the Basque Culinary Center, what makes it special?

At the Basque Culinary Center we focus our training on three main axes: the 'learning by doing' pedagogical model, through which students learn by applying concepts in real projects; an interdisciplinary vision, which develops the different areas of knowledge implicit in gastronomy through active learning methodologies; an educational model based on competencies, which encourages autonomy and decision-making, and develops human skills.

And who are the key players in this training?

We understand that the students are the protagonists of their own learning. The Basque Culinary Center attracts talent from different corners of the world. This interrelation between students creates a very enriching environment for their development. And of course, those who make it possible, the cornerstone of the training, are the staff, the teaching staff.

We have experts in different disciplines who, in an open and committed way, being involved with the students, pose creative and learning challenges to our students. Challenges through which we innovate and advance in applied knowledge.

How does the Basque Culinary confront the day-to-day to update its proposals? Which of your training proposals do you consider to be the most innovative?

Our main tool is continuous listening. The world in general, and the gastronomy sector as well, is in constant movement and this requires us to rely on the professionals who make it up. Contact with the people who make up our network, the Board of Trustees, the International Council, and all the professionals in the gastronomic community, is what allows us to define the next lines of action.

As a result of this active listening, we have been detecting the demands that exist within the gastronomic sector. This year, for example, we are starting with a university master's degree in Gastronomy Teacher Training. We want to train future teachers in the sector at an international level.

In relation to the wide range of proposals offered by the Basque Culinary, what makes it unique?

At the Basque Culinary Center we understand gastronomy from a 360º perspective. A holistic, polyvalent, interdisciplinary and constantly evolving ecosystem in which different profiles and professionals in the sector are involved. This vision makes the centre a unique space. During all these years we have contributed to the promotion and training of professionals who will lead the future of Gastronomy and we have established ourselves as a unique training, research and innovation project, aimed at the development of the sector, with a clear international vocation.

How can you assess the quality and consistency of the dishes to ensure customer satisfaction?

We equip students and professionals with the skills and values to do their job with the utmost professionalism. How they put this into practice and how their customers value it depends on many factors.

And what do you offer that makes your students value training in restaurant team management so highly?

From the very beginning it was clear to us that business management skills were key for a gastronomy professional. If there is one thing that COVID-19 has highlighted, it is the obvious need to reinforce these skills linked to restaurant and team management. In our master's degrees we combine both aspects, we aim to provide students with the necessary skills so that when they make the leap to the professional sphere they are sufficiently prepared. In addition, we have a versatile teaching staff that is constantly adapting to the demands of the sector.

Is it possible to offer quality, tasty and nutritionally balanced dishes on a budget?

Absolutely. It's not so much about the budget, but about how the dishes are conceptualised and developed. Probably many years ago, our grandmothers had limited resources for cooking and access to certain ingredients, yet they were able to produce tasty and nutritious dishes. I believe that creativity and planning are more important than budget.

Do you think that Spanish cuisine is well known in the world, or is it the great chefs of the country that are known?

Both are symbiotic elements in my opinion. Spanish cuisine cannot be understood without its chefs, and vice versa. The brand image of a country is completely linked to its gastronomy. Chefs, not only the great ones, are the main ambassadors and contribute to the positioning of the country at an international level.

Do you consider that all this world of stars and chef awards is a media issue, or are they really solid proposals?

Gastronomy and chefs are generating growing interest in the media and social networks. It seems to me that we are living a moment of gastronomic boom. And I am not sure if that will change in the future, because it is logical that each historical moment has its own areas of interest, but, on the other hand, I believe that gastronomy will continue to have a very important place in our lives. Linked to pleasure, health and sustainability. I don't think it's a fad.

Have some chefs' proposals lost the thread with traditional gastronomic proposals?

The secret of a rich and varied gastronomic offer lies in the freedom that each chef has to choose his or her own path. There are different proposals, more traditional, avant-garde, fusion cuisine... I think the most important thing is that the value proposition is based on the chef's truth, as this is what allows us to enjoy and enrich the experience. Gastronomy is more diverse than ever.

Why do you think cuisine is so topical?

If there is one phenomenon that is transversal and affects us all, it is gastronomy. It is a phenomenon that is intrinsic to human beings. Undoubtedly, the appearance on television of programmes related to gastronomy and the impact of new technologies on society have also contributed to people's interest in consuming gastronomic content. The challenge now is to return to the kitchen.

Finally, we can't resist the temptation for you to give us a recipe that you consider special.

A very typical recipe in traditional Basque cuisine is stuffed baby squid in its own ink. It is a special dish because of its significance and relationship with the territory and the sea. To make it, you will need a good seasonal product, as it is usually in the summer when the baby squid is obtained from the hook.

Before starting, I clean the baby squid and empty their insides. I separate the tentacles and fins, to use them as stuffing later.

The secret of good baby squid is in the sauce. I start by browning the garlic cloves and frying the onion with a ham bone. As it fries, I usually add a fumet or fish stock to caramelise the onion. I also add a little tomato sauce and a small glass of white wine until the alcohol evaporates. Then I remove the ham bone and add the ink. Normally the ink from the squid is not enough to give it colour, so I also use the ink from the cuttlefish, which gives it a bluish-black colour. With the ink added, I let it cook for twenty minutes and mash it well.

Once the sauce is ready, I sauté the stuffed cuttlefish in a frying pan and then add them to the sauce. I leave them there to cook until they are just right. Simply delicious.

Dear Mr Joxe Mari Aizega, thank you for bringing us closer to gastronomy and the Basque Culinary Center with such a different, innovative and solid vision.

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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