A Crash Course On Basque Cuisine From Legendary Chef Gerald Hirigoyen

Oftentimes, when I interview chefs, it’s over the phone or something lame like that. Take it from me, “through a phone line” is not the ideal way to experience food. This past weekend, however, I got the opportunity to not only interview a pair of local (to San Francisco) chefs, but attend a couples cooking class with my girlfriend as part of the Global Cuisine Series at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.

Taught by Gerald Hirigoyen of Piperade, the class was a demonstration of cuisine from the Basque region, which was fitting, considering I only just learned what Basque food was a few months ago.

For the trip, we scored an Audi from Audi on Demand, who deliver the car to your door. It’s kind of like those old Enterprise “we pick you up” commercials, only real. Driving a loaded 2017 luxury car is… nice, obviously. But also a little disconcerting if you’re not used to it. Did you know they have helpful warnings for everything now? A beep if you’re too close to something behind you, a beep if you’re too close to something in front of you, mirror lights that blink when someone’s in your blind spot. It’s enough to make a man scream “SHUT UP, CAR, I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING.” (*whispering to onboard navigation system* Audi? Kill Flanders.)

I digress. After a pleasant drive down the coast, we joined a small group of foodies (and one golfer who was clearly making some kind of concession to his wife) to watch Hirigoyen demonstrate a few of his French-Basque dishes. First he prepared “orange blossom beignets” — donut poofs made from pat a’choux, a kind of eggy shortbread that comes out of the fryer full of air (Hirigoyen cracked his eggs one handed like a show off). Next, he prepared stuffed squid in its own ink, a squid body stuffed with sauteed onions, garlic, pancetta, and breadcrumbs, served with the tentacles in a pool of ink sauce.

The only thing I enjoy more than boiling an animal in its own defense mechanism is bread crumbs sauteed in pork fat.

We had the mise en place all laid out before us (see above), but for this class we just watched. (I’m told that the Ritz’s Global Cuisine Series is usually very hands-on, but Chef Gerald makes his own rules). The best part came later, when we got to eat the dishes at a catered lunch. Taste a pat’a choux beignet and you will immediately conclude that it’s how all donuts should be. I think I had about eight of them (acting bashful about gorging yourself in front of strangers is for amateurs).

After that came the squid, followed by a poulet basquaise — chicken parts braised in a red pepper/tomato/onion melange, seasoned with powder of Basque’s native espelette pepper. Squid in its own ink is the obvious show piece, but for my money it doesn’t get much better than a smothered chicken leg.

Before the meal I got to chat briefly with Hirigoyen and the Ritz’s Chef De Cuisine, Jason Pringle, who makes the menus inspired by the visiting chefs.

Have you seen people’s level of cooking competence change at all in the time that you’ve been teaching?

Well I don’t know. It seems like a lot of people are taking cooking classes. People are more aware. So I think definitely there’s more interest in cooking than before. There’s a lot more people. I think people used to cook before, but I think now you see more people trying, trying to understand. A lot of the time they’re very smart and asking questions on this and that.

You’ve been in California since the 80s you said, how have you seen the restaurant industry change in that time?

Oh I’ve seen it change. Definitely. From the producers and their products to the people’s awareness. It’s a lot more sophisticated, you know? Sometime too sophisticated. Sometimes they think they know too much about everything. That can be… But no, definitely it’s people are a lot more aware. There’s more competition in restaurants because of that also. I think in the past probably if you were mediocre, you could succeed, but I think now, whatever you do, whichever category, I think you have to be at the top of your game.

Tell me about the first restaurant that you worked at.

Well actually, I never worked in restaurant outside of the states because I used to be … I used to work in pastries. So I start cooking in the pastry department because the last one that was in France, we had a little catering side and we used to do sort of high end, not huge catering but maybe 10 people, 15 people. So that’s really when I start cooking, but my first restaurant here in the states was actually a little restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore called Le Castell. The chef was a young French man. He was a year older than I am, but he was the chef and I came in as a sous chef, pastry chef, and so at the time, things were changing already a little bit. That was kind of like the tail end of nouvelle cuisine and stuff and I think here in the States people were a little bit behind, especially in the West coast I think, more than in New York probably?

And we start doing things that were different, things that people were not used to–

Like what?

Oh, I don’t know, if I remember we had pheasant with currant sauce and then we had the roasted squab with honey and vinegar and stuff, so things were little bit different than what it used to be. And they were not necessarily a posh restaurant but you could go to a smaller restaurant and have nice food and everything ’cause in the old days, especially I think in the city, in San Francisco you had a lot of old fashioned restaurants, sort of ostentatious, kind of haute cuisine, there are a lot of pretext and stuff but I think the 80s start to come and things were very more serious but we were a bit more relaxed perhaps too.

So you started as a pastry chef in France, and how old were you?

I was 13 when I started. 13 and a half to be precise.

Was that a choice that you made or was that just sort of the family business?

No, that was choice, that was a choice because I wanted to, actually I really wanted to be a chef more than doing pastries perhaps at the time, but you know because I had to do it… if I wanted to get out of school I had to do an apprenticeships and my dad told me there was an opening in a good restaurant where I was at the time, and he says you know you can start doing pastries ’cause that’s always going to stick with you and that’s your plan because a lot of times chefs don’t necessarily know how to do pastries. Because pastries, you need to be precise, you need a certain training. I started there and then I moved to cooking later on.

So if someone has never eaten Basque cuisine, how would you describe it? How does it differ from Spanish or differ from French cuisine?

Well, you have influence of a little bit of both, let’s put it this way. The Basque cuisine has… it’s a very cuisine de terroir, you have the oceans and the mountains so, we have the sheeps, we eat a lot of sheeps. I think it’s, to me in my opinion, it’s more like a Mediterranean cuisine than it is European, because we use a lot of olive oil and stuff like that. The French were a little bit more Escoffiers, and now I think there is sort of a return to what the tradition used to be. Then there’s also, you know we cook a lot with fire in the Basque country so there’s a lot of grill and stuff like that.

They have their own dishes, the whole fish grill, the garlic vinaigrette, the stuffed squid ink, the koskera with the peas and the hake… These are the recipes and there were practical and traditional divisions.

And then how would you say that this Basque food that you make in the restaurant differs from what you would make at home with your family?

Well I think, if I look at my menu, I think I take a lot of things that… it might not be always necessarily traditional, you know? But also I take my past, my roots in California here so gotta put a little spin on it and do different things. For example, one thing that’s very well known in the Basque country is little piquillo pepper stuffed with corn right? So, for years I was doing that, well, not for years, but at the beginning I used to do a lot of those and they were not selling as much. So I did an interpretation with still the stuffed pepper, but stuffed with goat cheese and I cannot get it out of the menu. From time to time I do that. The stuffed crab also, so I used to do stuffed crab but you know it’s more like an old fashioned recipe and stuff, so I turn it into nice little salad with mangoes and peppers and stuff.

Are there preconceived dishes that people expect when they come to a Basque restaurant that you didn’t necessarily eat growing up that you sorta had to put on the menu because that’s what people expect?

Well, you know definitely, I think people love sweet bread, especially from a French side, we eat a lot of sweet breads, the calamari in ink sauce, stuff like that and we gonna have to have– the cod, we use a lot of cod.

So you did all your training through apprenticeships?

Right, basically yes. So I worked in France and then I came here and then I start flying on my own here. I think a lot of times you have to be passionate and dedicated to … you can learn a lot of stuff from other people too but also, there’s plenty of people that go work for other people and they don’t go anywhere. I think you have to be passionate and dedicated and get a sense and have a palate and be really motivated.

What do you think are the advantages of that, apprenticing versus going to culinary school?

Oh, I think some people succeed in apprenticeships, some in school. I think it goes both ways. Apprenticeship can very difficult, especially in the old days because you, the way you were treated, you have to have a really tough skin. And sometimes people get later on in life and then they do it and they really successful too so a lot times early and people get burnt out by a young age too, it’s tough. It’s very demanding. It’s mental, it’s very physical, it’s right on the spot, you have to make a quick decisions so it’s not for everybody.

How do you think the culture of it has changed since, now between when you started?

Oh I think things have changed tremendously. There’s a lot of young people now, young generations are really devoted and you see they’re very smart, a lot smarter than we were, I think with technology and all that stuff. No, I think there’s a revival on the scene. I think it’s exciting and at the same time, I think cuisine is being very, sort of, I don’t know if glamorized, is the word, but you know with TV and the shows and everything and people getting into it because “Oh I wanna be a star,” but they forget the steps you have to go to get that too.

Do you have a first food memory?

First food memory, no, I was really, the food memory, I don’t know if it’s a food per se, because as a kid I used to eat everything even though one time, my dad made me eat some endives, braised endive, which I decide I didn’t like it. But I think that was more like a statement to head butting with my dad, not knowing really about this, but I decided I didn’t like them. But… the memories I have is really being in the kitchen with both my parents and, even though they were like amateur cooks, but it was always fun to see the interaction between the two of them and grabbing stuff here and there along the way.

How do you think your relationship with food growing up is different from your kids growing up now?

Oh for my kids it’s much different because I think first of all I didn’t have any choice, that’s what it was in front of you, you eat that or you don’t eat. Now we gonna have to like please everybody and I see with my family, and they’re lucky that I’m a chef because I know one likes more vegetables than the meat and everything, and I really try to accommodate everybody. So I don’t know if it’s a good thing, I like to think that maybe it’s a positive thing for the future also because I try to introduce them little by little. I’m lucky to have that but at the same times, unfortunately I have difficult kids. I have friends who are not necessarily chefs and their kids eat everything and for me was a bit of challenge but they’re getting much better, yeah.

What was the hardest thing to get them to eat?

The hardest things, simple stuff like artichokes and just … and then little cuts of meat, like sweetbreads and stuff.

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