behind the pintxos

Earlier this week, I posted a 365 entry about a young cook and friend here in San Sebastián, Aleks Villegas.  He helped me come to the conclusion that it's a whole lot more useful to look at the pass and into the kitchen than to go by signs outside of bars when picking pintxo spots.  That is to say that, more so than in many other places, your dining experience is in the hands of one or two cooks.

Just like Aleks, many of these pintxo bar cooks start out staging in local restaurants, which happen to be some of the best in the world: Arzak, Mugaritz, Akelarre.

Then, if they're lucky, they stick around, getting jobs in other restaurants and the city's famed bars.  The vast majority of these pintxo bars are small, one or two-man operations. What does that mean?

That much of what makes a pintxo bar good, bad or excellent is the lone cook holding down the kitchen. Is it someone's cousin who's pinch hitting for a couple months? Or does it happen to be a cook with big dreams fresh off being mentored by one of the world's greatest chefs?  Now you see what I mean.

A chef with big dreams might be like Aleks, creating signature dishes that in a season or two become ubiquitous.  He claims the confit chicken wing, slow-cooked in oil, deboned, then re-seared before serving, as his own creation.  He debuted it at a small bar in Gros, Dardara, where it remains on the menu. Then he took it with him to Astelena. It has also begun to pop up on a couple other menus across town, and it's no coincidence.

San Sebastián is a tiny town with an outsize appetite and culinary talent.  Before graduating to fame, fortune and Michelin stars, it all starts small....with stages and pintxos.