When food critics and gourmands say some of the best chefs hail from Spain's Basque Country, they were probably thinking of Eneko Atxa, the country's youngest three Michelin-starred chef and culinary visionary.
Hailed as a "gastronomic equivalent to a Renaissance man", the 38-year-old makes up the new generation of young Modernist chefs who - after years of being unjustly eclipsed by the fame of the old guard - are rocketing to prominence, thanks to their boundless passion and energy. A proud Basque native, Atxa hails from a family that valued good food and good eating.
Because of Atxa, tourists no longer flock to Bilbao just to marvel at Frank Gehry's Guggenheim masterpiece, but they also make the pilgrimage by car to his veritable gastro-temple, Azurmendi, located 15 minutes outside the city. The restaurant, which celebrates and reinvents traditional Basque recipes by marrying science with creativity, has been credited for delivering more than just brilliant food.
At Azurmendi, a diner's five senses are besieged the moment they take a seat - eggs explode with the flavour of truffles, anchovies swim nebulously beneath creamy millefeuille made with crispy pastry and oysters so fresh they arrive quivering, encircled in a fragrant sea mist. While Atxa demonstrates an absolute reverence for the ingredients of his land, he also toys with them cheekily, using ultrasonic equipment and a variety of other techniques to extract and transmit natural essences and aromas.
Not surprisingly, Azurmendi was awarded the maximum number of stars by the Michelin guide in 2012, seven years after it opened. Foodies residing halfway across the world, however, were beside themselves with joy when Atxa decided to set up Aziamendi - his one and only Asian outpost located in the beachside town of Phuket - in 2013.
But here's the good news: Malaysians no longer have to buy a return ticket to Spain or Thailand to experience Atxa's unique brand of Basque cuisine. For 88 days, the culinary genius will be doing what Heston Blumenthal did with the Fat Duck in Sydney: bring his entire brigade, including protege Chef de Cuisine Alex Burger, to the Mandarin Oriental KL for a pop-up restaurant called Aziamendi 88.
Complementing the ultimate dining experience will be a contemporary art showcase curated by Lim Wei Ling, founder of the Wei-Ling Gallery, one of Malaysia's largest platform for contemporary art by local artists. While the experience won't come cheap - lunch costs a minimum of RM198 (S$71) per person for a five-course meal and dinner goes for at least RM438 per person for eight courses - 5 per cent will be contributed to local charity, United Voice Malaysia and Inspirasia Foundation in Bali.
In the meantime, we got in touch with Atxa via e-mail to get his thoughts on a few things.
On his Basque heritage
Basque culture is deeply linked to what happens around a table; food is one of the foundations of our education, friendship and sharing, among others. I also believe that it is in our nature to be restless; as such, I always feel rather dissatisfied, so that is why I continually strive for improvement via new techniques and ideas.
On his decision to become a chef at 15
The best moments of my childhood and youth have always been linked with the kitchen, which was the heart of my home. That was where everyone would gather to enjoy the meals that my mother and grandmother made. I suppose that's why I've always linked pleasure to food.
On dabbling in food science
My dream is to derive maximum pleasure from a particular ingredient by playing up its flavours and textures. I use food science to achieve my goal; however, it's merely a tool that will never take the leading role. I think that scientific knowledge adds value to our work as chefs, so we can cook more efficiently and optimise resources and results.
On his culinary philosophy
I make "identity cuisine", meaning the food reflects my life and what I've learned so far. It's the sum of my background, my evolution as a chef, my travels, my closest friends, and even my phobias and my obsessions. In short, I am what I cook.
I base my cuisine on traditional Basque produce; however, this does not mean I exclude other ingredients in my cooking. It's Basque cuisine with a touch of modernity.
On the secret to his success
I've always worked very hard and with passion, and I think my clients return because of that.
On his sources of inspiration
I draw inspiration from my territory, my culture, cookbooks and the local suppliers.
On the type of food that will be served at Aziamendi 88
The entire menu is designed to deliver an experience. However, I've adapted it to Malaysia and the produce available here. I especially look forward to working with the herbs and spices.
On his most exciting project to date
As part of an ongoing comprehensive research project, Azurmendi seeks to recover local vegetable varieties, which in the last century were lost due to a number of reasons. We have developed a seed bank in co-operation with a research centre from the University of the Basque Country. There are 36 varieties of local vegetables that have been recovered, due to the research efforts of Azurmendi and our co-operation with the local suppliers.
On his thoughts on the Asian food scene
It is fantastic. It is a new world with a very special gastronomic language, in which one can find thousands of gastronomic dialects. I am really in love with the diversity and wealth of Asia.
On his greatest dining experiences as a customer
In the foothills of Kyoto, there's this Japanese restaurant called Kikunoi. I love their philosophy, which stresses that bounties of nature prevail over the ideas of a chef.
From July 22 to Oct 31, Eneko Atxa's Aziamendi will be taking up residency at Mandarin Oriental KL's Mandarin Grill. For more information, visit www.aziamendi88.com.