Benjamín Urdiain (Ziordia, Navarra, 1939) is a shy and discreet chef. The light bulbs that illuminated the gastronomic universe in 1987 when he achieved the first three Michelin stars for a Spanish restaurant, the Zalacaín, continue to shine at 82 years old, despite the fact that he talks about himself with a dropper. “Some secrets of the kitchen stay in the kitchen” he assures ironic, although in the next line he shows that what can be told is worthy of exciting and salivating the most demanding palates. The hoteliers and the Government of Navarra pay tribute to him this Monday along with six of the 12 top-level cooks that Ziordia, a small town of just 340 inhabitants, has given. The book Navarra to the kitchen, written by Jesús María Alegría, PinttuRemember all your successful careers.
Urdiain keeps clear the recipes and flavors that have seduced several generations in France and Spain. From the consommé jelly Farah Diba with caviar, which he dedicated to the “extraordinary” woman of the sha de Persia, or Truffles with cava, or with a red wine sauce, which fascinated María Callas, Anthony Quinn or Marlon Brando, among a whole constellation of international and national clients. So there were only 27 restaurants in Europe with three stars. Now there are 11 only in Spain. “Fortunately, first class cuisine has become democratized and popularized,” he says.
The Navarrese chef opened this marker for the national gastronomy with a dream menu that changed every year: lamb with beans in Jerez, muscovite consommé, blue duck in two cooks with red fruits, lobster salad with Spanish sauce or entrecote with marrow a la Bordeaux. The restaurant, founded by Jesús María Oyarbide and Consuelo Apalategui in 1973 “was pure luxury,” he recalls. “We consumed more than 120 kilos of truffles a year.”
“Benjamin Urdiain was one of the best in Europe,” recalls Javier Arbizu, who for 29 years has been the chef of the Spanish Football Federation, also from Ziordia. He, who began with sports nutrition at the hand of John Benjamin Toshack at the Royal Society, has no doubts in referring to Urdiain as “the teacher and as an extraordinary person.” Arzak got the three stars two years after Urdiain, in 1989. El Racó de Can Fabes in 1994 and elBulli in 1997. Pedro Subijana, who in 1973 worked with Urdian at Zalacaín, the restaurant that took its name from Pio’s novel Baroja, Zalacaín the adventurer, achieved the third star in 2006.
If Urdiain was fascinated by Farah Diba’s jet blue eyes, Gregory Peck remembers her presence. “It was almost two meters long. I met him on the set of And the day of revenge arrived by Fred Zinnemann in the sixties ”. They hired him to be their cook during the filming in France. One day Peck called him to ask for an explanation as to why there was no ice for his whiskey. The light had gone out: “No light, no ice, I told him how I could ”. A decade later, Peck ate in Zalacaín. The shy chef came out of the stove and approached the actor in his hat and white suit. “Sir, no light, no ice”He said point-blank. “He looked at me, got up and we gave each other a hug” is still excited. In 1981 he was awarded the National Gastronomy Prize and in 2002 he was awarded in Lyon, France, by the International Academy of Gastronomy with the Grand Prize for Memory and Gratitude, among others.
“I think Ziordia is a magical town, especially at parties” jokes the author of the book. In his pages on the saga of cooks that this town has given the world, he explains that “the pioneer” was Valentín Pozueta, (Ziordia 1882 – California 1959) who after learning the trade in Paris and London, settled in the city of Los Baños , in California, “where he set up Wool Growers Restaurant, a place that is still open.” The brothers Casimiro and Cándido Mendía, chefs at hotels such as the London in San Sebastián, the Alfonso XIII in Seville and the Ritz in Madrid, followed him. “Valentín Aguirre, who retired as head chef at the Carlton hotel in Bilbao, was Urdiain’s student,” he recalls Pinttu, and then Javier Arbizu in La roja. Antonio Iglesias at the Guria in Barcelona and Bilbao; Gerardo Mendia at the Maite Comodore hotel in Madrid; Juan Manuel Mendibe in Zalacaín and Guria in Barcelona; Koldo López de Goikoetxea and Rufino Bastida in the Portalón de Vitoria; and José Ignacio Urdiain, at the OX’s in Madrid.
If there is a common link between all of them, in addition to the hometown, it is their gastronomic Navarrismo. “The consommé in jelly with caviar, quail eggs and asparagus cream from Navarra was not missing from the menu,” recalls Benjamin Urdiain, the chef who, if all goes well and the covid-19 restrictions are lifted, will return in July to his native Ziordia.