The grilled baby eels at Arzak.

A Spanish Food Adventure with Chef Grant Achatz

Grilled baby eels!
Braised pig ear!
Codfish bladders!
Tag along with the celebrity chef as he eats and drinks his way through the most delicious restaurants in San Sebastián.

When you travel with one of the world’s best chefs, you eat way better than a tourist. You also eat way, way more. “I’m force-fed at least twice a day,” says Grant Achatz, whose Chicago restaurant, the three-Michelin-starred Alinea, is ranked ninth-best in the world by Restaurant magazine.

Achatz, Bagale, and Beran
Achatz (right), Bagale (center), and Beran (left), eating cheesecake at La Viña.

Achatz had just finished a four-day trip to Barcelona, where he didn’t see one Gaudí building, one museum, or even one chocolate shop. Instead, he ate—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dinner again, sometimes doing two tasting menus in a row. When Achatz travels for work, he gets “sorted,” the food world parlance for being taken care of. Every local chef wants him to see what he can do, so Achatz ends up eating his way, gluttonously and usually for free, through a city’s best restaurants.

He then arrived, slightly bloated, in San Sebastián, Spain, accompanied by two of his company’s chefs: Dave Beran, the mellow, former college hockey goalie who runs Achatz’s other restaurant, Next, and Mike Bagale, the macho executive chef at Alinea, who goes by “Bagel.”

In San Sebastián, Achatz was being put up by Oceana, the ocean conservation charity, for an event called Save the Oceans, Feed the World, where he’d help save the oceans and feed the world by posing for photographs. He was also there to do research—Next was developing a tapas menu, and he was also planning to close Alinea for a stretch while working on various pop-ups, including one in Madrid that focuses on Spanish food.

San Sebastián is a place where a chef can really get sorted. The beach resort town at the foot of the Pyrenees, just 12 miles from France, is a decent-size city. Wide boulevards lead to tiny crowded streets in the old part of town, Parte Vieja. Gothic churches abut belle epoque buildings that are right next to swoopy modernist structures. The people speak Basque: Full of “tk”s and “x”s, it sounds like a language the Aztecs might have reserved for talking about war. But what everyone’s actually talking about, almost all the time, is food. In addition to all the tapas bars, the high-end restaurant competition in San Sebastián is intense. In a city of fewer than 200,000 people, there are three three-Michelin-starred restaurants, one fewer than in all of England.

The group’s first stop, two hours after landing at the Bilbao airport, was Arzak, a three-starred restaurant, where Achatz, of course, knows the chef, Juan Mari Arzak. It’s a 119-year-old, fourth-generation place, but its fame is due to the modernist tasting menu. Arzak was in Miami that night getting some award, but his daughter Elena, who runs the restaurant with him, doted on us and refused to let Achatz pay. An early course consisted of an apple injected with beet accompanied by spheres of foie gras and potatoes made to look like mother of pearl. The highlight of the meal was a huge bowl of baby eels grilled in a basket with oil and garlic. They tasted like salty, oily, rich pasta. Dinner ended long after midnight, and I wondered how the Spanish ever had sex if they ate so late. “Siesta,” Achatz explained.

The next day we woke up with food hangovers and immediately went on a tapas crawl. Our guide that afternoon was Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef at the acclaimed Mugaritz. The neighborhood felt like a block party. People were drinking outside, either grabbing tapas pierced with a toothpick—the Basque call them pintxos—from plates on the bar or ordering through windows that opened onto the street. The most popular pintxo, a combo of anchovies, pickled green peppers, and green olives, is called a Gilda, after the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie. Aduriz’s English-speaking chef explained that green implies sexuality. It was the first time I’d heard that since eating M&Ms in elementary school.

Assorted dishes at Bar Txepetxa
Assorted dishes at Bar Txepetxa, a stop along the tapas crawl.

Locals were drinking straight vermouth, which they sip before noon; it’s San Sebastián’s equivalent of orange juice. Instead, we drank txakoli, a light, low-alcohol, effervescent white wine. Some txakoli is lemony, some salty, some very acidic, some sweet, and most dry. At Borda Berri, a black-and-white-tiled bar with a blackboard menu of meats, Achatz ate a braised pig ear whose fat and cartilage had been melted into a porky jam. “It’s a bomb,” he said. “A fat bomb, flavor bomb, all of it.” The veal cheeks were also excellent, and the kebab, made with braised pork ribs, beat them all. Achatz had a little trouble with the texture of the codfish bladders in pil-pil sauce. You have to eat a lot of stuff you don’t necessarily like as a visiting chef, he said. And these were nothing compared with the raw pig vagina he ate in Japan.

Ingredients at Ganbara, another tapas crawl hit.

At A Fuego Negro, one of the bright modern bars that stick out from dark ancient spots, we were served a fork implanted in a hunk of wood, stacked with tiny, delicious black-sausage doughnuts. We ended the crawl at La Viña, where Aduriz broke through the crowd to the back. We got plates with two slices of cheesecake made of simple, soft cow’s milk cheese, crustless and burnt on the bottom. This was the dish that would haunt us—each of us would go back to La Viña three to five times over the next three days. It was a cheesecake high I’ll chase my entire life.

Everyone was too full for dinner, but a codicil of being sorted is that you cannot be unsorted. Bailing on Akelaŕe, another three-Michelin-starred restaurant, would have insulted the chef, Pedro Subijana, who, mustachioed, smiling, and wearing a giant toque, looked like a Disney version of his profession.

We got a tour of his establishment, a wooden spaceship tucked into the mountains, that included a huge secondary kitchen where the same two chefs had worked for 15 years doing nothing but research and development. As we sat, our server put a three-minute timer on the table along with a hot bag of salt on top of raw anchovies. Achatz started writing in his little notebook before he ate. Instead of using a hot bag of salt to create a flat cooked dish, what if he did the opposite? A bag of sugar frozen with liquid nitrogen on top of something, maybe a hot cooked tomato, to turn it into a sweet cold dish? Achatz is always coming up with ideas, often based on no more than a feeling he had on the beach or the way a tree looks.

The next morning, the group got in a van and headed an hour into the mountains to Etxebarri, a grill restaurant. Sometime this year, Achatz is opening his third restaurant in Chicago, Roister. (The name is an Old English term for a party.) He plans on making simpler food, cooked over a fire as it is at Etxebarri, so he was interested to see how they do it.

Ganbara, Arzak, A Fuego Negro
Right, clockwise from top left: Ganbara’s exterior; the apple injected with beet at Arzak; a view of the city; black-sausage doughnuts at A Fuego Negro.

At that point in the journey, we all just wanted to stop eating. When the chefs planned their itinerary, Bagale had made this his only must. But our bodies were telling us to stop. The guys were food-coma silent until the bread came out. Bagale was furious that they served it cold—“at a grill restaurant!” Beran tried to calm him down. “Let’s not argue,” he said.

“I’m not arguing. Can’t we have a discussion?” Bagale asked.

“Look how nice the begonias are,” suggested Beran, looking out Etxebarri’s giant ski-house windows toward the snow-covered Pyrenees.

“That’s a comment, not a discussion,” Bagale said.

“What do you think of the begonias?” Beran tried.

“Why wouldn’t you at least put some anchovy oil on it and grill it a little bit? Why wouldn’t you do something with this opportunity?” Bagale asked.

Beran kept looking at the begonias.

The life-changing cheesecake at La Viña
The life-changing cheesecake at La Viña.

Achatz ate the bread quietly. He and Beran knew better than to fight, especially at the end of a trip, especially a trip to Spain. When they got back to Chicago after their last trip to Spain together nine years ago, Beran had walked into the Alinea kitchen with a black eye. Achatz had spent the long flight home with one hand on his hungover forehead and the other on a broken rib. They didn’t quite remember what the original difference of opinion was, but they knew it ended in Achatz’s hotel room, on the floor, in a drunken-chef reproduction of Guernica.

Now they were both exceedingly quiet. “I feel like we’re the table we’re always complaining about: ‘They’re not drinking. They’re not finishing their food. They’re not having fun. They’re miserable,’ ” Bagale said. Even the best restaurants in the world get awful guests. At Alinea, more than a few couples have loudly broken up. Women have completely destroyed bathrooms. People steal surprisingly large decorative items.

When no one at the table finished a course of one sardine, the waitress asked if we didn’t like it. Everyone explained that they were just full. She walked away, clearly annoyed.

We ended the meal with two giant, super-rare steaks made of gamy cattle. Then we got a tour of the kitchen, which was underground and comically tiny for such a huge place. There was one induction burner, an oven for heating coals, and one grill where just about everything was cooked. And only three people: grill master Victor Arguinzoniz, a pastry chef, and Wes, the 24-year-old sous chef, who used to work for Beran at Next. He was finishing his year here, and we all felt very strongly that we should save him—tie him up and put him in the van and bring him out of this hot underground cave. But he wouldn’t leave.

The next morning, Achatz got word that Daniel Humm, the chef at New York’s Eleven Madison Park, had just landed and immediately went on a run. This made us all feel bad about ourselves and even worse about Humm. Beran gave Achatz a gift of a cucumber—it was the food he ate most back in Chicago, both raw and sautéed—and Achatz smiled more widely than he had since that pig’s ear.

The grilled steak at Etxeberri
The grilled steak at Etxeberri.

For the last night in town, the trio joined other great chefs of the world at Sidreria Zelaia, a cider house that’s a 15-minute ride into the mountains. No one made it to the nearby Guggenheim Bilbao, the old churches, the hike up to the giant Jesus statue, or the 100-year-old funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo. Instead, we were served that same kind of steak, this time at a fourth-generation, 108-year-old place that had never changed a thing. Locals stood at small wooden tables, but they mostly wandered into the back, where a man pulled thumbtack-size pieces of wood out of ginormous wooden barrels, causing the acidic, not-at-all-sweet cider to flow out like a horse urinating. People lined up their glasses to catch it. You’d think this would make a mess of the floor, and you’d be totally right. I’d guess the whole meal cost $30, but I would never know, because when we tried to pay, they refused our money. The group left early, before any fights broke out. And before something we feared even more: being sorted somewhere else.