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Chef Eneko Atxa on Covid-19 and what’s to come for hospitality

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The Azurmendi chef tells Tina Nielsen about emerging from the pandemic and what this time of crisis can teach hospitality and society

Speaking from Bilbao in the Basque Country in northern Spain, Eneko Atxa talks about reopening his restaurant Azurmendi, which holds three Michelin stars, after almost four months’ closure. “We are fully booked pretty much every day and we are really grateful that clients feel safe coming back to visit us,” he says.

Spain was among the European countries to be hit the hardest by the pandemic and the hospitality sector endured one of the strictest lockdowns before reopening from the beginning of July. As we speak he says, several flare-ups have been observed and some regions have been put on high alert for more cases of Covid-19.

“At the start it seemed like the summer would be more suitable for reopening, but now it is clear that the summer is suitable for enjoyment and enjoyment doesn’t go well with distance,” he reflects.

While his restaurant was shut, during lockdown, he would bring meals for his mother who is vulnerable and who, except for three occasions, he would speak with while she was standing on her balcony. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”

“We have had to change all our habits – kissing, hugging and standing close to people; all things that are part of who I am,” he says. “It is hard to be patient because it feels like this is stealing a piece of your life, but this is about survival; it is a marathon and we have to stay the course. Sooner or later there will be a vaccine and we can enjoy and recuperate.”

Most important ingredient is safety

While increasing infection numbers mean that parts of the country are in a heightened state of alert, it has had little impact on Atxa and his restaurant a short distance outside Bilbao. He says the response from clients since reopening has been overwhelming.

The dining room, very spacious even for pre-pandemic times when it usually seats 40 people, has been reduced to 25 to 30 guests at any one time and staff are well versed in safety procedures by now. “Right now the most important ingredient is not on the plate,” he says. “The priority is to keep clients safe.”

His other restaurants in Spain – both called Eneko – remain closed. “We thought it would be prudent to reopen little by little as we return to something similar to normality,” he says. Unlike many other operators he decided against starting a delivery service. “I don’t have the expertise or the logistical capacity to deliver to people’s homes here in the Basque Country, but we did start a delivery service in our Tokyo restaurant,” he explains.

This pandemic, he believes, is a crisis that no one was prepared to deal with. “We always heard that something like this could happen, but it’s hard to believe something that sounds like science fiction. No person, no institution or no government was prepared for this,” he says.

It brings him to the discussion about the dangers of climate change threatening the planet, an issue that he has long campaigned on. “How long have we listened to these concerns and when are we going to do something about it? When something happens?” he asks. “It seems like we always expect someone else to fix it – the government or other people, but this is something we all have a responsibility to deal with.”

“I could say, ‘I am a chef, what can I do? I can’t change the world’ but the truth is we can all change the world. We are always waiting for other people to save us, but we have to save us and we have to save the next generations. This might sound like naturalist discourse, but it is about survival,” he says.

Seeing the bigger picture

The negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on hospitality is already plain to see and Atxa believes there’s more to come.

“Azurmendi, along with other restaurants at our level, is fortunate to have the visibility through media but smaller restaurants do not have the same access; many have closed already and I am sure many more will close,” he says. “This will be a major economic crisis and it will take us four or five years to return to some sort of normality.”

He believes viewing the pandemic as part of a bigger picture is important. “Within these wonderful 10 years we are having, there will be one year that wasn’t as good when we look back. This is a bad year but we will recover,” he says. “Before this, it seemed like we would be the generation to not be affected by a major crisis such as this, but here we are.”

Understanding our basic needs

Though it’s hard to predict just how right now, that Covid-19 will change the way we live seems inevitable. “Before, we were living in a society where everything was immediate – if I wanted something, someone would bring it to me within 24 hours; if I wanted to visit somewhere far away, I would just catch a plane. We were completely immersed in something that now doesn’t seem very real,” he says. “We were living and doing things without really enjoying them.”

As a wider society, he says, a return to understanding what we need at the most basic level is vital. “We need to prioritise education, investment in science and culture, we need to encourage cooperation and tolerance. Those are the important values in society,” he says.

Hospitality operators who make it through this will have to be even more prudent moving ahead. “It feels like, as a sector, we have always been in crisis so we are very conservative financially, and we will have to continue to put whatever we can aside as we never know what’s around the corner,” he says.

If those are the lessons that hospitality can learn from the pandemic, the rest of the world can surely learn something about generosity from foodservice. Across the world chefs and operators put their hand up to offer help and support; none more visible than Atxa’s compatriot José Andrés whose organisation World Central Kitchen has fed people in disasters for years now. “José has shown us all that there are incredible ways to help other people. That a chef is a chef, but on top of that he is a person who wants to help,” he says.

“He has shown us how we can use gastronomy as a tool and a social weapon.”

Tina Nielsen