The Stage At Xarma Jatetxea

For my previous blog posts about my experience at Xarma Jatetxea, please check the following links!

The ‘Charm’ in Xarma Jatetxea

The Toys at Xarma Jatetxea

So what is it like being a Basque Stage here in one of the culinary capitols of the world? It’s unlike anything I could have imagined. With working under chefs that have worked for some of the most renowned chefs in Europe from Juan and Elena Arzak to Michel Bras, I could tell that I was in for a learning experience like no other. So this is a blog post about my time working under chef Xabier and Aizpea at Xarma Jatetxea.

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I was actually pretty surprised at what they had me doing on my first day on the job. I was expecting to do typical ‘intern’ tasks like picking parsley or peeling onions or something simple like that just to start out, but it was the opposite. Just on my first day, I made 3 types of spheres using the infamous methodology and chemicals that Ferran Adria of El Bulli Fame has introduced to the culinary world. I had prepped out and made a very ingenious Tomato and Apple carpaccio. And when it came to service, I was appointed to plating a majority of their first courses and appetizers.

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“No tengas mideo!” Aizpea told me.

Of course all I could respond with was, “……… no entiendo! LOS SIENTO!!!”

“Don’t be afraid!” She responded back to me.

And from then on, I tried to my hands in every single thing I could.

I found myself doing more and more and getting a whole lot of hands on experience as the days came by. By the end of my first week, I had cleaned a case of beef cheeks, seared of the cheeks along with some oxtail, and braised them until they reached ultimate tenderness. I had cleaned and prepped up over 2 dozen squabs. And I have made basically all of the sauces that we use for all of the menus. By the end of the second week, I was appointed to prepping out and being in charge of two of the tasting menus that they offered and also was took control of all things pastry. I, for one, never thought myself of ever wanting to be a pastry chef as it is a whole different world, but I was quite excited to actually learn this side of the culinary world.

Beef Cheek Prep

Beef Cheek Prep

It amazes me of all the things I have got to do and have learned when I look back at these past 3 months. I wish that I could go more into detail to all of the things that I have seen and learned to here at Xarma as Sammic’s Basque Stage, but this post would be very long and rather tiring to read! So instead, I will post a bunch of pictures of my time here in the kitchen of Xarma Jatetxea.

Apple Dessert Prep

Apple Dessert Prep

Tomato Carpaccio Prep

Tomato Carpaccio Prep

Squab Prep

Squab Prep

Calamari Prep

Calamari Prep

Chicken Roulade Prep

Chicken Roulade Prep

Foie Bombon Prep

Foie Bombon Prep

Ham Croquetta Prep

Ham Croquetta Prep

 

 

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The Toys of Xarma Jatetxea

One of my first impressions of Xarma when I walked into their kitchen was, “Hot DAMN!”. Pardon my language, but I was actually really astonished at how great of a kitchen they are blessed with. With only having a 35 seat restaurant, it was really surprising to see the kitchen to that caliber. But after having worked at this restaurant for about 2 months and seeing the quality of food that comes out of the kitchen, I can see how Chef Xabi and Aizpea utilize their kitchen to its fullest potential.

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So this post is about all the  crazy, cool, and new pieces of equipment that I have had to use and had to familiarize myself with!

The Can Opener

So they have all the typical kitchen equipment that you would find in any typical restaurant kitchen. You know, stuff that isn’t really post worthy since they are all tools that you would find in any kitchen. One kitchen tool that would fit under this category would be a can opener. Right? WRONG. I remember the first time I had to open a can at Xarma and I swear I have never felt like a huge idiot in my life. It took me about 10 minutes until I actually had to ask someone where to fine the can opener. They pointed me into the direction of the drawer that I had actually looked in a gazillion and then pulled out this small, red little thing that I had actually picked up in my own hand and looked at, wondering what in the world it could be. I’ve never been so embarrassed asking looking for something that I feel like I’ve used a million times!

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Sammic Vaccum Packaging Machine

This is probably the machine I hear the most out of any piece of equipment while in the kitchen. “PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”! That is the sound of freshness being concealed! This great piece machinery made by Sammic, the company that sponsors the Basque Stage, is how we ensure freshness of our proteins, sauces, basically everything.During my visit at the Sammic headquarters, I had spotted the exact same model of vacuum packing machines that we use at Xarma and my tour guide, Asier, had told that the machine is one of the best out on the market. Their vacuum packing machines gets rid of 99% of the air, ensuring that whatever you are packaging stays fresh for a longer period of time. I don’t know how many times I have accidentally made a mess in this machine from overfilling bags. Sorry guys!!

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Rational Combi-Oven

So when I saw the vacuum packaging machine, I was expecting to see a thermal immersion circulators, or better known as a sous-vide cooker. It only makes sense when a restaurant uses a vacuum packing machine so frequently. But I couldn’t see one insight. This all made sense when really took a look at their oven. I have only heard myths about the greatness of these special ovens called, “combi-ovens”. They basically do anything and everything you want. It is a convection oven, it also steams, it also combines the two, and it also is self-cleaning. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can download apps on it and play your favorite Pandora station off of it. But seriously, this thing is an amazing piece of machinery. It dials in into the most precise temperatures with any amount of humidity you want. At the same time you can choose what how much air you want cycling in your oven. This basically does everything a sous-vide machine does plus some! And whenever you feel like it’s getting a little dirty, just pop in a little soap disc, and turn on the clean cycle, and in two hours, you have an oven that looks like it has never been used.  This machine is a BEAST.

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The Thermomix

Next up, my new love. Sorry Vitamix, but I’ve been cheating on you. You have been so great to me, but there’s something better on this side of the ocean, and its name is thermomix. We use to have one at Txori that was brought over from Europe from one the original owners, but it was not in working condition, sadly. So this was my first time actually getting to use one and man, I never thought I could get so excited using a piece of equipment before! This thing does EVERYTHING. It has the power of a vitamix, but it also is a scale, a heating element, has a set timer on it, and I have even heard some crazy things that some models actually has a filter in it that basically strains as its pureeing the mixture inside! INSANE RIGHT?! Too bad they go for over  1,000 Euros, so I guess I must take advantage of this affair before going back to America where I am still happy settling with a Vitamix.

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The Plancha

This next one really caught me off guard the first time I saw it. I looked at it and thought to myself, “hmmmm, well that’s interesting……” I really couldn’t put together the pieces to this one and still have a hard time wondering why it made in this specific way, but man is it awesome! This is the plancha (or flattop grill) at Xarma. IT HAS A MOAT! Why, you may ask? I DON’T KNOW. But IT HAS A MOAT! My guess is that the water has to do with something with temperature control and helps creates a consistent range of heat throughout the plancha. I have done some research and found that this style of plancha is a ‘French Plancha’. While using it, I have not experience any form of sticking or burning or anything less than perfect when it comes to caramelizing or searing items. The great thing about this thing is that it’s also really clean and looks spotless whenever we give it a nice scrub.

plancha

Paco Jet

Let me talk about windows real quick. I am not talking about windows that you stare out of whenever you are daydreaming about being outside, but windows as in the specific period of time when something must take place. And here comes the paco jet. Here at Xarma, they like to make sure that all of their dishes come out with the highest quality possible. So that means that we spin ice creams to order for EVERY order. Now it seems like a pretty simple thing to do, but I found the hard way that it is quite difficult to get the timing just right. It requires the perfect timing to make sure that the ice cream is at the perfect texture at the time it needs to be plated. This means that we always have to be aware and be prepared for when a dish is about to come up in the tasting menus and also how each ice cream reacts after being spun. Some spin to the perfect consistency, while others need a little time back in the freezer to firm up a bit more. This has taught me to be really being on top of things when it comes to knowing where I am at with each ticket I am on. But other than that, I wish I had a paco jet in my house. This thing is an incredible machine that makes for the creamiest textures of ice cream ever. Whenever I have an extra $4,000 laying around, I definitely know what I am purchasing!

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Texturas by Ferran Adrià

Aside from the tools we use at Xarma, there menu involves a good amount of molecular gastronomy and the chemicals which have been made famous by Ferran Adrià of elBulli fame. I was very excited to be able to see and understand how each of these chemicals work and have had a great time experimenting and using them to make some of the craziest stuff I have seen when it comes to food.

chemicals

Working in a new kitchen is usually always nerve racking. It takes some time to get use to where everything is and learn how things are suppose to run in the kitchen. Throw in a huge language barrier and a change in measurement and it makes it that much difficult for someone! But regardless of all the challenges that I have faced with being at Xarma, I have learned so much and have got to work in this amazing kitchen with some of the most talented chefs that are putting so much effort to really help me grow as a chef. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Everything Sounds Prettier In Spanish…..

Well except for when I try to speak it!  But listening to my surroundings could pass off to being a soundtrack to any great movie. The people here are just as beautiful as the language that they speak. One thing I have noticed myself doing here, which is totally the opposite in Seattle, is that I barely listen to my iPod. Even when it’s completely a ghost town out, walking around to complete silence is something that I never would experience in Seattle. It can be quite a beautiful thing. I find that when I listen to music, I tend to block out everything that is going around me because I am in my own world. But that is not where I want to be.

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The view from our front terrace.

All around me is a new world. Everything I have became accustomed too in my past 24 years from the people I associate myself with straight down to the way I live my life, I left all that behind the moment I stepped on the airplane. This is my chance to get out of my comfort zone and indulge in a lifestyle that I will never be able to in the States or anywhere else. I can only grow and learn from these experiences and it’s my time to take advantage of this new world around me.

Living in San Sebastian has been quite something. I’m getting near towards the end of my first month here and I feel like that I’m getting close to figuring out my groove.

Let’s start off by my apartment. I live in this great 2 bedroom/2 bathroom flat provided by Sammic and the Basque Stage with fellow Basque Stage Top Chef, Susy Santos. This apartment has exceeded my expectations for living situation, especially in a different country. We have a nice little living room that has a couch, a dining table, and a door to one of our terraces that overlooks the neighborhood of Lasarte. The kitchen is quite spacious and even though very ill equipped, it does a great job of serving its purposes.  Also, I was surprised to see a washing machine in place of where a dishwasher would be in a normal kitchen. Just a washing machine, so that means that we have to hang up all of our clothes to dry.

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We live no more than 2 minutes away from the train station that gets to Donostia-San Sebastian in a quick 14 minutes and only a 7 minute train ride to the Lugaritz station where my work, Xarma Jatetxea, is located.

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It has been quite easy finding my way around San Sebastian via train and autobus. The only thing that sucks is that they stop running rather early in the night with the latest bus usually being before 11 PM. This has made it pretty difficult for me some nights when we are busy at Xarma, because there is no way I’m leaving until my job is done.  Straight up. Even though this state of mind has resulted in me having to wait for an hour for a taxi in the hail, it wasn’t too bothersome knowing that I put my time in at work.

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Hail at 1 in the morning while waiting for a taxi!!

This has been only one of the many challenges that I have had to face since living here. The biggest challenged for me has definitely been communication. I speak very little, if you can even count it, Spanish. I knew what I was getting myself into from the get go, but to my surprise, it hasn’t been TOO difficult communicating with the people here in San Sebastian. I am very lucky that the people here are really nice and actually are very interested in talking to me whenever it seems like I’m a little lost. I’m just grateful for peoples patience and willingness to help figure out what I’m trying to say to them.

With working at the Harvest Vine for the past 3 years, it has helped me out a lot when it comes to speaking about food. Ordering food at restaurants or pintxo bars has come pretty easy to me, luckily. And it definitely has helped out in the kitchen at Xarma. Just knowing the Spanish words for ingredients is a huge help.

But then comes the change in the small details like the way they measure things and even tell time. Nothing comes in pounds or inches. I have had to get use to the fact that I will be measuring things using the metric system.  After 12 o clock comes 13 o clock, military time. Dates are written with the day of the date first them follows the month, i.e. 23/4. Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.  These are just the small things I had to quickly get accustomed to living here.

So this is what it has been like living in San Sebastian for me so far. I’m glad that I’ve been able to get a little more comfortable in this place that I will be calling my home for the next 2 months. I’m really thankful for all the help and friendliness of everyone here who have made this a whole lot easier on myself. It just makes me really excited for all the challenges and adventures that will come with my time here.

Here are some additional things I have noticed about life here in San Sebastian:

-Asians are pretty rare to find here. I have been called “Gangnam Style” or “Psy” a handful amount of times. Specially from kids.

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A shirt I happen to find at the H&M.

– Justin is an uncommon name here. Whenever people find out my name is Justin, they almost always say, “Like Justin Beiber!”. So I have dawned the name Justin Bieber with a lot of the people I associate with on a day to day basis.

– There are a lot of families here in San Sebastian. I feel like I see more kids here than any other age group. This makes me wish my family was out here because Tegan would love all of the great parks and things to do here!

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– Everyone here skates goofy. Roller blades are still pretty big here. And everyone either bikes or walks around here.

– I have seen some of the coolest graffiti here in the most random places.

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– Everyone from the Vine was right. I have seen so many mullets here it’s been amazing.

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My First Week Pt. 2!

This is a continuation from my ‘My First Week Pt. 1’ blog post right here!

Thursday, I finally got to meet Marti! She is the person that I have been communicating back and forth with ever since I started applying for the Basque Stage. I was really excited to meet her because I have been an avid follower of her blog bout the Basque Country, Blank Palate, and she is just filled with so much information about what’s going on around here. She is definitely one of the most interesting people I’ve got to meet! We met again at Xarma to meet up with one of the chef/owner, Aizpea, to talk about my time staging there. I find out I started work the day after! So soon but I was really anxious to get started and learning.

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I ended up going grocery shopping for the first time the same night and got all the fixings for friend rice and a bottle of red wine. I thought it would be appropriate to treat myself with something familiar before my first day of work.

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Friday and Saturday were my first two days at Xarma. That is all I have to share for now because this deserves a blogpost of its own, fo’ realsies!

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Sunday, Susy and I planned to visit Getaria for Dia Del Txakoli!!! Getaria is a gorgeous town that is a 45 minute bus ride from Donostia. Dia del Txakoli, which translates to Day Of Txakoli, is the day where about 2 dozen wineries in the Designation of Origin Getariako Txakolina take part of a festival to share their latest crops of txakoli. Susy and I had found out about this festival through Viridian Farms. Viridian Farms is a farm based out of Portland that produces a lot of European products, especially from the Basque Country! We get a lot of product in from this farm at the Harvest Vine, so it was a great connection to have when I found out I was coming out here! They have been so great to us as they have given us a lot of great recommendations of what to do and where to go during our stay here in San Sebastian.

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Unfortunately, it seems that Susy and I didn’t really do our research and had gone to the wrong town. We had bussed all the way to Getaria to see no festival in sight. You could only imagine the confused looks on our faces. We later found out that the festival was actually in town of Aia, which isn’t that far from Getaria. But to 2 American kids that didn’t have internet access or have sense of direction, we kind of just gave up on making it to the festival.

But regardless, Susy and I know how to make for a good time! Since Susy has already been to Getaria, she showed me around town. She took me to Anchoas Maisor. This is where fresh anchovies die and go to heaven. Literally. It is here where fresh day-caught anchovies forego a process of being cleaned then packed in a barrel of salt for about 6 months. Then they are taken out of the salt, desalted, then meticulously filleted by the expert hands of the ladies of Anchoas Maisor and then carefully packaged with oil to help preserve them. It is an amazing thing to see how much care and love that these people here have these delectable anchovies. And to think that not at one point in time, that these anchovies are ever mishandled or mistreated since all of this work is done by hand. Bravo to all of you over at Anchoas Maisor.

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We then catch a bus and head to Zumaia, which is a town just 6 km east of Getaria. There was no reason to go to Zumaia other than the fact that its just incredibly gorgeous. It is a very scenic area that has some of the unbelievable views of the Bay of Biscay. We walked around a whole lot and ran into a little fair that was going on. Stopped by a churro stand and got a nice bag of deep fried yumminess. We make our way up to Itzurun, a beach on the most eastern part of the town that has a nice view of the bay that run into some caves off of the beach. We also get to this crazy pier that stretches right into the water and gives an amazing view of Zumaia. And at some point we try to hike around some cliffs to try to get a better view of the water. But all that got us is a couple pairs of really muddy shoes!

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On Monday, Susy and I met up with Marti, Nacho, and Andoni in San Sebastian for a good ol’ Pintxo crawl for my Welcoming to the Basque Country! We start off at Bidea Berri, one, if not, the only pintxo bar that serves grilled fresh piquillos. My god, were these good. Simply charred and then peeled and doused in a good amount of olive oil. Simplicity at its finest.

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The next pintxo bar we go to is Bodega Donostiarra (well, I think. I did not get a picture or remember the bar name!). Here we got a variety of pintxos from Pulpo a la vinagreta, chorizo, Jamon Tortilla, and a potato pintxo that we called montaña de la mayonesa, which translates to mountain of mayonnaise. It was basically that with a slice of jamon and an anchoa olive on top. It may have been a little over the top, but definitely was tasty with some crusty bread to sop up all that alioli up with.

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We thean head towards the old part of San Sebastian and go to Astalena. This was a nice little bar that had some great raciones and pintxos that I haven’t seen on other menus around town. I ordered Solomillo a lo pobre, which is beef tenderloin with fries, sautéed onions, and a fried quail egg. No complaints about this dish. It is a dish that I really could see being on a menu in America. There was a ketchup-like sauce made from piquillos that was good, but every time I ate it, I was always tricking myself into thinking I was eating ketchup. It only made me want ketchup more because it would of really complimented the dish better then the piquillo-ketchup. Marti ordered the Risotto de queso de cabra y tomate, Goat cheese and tomato Risotto. This dish was pretty good and really interesting. It was actually made with a wild rice rather than the normal Arborio or even Bomba rice. The sauce was really creamy and cheesey. Kind of too rich for my liking, but the flavor was right on. Susy had ordered the ravioli e foie y Margret, foie gras ravioli. Rich on Rich on Rich. This dish needed texture and some kind of flavor contrast. The ravioli was huge and was creamy and then it was drenched in another creamy porcini/mushroom cream that just added to the already large amount of richness. If this pintxo was 2 times as small, I can see it making a lot more sense, but this dish just seemed a little too crazy for me! Nacho ordered taco de bonito, seared tuna. The tuna was perfectly seared and still rare in the center. The meat was buttery and super flavorful. As it should be! =]

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Our last spot was Atari. I’ve actually been to this spot a lot on my breaks between services at Xarma. I usually come during the downtime so I just get a couple glasses of txakoli and a café con leche then back to work. Here we wind down and the girls both order dessert, but I order savory because I was still in search for the best croquettes in town. I order just a small portion of croquettes de bacalao. They were tiny in comparison to other croquettes I have gotten, but I’ve got to say that they were extremely creamy and did not have that dense texture that I have seen in majority of the croquettes I have experienced. They were exceptionally delicate and the flavor was delicious! Nacho ordered the foie gras terrine. Its accoutrements were rather interesting as it came with a banana puree, apple, and a red wine reduction. The terrine in itself was perfect. Probably the best foie terrine I’ve had recently. It paired well with the apple and the wine reduction, but the banana puree kind of just throws everything off. Nevertheless, it was a really great dish and I have no room to complain. You get two huge slices of Foie!

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This was an amazing night to really welcome me into this great city. I couldn’t have asked for better company and even better food. I am so grateful and appreciative for this opportunity that these guys at the Basque Stage and Sammic have presented me with. Just like the open arms that these amazing folks welcomed me with, my arms are stretched wider than the biggest seas to welcome whatever adventures and obstacles the next 3 months bring to me here in the Basque Country!