2000s Archive

To Basque in Culinary Glory

Originally Published November 2005
Koldo Rodero took over his family’s tradition-bound restaurant and, against all odds, is creating some of the best and most exciting food in Spain.

Hills encircle Pamplona like a bullring, which seems fitting for the northern Spanish city that is most famous for its encierro, the running of the bulls. And until a brash young chef named Koldo Rodero came on the scene, the encierro was the only claim to international fame for the entire province of Navarra, of which Pamplona is the capital.

Lacking the avant-garde sensibility of Catalonia or the flamenco-infused exoticism of Andalusia, Navarra is a pretty staid place. Home to the first university founded by Opus Dei, one of the Catholic Church’s most traditional wings, its conservatism is a badge of honor, its Catholicism steely. It is in this unlikely setting that Rodero produces some of the most innovative cooking in Spain. And some of the country’s great chefs have taken notice. “Koldo has a lot of respect for what he’s doing, and his evolution in the kitchen has been enormous,” says Juan Mari Arzak, the father of Spain’s modern alta cocina movement and a mentor to chefs like Rodero. “He’s one of the great ones, which is especially remarkable because he’s doing it in Navarra, where it can be difficult.”

For nine days each July, placid Pamplona erupts into a form of officially sanctioned madness, the fiestas of San Fermín, as men and women who would otherwise be tending shops or sitting in offices succumb to drunken revelry and catapult through the streets waving red scarves, trying to avoid being gored by the animals they are driving to distraction. Sanfermines, it might be said, is Navarra’s excuse to collectively blow off a head of steam.

The momentary madness may also be a result of living in a region with a split personality. Navarra’s northern, mountainous half, with its gnarled plane trees and mist-covered ravines, is smack in the middle of what Basques consider their ancestral homeland, and its communities still embody the Basque spirit, from its architecture to its language. As you move south, the province opens up. Hill country fades into a largely flat, arid agricultural region, La Ribera, known for cultivating some of the country’s best produce, such as artichokes, lettuce hearts, and incomparably juicy and tender thick white asparagus. People in La Ribera live much of their lives outdoors under the direct gaze of the sun; they are, much like the Castilians to the south, less reserved than their northern neighbors.

Navarra might be called a snapshot of Spain, and its dual nature can either drive you mad, or, as it does in Rodero’s case, call you to embrace it. Perhaps because Rodero was born to both sides of the province—his father, Jesús, is from La Ribera and his mother, Resu, is from the Basque Country (where Rodero, too, was born), and they joined forces to open their Mesón Rodero in 1969, which grew into the more formal Restaurante Rodero in 1975. “Imagine the combination of these two people,” Koldo says, as if he’s describing the marriage of a Martian to an Earthling. “They come from different worlds. In the south, it’s flat, and it’s impossible to hide, so everyone’s more direct. You meet someone from La Ribera and, almost immediately, it’s as if he’s your best friend. In the north, it might take a week before he tells you what he really thinks.”

The 42-year-old chef is a lot of both—his eyes dark and expressive, his compact frame barely able to contain a certain restlessness, his listening engaged yet guarded. He took over the reins of Restaurante Rodero from his father 18 years ago, and with his innovative use of all things Navarrese, he’s shaking up Pamplona and turning heads toward a part of Spain that in the past has been given little more than a nod.

“There are still many places here where the menus are like photocopies of each other—the same stuffed piquillo pepper dish is on all of them,” he says. You won’t find that on Rodero’s menu, but you will discover layered, assertive, even playful foods such as an anise-marinated raw oyster with a warm fennel purée and lime-anise granita, drizzled with a caramelized teriyaki sauce, or his dessert version of a Bloody Mary, a sweet tomato and passion-fruit soup with a vibrant Sichuan peppercorn ice cream, served in a small Martini glass. In a bold stroke, Rodero refashioned one of the most classic Spanish dishes, tortilla española. His omelet with truffle oil and an onion cream sauce consists of a hollowed-out confit potato that has been filled with egg yolk, then sealed with an egg wash, warmed slightly, and topped with sauce. With the jab of a fork, the velvety yolk cascades out to join the truffle-infused onion.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have a standby dish or two of his own—his father’s creation, a merluza a la Navarra, panfried hake in a mushroom velouté, has been on the menu for a dozen years, although even that has been slightly redefined. “It’s a sure thing,” he says.

In certain regions of Spain, dishes like Rodero’s would take their rightful place in an ongoing discussion among chefs, each building on another’s experiments or posing questions. In Navarra, though, that sense of community among chefs is missing. Rodero is on his own, but it’s just the sort of challenge he thrives on. When Resu (who still handles the front of the house with Koldo’s sisters, Goretti and Verónica) is out of earshot, he confides, “I like to start arguments, just to see how they unfold.”

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