What is your food philosophy?
The way I think and feel about food is really influenced by two things. One, growing up in the Basque Country in Northern Spain where cooking is a way of life. Cooking rules people’s days: shopping for food, thinking about what to cook, where you are going to get this or that, nourishment, having people around a table and making sure there is a leisurely aspect to it. Basque cooking is very simple, which is how I cook in my life. There is also a saying in Spanish that I think about often - “comer de cuchara”, which means to eat with a spoon. Eating broths and vegetable soups as a sign of health. Secondly, having struggled with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, food has taken different meanings in my life - something of a fixation, to soothe emotional distress and ultimately, to heal it. So my philosophy today is really defined by my personal history and my roots. I see cooking as a means of communication with other people. It is the one thing in life I understand very well so allows me to feel secure and comfortable. My body is sensitive and if I don’t feed it what it needs, it tells me right away.
Have you always been interested in food? Where does this interest stem from?
My maternal grandparents were professional pastry chefs. My grandfather Angel and my grandmother Miren opened Pasteleria Ayarza in 1949, which is still in the family (my cousins and uncles work there now). I grew up across the street from the pastry shop so there was no escaping it. Everyone in my family cooked and baked. I spent my days in the pastry shop kitchen before and after school. I used to help out my grandmother wash dishes, dip the tops of profiteroles in chocolate, spread buttercream in the center of bollos de mantequilla, and deliver pastries to people’s homes on the weekends.
You’ve taught me how to make bread, and it has changed my life, thank you! The way you approach cooking is so solution oriented, does this translate to all areas of your life?
First of all, it has been such a pleasure to watch you become so passionate about your bread. There is nothing more satisfying to me than to help people discover their love of cooking. There is something very powerful about being able to feed yourself and the ones you love. It leads to a deep connection, I think. To answer your question, I don’t always feel I am very goal oriented, but when I look back at my life, I suppose I am. I have this funny juxtaposition of being very emotional but also very pragmatic. I think it’s a good balance. I don’t have a 5 year plan and I never set new year’s resolutions. I am driven by gut instinct most of the time, but I am also a hard worker and disciplined so when I say I am going to do something, I usually see it through. It’s also a Basque trait, I think. Don’t talk about things until you are certain you will do them.
Your cooking skills border on science and art, are you a naturally curious person?
I love science and art, equally. It’s funny you mention this because when I was a kid, I thought I would end up being an engineer. I was very good at math, I loved chemistry and physics. I didn’t think I had a streak of artist in me. My father was an engineer by day but a fine art painter by night. I grew up surrounded by music, art books, he took us to museums at a young age and he always encouraged me to paint and draw but I couldn’t. Cooking was not seen as an art back then but when I think about my grandfather Angel, I remember a true artist. He was also very emotional and sensitive. He was known for his croquembouche and his puff pastry was so delicate… So when I decided to become a pastry chef and I realized that baking was art and science in equal measure, I found my place. I am eternally curious. As a true Aquarian, I am fascinated by ideas: philosophy, human experience, the structure of values and how culture is developed.
How do you approach feeding yourself and others?
When I am cooking for others I try to think of what they are going through, what they might need and what they might want. I rarely ask them what they want, I just cook intuitively. I am always driven by season and simplicity. For example, a few days ago some friends came over for lunch and I just made my own version of kitchari. I just sensed they all needed it and everyone felt so satisfied. In a few days another friend is coming over who was recently diagnosed with gluten intolerance so I am going to make a big bowl of handmade pasta. When I am feeding myself, I’ll usually resort to warm foods like soups or roasted vegetables with a slice of sourdough bread. Nothing fussy.
You are gluten free, how has that impacted the way you eat? The way you feel?
I have been gluten free for 10 years and I feel so great! Looking back, I realize I had symptoms of gluten intolerance from a young age but no one ever thought it could be gluten because, I mean, my family’s business was gluten! When I became pregnant with my son, I developed Hashimoto’s and then with my daughter, Meniere’s. I was super sick for 9 months, experiencing vertigo every 4 to 5 days, lost a bunch of weight, hearing loss, tinnitus, unable to drive…. I was riddled with fear and anxiety. Until a functional doctor suggested I get tested for food allergies. Discovering I had a genetic gluten intolerance saved me. As soon as I stopped eating gluten, my symptoms disappeared.
You studied baking, have you always been interested in that area of cooking? How did you get into baking?
It’s funny because even though I grew up in a family of pastry chefs, it never occurred to me I could be a pastry chef. Back then, baking was very working class unglamorous profession with small profit margins, very physical with long working hours (baking is still like that but at least now it’s considered an art). My family was always working when everyone else was on vacation. They closed the shop in August so we could only celebrate weddings or take time for ourselves then. It was super intensive. So my family never pushed me to follow on their footsteps and I didn’t think I’d be in it. Since I had good grades and I loved school, my parents encouraged me to pursue studying and to travel and expand my horizons. Little did they know I would end up right back where they all started. I studied business and economics in university and I even went on to get a MBA, but shortly after I moved to the US, I decided to give pastry a chance and enrolled in culinary school. I did a 2 year program in Florida and started working in restaurants right away. I loved it.
What do you eat that makes you feel your best?
If I have a big bowl of vegetable soup, I will be satisfied and feel great.
What do you do, outside of cooking, that makes you feel your best?
I love traveling, I love conversation and discussion, I love understanding new concepts and perspectives, I love being in nature, I love flowers. In general, I am an observer.
Is there anything for your kitchen that you really want, but don’t have?
I have everything and more than I need! In general, I don’t love small appliances or one-use tools. I just remodeled my kitchen last year and it’s simple, clean, light, organized and bare. Allows me to think which I cannot do with clutter.
Who do you look to for inspiration in the food world?
So many people! There are so many people out there doing amazing things. I love cookbooks, when I travel I love going to markets and watch locals cook. I am always learning.
Last best meal you had out?
I had an amazing dinner at Botanica in LA recently. Also my last brunch at Sitka & Spruce in Seattle right before they closed was incredible. Any place that knows how to prepare vegetables well wins for me. Last night I had a delicious bowl of boiling hot pho at Pho Bac in Seattle.
Last best meal you had in?
The last best meal I had in is the roasted chicken and vegetables we had for dinner at home tonight.
What is the first meal you remember?
Oh man.... probably lentil soup. I hated it as a kid. I remember my mom sitting at the table after everyone else left feeding me spoonfuls of it. And now I love it and make it at least once a week. Also gambas al ajillo which is prawns in garlic chili oil. It was my favorite.