I thought I knew something about fish until I met up with Aitor Arregi, who heads the kitchen at Elkano, a seafood restaurant in Getaria on the Cantabrian Sea. Aitor is the son of the late Pedro Arregi, who founded Elkano in the 1960s and developed his own pioneering ways of grilling based on techniques used by local fishermen. After he passed away a few years ago, Aitor took over running the restaurant.
Aitor is a master of la parilla, or the traditional grills that stand outside restaurants in Getaria. His world-famous turbot, prepared simply but with great skill, draws seafood lovers and Michelin starred-chefs alike. But as we spoke, I came to learn that what comes before the fire is even more important than the grilling. “We care about three things,” Aitor explained. “First, to be near the fish.” Elkano benefits from proximity to fresh, line-caught fish off the Urola Coast that Aitor knows by heart. He was recently asked to open a restaurant in one of the Iberostar hotel locations. “I could have chosen Barcelona or any city, but what is the point?” Instead, he chose to open Cataria in Cadiz to harvest the bounty of its rich coastal waters.
Then there is the ever-important terroir: where do the fish swim? What are they eating? When is the best time to catch them (before or after spawning)? Though Aitor and his family know their home region acutely, they continue to learn. The project in Cataria is a new venture and a chance to discover a new terroir. “I go Sancti Petri [formerly a small tuna fishing village], we see the fish and the fishermen, we go to the source with the intention to learn from the area and from the people there,” Aitor explains. “We work with fisherman to explain us their terroir, the season of the fish in this area.” Aitor describes this cumulative knowledge as a culinary landscape made up of the area the restaurant is in and the people from that area.
Finally, it is important to know when the fish was caught. As Aitor explains, a fish caught at 4am may stay on the boat four or five hours before the captain has caught enough to return to port. That fish will not be as fresh as one caught at 8am and brought to shore an hour or two later.
“We buy the fish that was caught last,” he explains, and we taste the difference in the kitchen.
Once you have a good ingredient, says Aitor, the next important thing is not to ruin it! Aitor’s skill on the grill involves managing heat and cooking length to achieve the right level of doneness, without drying out the fish. Part of the secret of the turbot lies in keeping the fish whole and the skin on, which protects it from drying out, along with regular squirts of olive oil and lemon. Elkano is also known for using the whole fish—and always has, long before head-to-tail cuisine was fashionable. The cheeks, head and tail are all used and served to allow diners to explore the palette of flavor and texture that increases when you move away from the meaty flanks. The cheeks, kokotxas in Basque, are a local favorite.
In a time when fish and seafood stocks are being depleted by over-fishing and disrespectful harvesting techniques, it is more important than ever to support chefs like Aitor. His approach to skillfully cooking only fish that are at their best is a gesture of respect to both the creature and to the diner.