A peek inside the Basque Culinary Centre, where chefs learn to save the world
From bad-tempered tyrants to tweezer-wielding perfectionists, popular culture loves to lampoon chefs. Rarely, however, are cooks cast as crusaders.
Words by Ute Junker
Photos Credit: Basque Culinary Centre
Originally published in Australian Financial Review
But the head of the Basque Culinary Centre in San Sebastián, Joxe Mari Aizega, believes chefs are among the world’s most effective change agents.
More than just a cooking school, the centre – which boasts a truckload of culinary heavyweights on its board including Juan Mari Arzak, Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Massimo Bottura and Heston Blumenthal – pursues an activist agenda that extends way beyond finding better ways to grill meat.
Take the Basque Culinary Prize, launched last July to celebrate chefs who use gastronomy as a tool for social change. The award carries an extraordinary prize pool of €100,000 ($150,000), which has to be reinvested in relevant projects.
The inaugural winner was Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, a Venezuelan chef who is helping local cacao producers to grow their businesses through improved production processes, fermentation and marketing. She connects small-scale producers with artisanal chocolatiers, and has a strong focus on gender equality and fair-trade practices.
“Di Giacobbe has trained about 8500 women and promoted many small companies created by women. She is a really inspiring example [of a chef for change],” Aizega says.
Her story is proof of the significant impact that food-based projects can have.
“In the last few years, more and more countries have realised gastronomy is an area of socio-economic development,” Aizega says. “Gastronomy is adding value to food production, through the restaurants sector, through tourism.”
“They have great biodiversity, the potential to add value to products, to make their quality products better known in the world and to attract tourism,” Aizega says. “Peru is a good example of how you can create a country brand through food and through cooking.”