When young American chef Jessica Lorigo, two years out of culinary school, signed up for an internship at Mugaritz – the avant-garde restaurant that resides in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best – she barely even knew where Spain was, let alone the Basque Country. By the time she got to Mugaritz in March 2013 and met its maverick founder, Andoni Luis Aduriz, she’d done her homework, bought the cookbook, devoured hours of YouTube videos and was well and truly starstruck. “I did my research after getting accepted. I did it a little backwards,” she laughs, tickled by her own naivety. “I’m the kind of person who, when a door opens, just jumps right through.”
At first it was a struggle. “I knew no Spanish. I was confused as to why I had left everything I had known. Why would you put yourself through that? But to really grow, you need to get out of your comfort zone.”
Her leap into the unknown has paid off. The nine-month stay stretched to five years; the 28-year-old from Buffalo has got used to hanging with a culinary superhero (“He’s just a normal guy”) and is relishing her role as head chef at his latest concept, Topa Sukaldería in San Sebastián.
If Mugaritz, up in the hills outside San Sebastián, is high art, Topa is street art. Rowdy and colourful, all graffiti-covered walls, loud music and raw, recycled materials, the Basque-Latin American mash up is tailor-made for bubbly, punky Jessica with her pierced nose and bold tattoos. She loved her time at Mugaritz but when Andoni and his IXO Grupo partner Bixente Arrieta asked her to join the Topa project (opened February 2017), she couldn’t say no. “Mugaritz was amazing,” enthuses Jessica. “It’s so hard to describe because to me it’s not really a restaurant. It’s an experimental space. You learn how to really open your eyes and look at product.
“When they first asked me to do Topa I don’t think even they knew what it was yet. It was just an idea that Andoni had of a space, a concept.” The fact that Jessica had never set foot in Latin America – she still hasn’t been – didn’t matter. “I have just been living through Andoni’s travels,” she laughs.
“There’s really nothing quite like what we’re doing in San Sebastián,” says Jessica. Nor anywhere else in the world for that matter. Topa Sukaldería, meaning ‘culinary meeting point’, tells the story of Basque immigration to Latin America. It’s the bricks-and-mortar realisation of an idea, the germ of which lay in Adoni’s observation that his ageing father would still cook with unmistakable touches of his hometown even after 60 years in San Sebastián. How might such culinary yearning play out across whole cultures over time? There are more than 10 million people of Basque descent in Latin America, and more than 15,000 Basque surnames – Guevara being among the most famous – in circulation. What happens when two cultures, two cuisines, meet?
Topa offers answers, in the form of its iconic tacotalos al pastor vasco, marinated in Basque pepper and cider vinegar instead of citrus, and topped with roasted apple in place of pineapple. The corn tacos (‘talos’ in Basque) are blended with millet – its usage locally predates corn – to enhance the flavour. Meanwhile, kalimotxo, that love-it-or-hate-it local tipple of red wine and cola, enriches braised veal empanadas. Another borrowing comes from Mexican chef Enrique Olvera’s kitchen: a 1,100-day-old mole that is ‘fed’ daily with Basque spices for an infusion of subtle local flavour. And to drink? Pisco cocktails and micheladas come up against euskojitos (Basque mojitos) and the local txakoli wine. The idea of authenticity is thrown wide open.
It’s an uneasy time to be a female American chef abroad. I catch up with Jessica in the week of Eater’s grim exposé of celebrity chef Mario Batali. She’s following the developments from afar and is stunned by what she’s heard. “It’s definitely not something I’ve heard about happening here. It’s quite shocking for me. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she says. “Kitchen culture is definitely changing. That’s something that I stand for. The way I manage the kitchen is always with a lot of positive reinforcement. Kitchens don’t need to be this negative space.”
So how unusual is it to find a woman leading a kitchen in San Sebastián? Not very, asserts Jessica, citing three-star local hero Elena Arzak, as well as her own friends, Elena Ortiz, head chef at Topa’s sister restaurant Ni Neu, and (on the front-of-house side) Bella Bowring, co-owner of Geralds Bar. “Some of the best food that I’ve eaten here has been cooked by grandmothers in the kitchen making one-pot stews with garbanzo beans [chickpeas] or lentils. There’s a tradition for females to be in the kitchen. There are definitely women here crushing the game.”
As for the fact that Jessica is American, it barely registers these days as her Spanish routinely passes as native. “That’s cool,” she admits. “I’m always flattered when people ask me if I’m from Barcelona. If they think I’m Spanish then I must be doing something right.”