Food and Wine
Chasing his third Michelin star in the world's premier food city
Paulo Airaudo, from Argentina, became the first foreign chef in legendary San Sebastián to receivea Michelin star. Now, he's going for his third...
The temperature has passed 30 degrees C and the sun is shining bright over La Concha beach in San Sebastián, Spain. On the small terrace of the boutique Hotel Villa Favorita, star chef Paulo Airaudo has just settled into a chair in the shade.
The Argentinian is the talent behind the two-Michelin-star restaurant Amelia, located in the beautiful hotel's basement. He took a well-deserved break between serving lunch and dinner to chat with Picolo.com. It's not much of a break though as his phone never stops beeping and Airaudo is continually apologizing, as he his finger taps rapidly on the screen.
"Emails, texts — just lots of hassle," he says with an apologetic smile.
Amelia in San Sebastián – a unique restaurant
It's easy to understand why Paulo Airaudo is such a busy man. Since leaving Córdoba in his native Argentina at the age of 18, the chef has built an impressive international restaurant empire. In San Sebastián alone, he owns six restaurants, as well as a speakeasy bar.
In addition, he owns several restaurants in Asia, and is co-owner of a handful of other eateries around the world, several of whichboast awards in the Michelin Guide.
The flagship and most personal project in his empire is the aforementioned Amelia. Named after one of his three children, it's also the restaurant the most impressive of all of his restaurants. Since it first opened its doors in 2017, it has quickly managed to become a talking point in the food city. Amelia received its first Michelin star after only seven months, and the second star was awarded in 2021.
"It's amazing and a lot of fun. It's hard work, but that's the way it is in this industry and at this level. We have an incredibly good team in the restaurant, and those stars are well-deserved for everyone who works there."
Finding exceptional and unique restaurants in San Sebastián is not hard to do. The Spanish city is second only to Kyoto in Japan, in having the most Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometre in the world. And no city has more stars per capita. The two-star feat is also a milestone of a different kind: Airaudo is the very first non-Spanish chef to run a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastián.
"I don't think about that much. The most important thing for me is that the restaurant is fully booked every night and that I can help and train other talented chefs," says Airaudo.
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Laid back Michelin-starred restaurant
But it's not just on the ownership side that Amelia stands out in the Michelin world. The interior of the venue is unpretentious and relaxed. Here, there are no dress codes or blazer requirements. Pop art and other popular culture references adorn the walls. The resort plays Airaudo's self-composed playlist, mainly featuring pop and rock from the 1970s and 1980s.
One wall is lined with deep, horseshoe-shaped leather sofas with a hint of an American steakhouse style. There are a few seats at the bar counter, providing guests with orchestra seating for the culinary dance performed in the open kitchen.
In total, there are 25 seats in the restaurant, which serves a single ten-course meal for 295 euros for lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Saturday. The drinks packages are extra. Airaudo describes the food served as "Italian but with a Japanese accent." Born to Italian immigrant parents, the menu is both a tribute to his own roots and a window into what he's learned from working at some of the world's very best restaurants.
The fact that seafood takes up the bulk of the menu may surprise many considering that the chef is from Córdoba in central Argentina – a country best known for its fantastic beef.
"Yes, it may seem a little strange, but to me it's natural. I left Argentina when I was young, and although I remember asado with friends (Argentinian barbecue) from growing up, it was amazing seafood that fascinated me when I was defining my own style," he explains.
Pure, delicious flavours at Amelia
Finding one's 'true self' can be a long journey for a star chef. Whereas 20 years ago, a wave of molecular gastronomy was sweeping across the fine dining world in the wake of Spanish super restaurant El Bulli's innovative dishes, Airaudo says the current trend is for pure and clearly defined flavours.
"It's the cornerstone of French and Italian cuisine. Simple, pure and good flavours. The experimentation is often driven by young chefs. They can maybe sometimes become a little confused and overzealous when trying out a lot of strange things," says the chef with a laugh.
What's your process for what ends up on the menu?
"For me, it all starts with the ingredients. What we can get hold of and what can we do with it. That's the core of Amelia: fantastic ingredients and exceptional sauces," he says.
"Fermentation of fresh produce is nonsense"
When the photographer asks if they ever try fermentation and that sort of thing, the chef throws out his arms in exasperation.
"Why should we do that nonsense there? We have fresh produce available!
"I remember having a conversation with a young chef a while back. He said that he had finally gotten his hands on amazing white asparagus that he was now going to ferment. I then had to ask why he would ruin an incredible ingredient with that crap," says Airaudo, shaking his head.
How is the menu affected by Amelie's access to produce over the course of a year?
"Our concept is simple: We only change a dish if the new dish is better than the previous one. That said, we of course follow the seasons and change dishes and ingredients based on what's available. For example, salmon is now in season, and we got hold of some amazing fish today that we have incorporated into the menu."
"The fact that the structure of the meal is always the same is a source of stability for the kitchen. If you are going to cook at this level, it's important to be able to deliver and offer the best to your guests. The fact that the structure is similar makes that job easier. We also have a number of regular guests who expect to see certain dishes on the menu, so we try to please everyone," he explains.
Amelia - The best ingredients in the world
While the focus of many fine dining restaurants has in recent years been on sustainability and local ingredients, Airaudo doesn't mince words when explaining his thinking on the subject. The chef says that he finds this focus somewhat paradoxical, considering that fine dining should deliver at the highest possible level.
"I don't care much about where the ingredient comes from, as long as it's top quality and from a world-class producer. The reason for this is that I believe it is important to create a market for the small producers that have the best ingredients in the world. Why should I shop locally if the ingredient doesn't measure up? Perhaps there is a farmer high up in the mountains of Japan with the best produce in the world. Should we refrain from shopping there, just because it is far away and 'not sustainable'?" he asks, letting the question hang in the air - before answering himself:
"If we then manage to help create additional sales and business for that farmer, then that's more sustainable in my eyes than simply buying something that is locally produced and mass-produced in an unsustainable way."
"Moreover, fine dining as a concept is not sustainable in itself. People come from all over the world to eat with us. It costs a lot of money, and they expect the best of the best. If you also have to pay 20 people and get the best ingredients in the world, it's no wonder things get expensive."
"Especially now when everything is getting more expensive in the world, it goes without saying that all the costs are also going up for those us who run restaurants as well. I think fine dining will probably become even more expensive in the future, and less accessible to 'ordinary' people."
Amelia will not remain open forever
The Argentinian makes no secret of the fact that it takes a lot to run one of the top restaurants in the world. He spends many long days spent working at the restaurant, and with a wife and three children, it goes without saying that it is not a lifestyle for everyone
"My dream was never to open a Michelin-starred restaurant. The dream was solely to have my own restaurant with fantastic food. But one thing leads to another, and then you have to make decisions along the way as to whether or not this is what you want to do. This level is not for everyone," says the chef.
How long will you keep going?
"I don't know. Personally, I think it's important for a restaurant at this level to know when to throw in the towel. I haven't decided an exact date for Amelia, but I have the process ready in my head."
Do you feel pressure to maintain your stardom?
"Not really. In fact, there is more pressure from some of our guests. They may have unrealistic expectations for their meal. Then I almost have to shrug and say: 'Hey, we're just making amazing food and going to give you an incredible experience, but we're unlikely to change your life.' And I think it's important to keep that in mind. We're just a restaurant. This is not a show with a life-changing experience at the end," says the chef says in a serious tone.
"Remember that food and atmosphere go together like a hand and a glove. A bad wine can be wonderful in good company," he adds.
Dreaming of three stars
We have made our way from the terrace down into the dining room in the basement. The first guests of the evening will be arriving in only 30 minutes, and the open kitchen is teeming with busy chefs preparing for the evening's service.
There is a tense atmosphere in the venue like that just before kick-off at a crucial football match.
Airaudo walks through the kitchen and follows everyone with eagle eyes. If there is something he is not satisfied with, he lets the person know and shows them how to do it. At this level, nothing is left to chance.
Our allotted time is coming to an end, but we have one final question. With two stars in the Guide already, it's natural for us to want to learn what's next for Amelia.
"It's just stupid to hide our ambitions. We're going for a third star. If you get one star, you want two, and so on. A lot of people want more," he chuckles with a sly smile.
Editor's note: The airline Norwegian covered air travel expenses in connection with this article. Picolo makes its own editorial choices, freely and independently.
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