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Chef Oskar Urzelai Discusses Txoko Jakarta and His Determination to Create a “Culinary Experience”

Chef Oskar Urzelai Discusses Txoko Jakarta and His Determination to Create a “Culinary Experience”
Chef Oskar Urzelai Discusses Txoko Jakarta and His Determination to Create a “Culinary Experience”

For the seasoned chef, cooking is all about creating something new and equal-for-all hospitality.

Named after a variety of a social gastronomy club in Spain’s Basque Country, in which friends and regulars meet up regularly to enjoy a meal together, Txoko Jakarta has steadily made a name for itself as the go-to gastronomy destination in the city’s brimming Senopati neighbourhood — thanks largely to how Chef Oskar Urzelai reimagines the best in Basque cuisine with modern techniques and fusion-inspired twists. On the 5th of March, Indonesia Expat enjoyed a sit-down with Chef Oskar as the latter shared his upbringing, what drew him to open a restaurant in Jakarta, and why it is always important to serve all of his guests equally and with no discrimination.

Txoko Jakarta
Txoko Jakarta
Hi, Chef Oskar. Let’s get started by introducing yourself a bit. What can you tell us about yourself?

I’m just a simple guy, really. My passion is gastronomy and I always try to learn every single day; learning things such as new cooking techniques, new ingredients and how to combine ingredients from different parts of the world, new spices, and the creation of new dishes. I love being inspired in the kitchen and being creative.

In my personal life, I like spending time with my family. But overall, in all aspects of life, I am always looking for more knowledge about food and gastronomy. I think gaining knowledge and educating yourself is always important, both in your professional and personal life.

How did you discover your passion — or perhaps, your calling — in cooking?

My mother used to be a waitress. Growing up, I used to visit her at work; at the time, she was working at a fine dining restaurant in the Basque Country. I loved watching her work while also exploring the kitchen as I observed the cooks and enjoyed the smell that the kitchen radiated. On the weekends, they would offer me soft drinks and cakes and such. I immediately knew what I wanted to do with my life since then. My mother even warned me that being a chef is a very hard job because, as a chef, there’s no limit on the number of hours that you work as your task is never fully completed, and it’s difficult to know when to stop working so it’s easy to overdo it and feel the stress. You often need to work on weekends while your friends are enjoying their holidays and having a good time; that’s one of the hard parts!

But ultimately, the reason I fell in love with cooking was the fact that, when it comes to cooking, there is no such thing as limits. For instance, when you make a pastry, you can combine both sweet and salty flavours. You can combine a lot of different textures and a lot of different ingredients as well — as we often do in Txoko. People have so many different tastes in food and it’s a very personal thing. After all, whenever you visit someplace new, you are bound to experience a different taste of food. In cooking, you are free to play around and create something new every day.

Chef Oskar Urzelai
Chef Oskar Urzelai
I see that you have travelled across various countries before you settled in Jakarta, Indonesia. Can you share with us one of your most memorable experiences of being a chef overseas? Have you ever had the chance to work with Michelin-starred chefs?

I have worked in different countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. There are more than 20 countries where I have learned to use and combine different ingredients and also, to give the chance to the teams to express their culinary culture. The idea is not always to bring to each country the same food that you would eat in Spain. Instead, it is to integrate culinary traditions and come up with something new.

I also had the chance to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Zacalacain (3 stars), L’Operne (1 star), Cabo Mayor (1 star), Mugaritz (2 stars) or Martin Berasategui (3 stars). I remember very fondly all the time spent with Martin Berasategui who is the Spanish chef holding the highest number of Michelin stars — a total of 12 stars, currently. I consider him my biggest influence as a chef and with whom I still keep regular contact.

While working with Martin, I also made amazing friends such as Iñigo Urrechu who, I am very glad to see, has become one of the most renowned chefs in Spain.

What is the dish you cook best?

It would be very hard to choose just one, but there are dishes from Basque cuisine such as a good fish soup that drive me crazy. The French make wonderful bouillabaisse, but we have fish soup which is also amazing. We’ve had our Granma’s Basque Seafood Soup on our menu in Txoko since 2019, and it is still one of the most demanded dishes in the restaurant.

What if I wanted to make someone fall in love at a dinner? What would you recommend?

I would start with a well-seasoned salad, a combination of prawns with baby squid and mussels, with different kinds of organic vegetables, with simple decoration and a super fine vinaigrette, slightly perfumed with vanilla and lime or fine chives.

The second dish could be one of the fresh fish that is available at Txoko in Senopati, some Barramundi loins, completely cleaned — French style (no fish bones), with a light lemon sauce and accompanied with a local, grilled avocado and baby potatoes. If meat is preferred, I would go with beef tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms, served with arugula salad, and very special potatoes cooked with sliced almonds and a pink pepper sauce.

To finish, I would combine an Idiazabal Basque cheesecake (a top seller in Txoko) with homemade Indonesian honey ice cream. All of this, of course, is accompanied by a good Rioja Alavesa red wine!

Is there a dream guest for whom you would love to cook sometime in the future?

I enjoyed cooking for the most vulnerable ones. We do it often in Txoko and we will keep on trying to help the local community as much as we can. Every Sunday during the COVID-19 pandemic, we used to make paella for charities and children in the community. It was a very special time for us. We are always open to organise events in Txoko with NGOs to help in their fundraising efforts. We have a great venue on the second floor that we happily give away for free to NGOs that make so many efforts to improve the lives of many people here in Indonesia.

Please tell us about how you finally decided to set up a restaurant, later named Txoko Jakarta, in Senopati.

It began when my business partner and I first realised, before the pandemic, that the gastronomy scene had blossomed in Jakarta and it was in an amazing upward trend. We started checking the quality of the available ingredients and talking with local farmers and fishermen about how we would conduct quality control over the ingredients and how they would be transported to the restaurant. The quality control, in particular, was a matter about which we really must take into account.

Txoko JakartaOut of curiosity, what does “Txoko” mean, exactly?

A txoko (pronounced “chock-oh”) is a Basque word, roughly meaning a ‘cosy corner’. A txoko is a social place where the people, usually comprising 40 to 60 persons, would gather around and cook for each other and serve each other. Some, for instance, would bring fish while others, for instance, would bring prawns or mushrooms. And then, they could eat and drink together there. It is a relaxed place where friends cook for friends.

For our readers who might not be familiar with Basque cuisine, what can you tell us about it?

The Basque Country is an autonomous community in the northern part of Spain. In that area, there are numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, and the gastronomy scene, in particular, is very much flourishing. When tourists are travelling to Spain, they might go to Madrid for its museums or shopping malls. But in the Basque Country, people would go there to eat, drink, and have a good time. The food there is of the highest standard, but still relatively affordable.

For the first-time diners out there, what can they expect from the dishes served at Txoko Jakarta?

Here at Txoko, the guests can expect to enjoy a culinary experience at the same level they would experience back home in Spain. Something new; something they have never tried before. We call it a ‘culinary experience’ because we are breaking the rules through the fusion of styles. For example, we would serve you mustard ice cream and a blend of chocolate and chilli. We have dishes that people may not have tasted before in their lives. We also make all the semi-processed ingredients ourselves, such as the bread, the butter, and the ice cream.

When it comes to the raw ingredients, we use here at Txoko, we apply what we would like to call a ‘zero-kilometre’ approach. It means that, except for the protein, all the raw ingredients that we use are locally sourced and, when possible, purchased from within a radius of one kilometre. This approach to food not only ensures freshness in flavour and embraces local production, but also minimises the environmental impacts of raw materials production.

txoko jakartaFrom your point of view and experience thus far, what makes Indonesian diners different from diners of other nationalities and cultural backgrounds? Has it been easy to observe and satiate their taste and preferences?

I find Indonesians are very open-minded when it comes to food, well-travelled, and have educated themselves about wine and good-quality products. Because they travel a lot, Indonesians have become more aware of which food originated from which specific country. They can easily differentiate ingredients from different European countries and some of our patrons know more about Spanish wine or Iberico Bellota Ham than we do back home! It’s a pleasant contrast to past times, during which Indonesians used to have that kind of food only in hotel restaurants.

It is not so difficult to satiate the Indonesians’ taste and surprise them. Here at Txoko Jakarta, we mix up the classic with modern techniques, Asia with Europe, sweetness with spice, et cetera. It is not uncommon to find classic Spanish dishes in Txoko cooked with ingredients such as edamame, wasabi, kimchi, or Indonesian nutmeg.

What is next for you and Txoko Jakarta?

We are planning to open a new branch in Jakarta. You’ll see it very soon!

Last but not least, how can our readers reach you and Txoko Jakarta?

You can reach me personally via my Instagram account @oskarurzelai. To find out more about Txoko Jakarta and our menu, you can visit our official website www.txokojakarta.com and/or our Instagram account @txokojakarta. For reservations, you can contact us via landline at +62 21 2708 2215 or WhatsApp at +62 815 1106 8587.

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