Aitor Elizegi “Our Way Of Living Matches Goes Beyond Football”
Winning the Athletic presidential election in December 2018 was a moment of pure joy for Aitor Elizegi. However, he was an unlikely candidate and his victory came as a surprise to many outside of the Basque Country. A famous cook by trade, Elizegi had supported Athletic his entire life and his ideas and passion for the club resulted in many Socio urging him to run for the presidency.
At first, Elizegi wasn’t going to run. Alberto Uribe-Echevarría, a continuist candidate from the previous Board of Directors, was expected to run unopposed before Elizegi finally entered the race. Even then the chef wasn’t given a strong chance of winning but his fresh perspective and emphasis on the fans gave him the victory. It’s now been over one year since the election and Elizegi recently sat down for an interview with L’equipe where he discussed his role at the club and love for cooking.
“What is the recipe for becoming both a renowned chef and the president of one of the most emblematic clubs in Spain?”
“My real passion is the Bay of Biscay, which is home to Euskadi. From our DNA flows two cultural attractions: one is practiced with the hands, the other with the feet. The first is millennial, our cuisine, which always favors the local product. The second, more recent, is football which is also a means of expression for us. Effort, commitment, and teamwork are values common in these two activities; and our way of living matches, of finding ourselves in the stands, goes beyond football. Every two weeks we meet in San Mamés to celebrate our identity.
“Where does your passion for cooking come from?”
From my father. In the Basque Country, men are used to cooking. My father was, let’s say, a perfectionist, and as soon as he had free time he was cooking. I was naturally drawn to the kitchen. At 17 I joined a secondary class at the hotel school in Galdakao which had just been created. Until then you had to go to Madrid if you wanted to study cooking. But over the past thirty years, Basque cuisine has become a world reference. At the start, we were just a bunch of kids playing in the second division but over the years we have found ourselves playing the Champions League.
“What are the links between football and gastronomy in Bilbao?”
“For Athletic supporters, a match always begins or ends around a table. The bocadillo (a sandwich usually made up of cold meats, cheese or tortillas) is part of the liturgy of San Mamés. We all have our preferential circuit on match days, our favorite txoko (”corner” in Basque and by extension a ”bistro”) which prepares us for the Sunday battle. The ritual can also start at home, with the smell of potatoes and poached onions. We eat and then we set off for the stadium. At birth you are told ‘Learn to eat and love Athletic.’ We all apply it more or less. I am fully invested in both.”
“Slow Food is a culinary philosophy combining pleasure and respect for traditional cuisine in the face of globalization. This brings to mind the Athletic model, which recruits only Basque players…”
“Tapping into local forces allows you to forge your identity. I’m not saying that Slow Food is the best, but it’s a way of cooking that takes into account the environment, what surrounds us, the trace that we will leave and what will happen when we are gone. It’s the same for Athletic. Being competitive isn’t the only thing that matters. Whether the harvest is good or not, it’s up to us to get the best out of it. All young Basques have the right to dream of joining Athletic and those who fail to do so become supporters until the end of their days.”
“The club never parts with its legendary players, such as Andoni Goikoetxea, recently appointed club ambassador, or Joseba Etxeberria the Bilbao Athletic coach…”
“When a player arrives at the club our intention is always that they will stay here throughout their career, not to just be passing through. Legends often have the opportunity to build on the prestige they have built as a footballer. For them, it is an opportunity to close the loop and wisely use the respect and recognition which they have earned. These players, or rather these people, are invaluable ambassadors of Athletic when they travel far from Bilbao.”
“Do you sometimes put your nose in the kitchen of Lezama?”
“Of course, through professional distortion, I can’t help but watch what we put on their plates. I’m obsessed with details. I stop at the appearance of nuts and dates, I check that the tomatoes are ripe, if the olive oil is of good quality… I believe that personalized nutrition is not in its infancy in professional football and will become more and more tailor-made in order to improve performance.”
“Do you still find time to cook?”
“Not at all. My activities as president occupy me from Monday to Sunday from seven in the morning until midnight. Fortunately, I still have time to read gastronomic publications, but it’s been a long time since I burned my hand or cut my finger, I must admit. I need to pick back up a knife soon.”