The spirit with which Zalacaín makes history

Basque-Navarrese chef Íñigo Pérez, better known as Urrechu, talks to us about the gastronomic temple in Madrid that celebrates half a century of life.

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In the dictionary of Íñigo Pérez (Guipúzcoa, 1970) the word fail does not exist. Urrechu (that’s how he is known by most people) puts soul into everything he does, without considering himself a businessman, restaurateur or owner. Nor chef, because what he really is is a thoroughbred cook. “I cut myself and instead of blood I smell rosemary or thyme, I have gastronomy inside me”, he tells us on the phone. And that is why, among many other things, he is about to celebrate 36 years (that’s it…) at the helm of the stove, the last (almost) two as captain of Zalacaín, the gastronomic temple of Madrid that in 2023 celebrates half a century of life.

He has been a member of the powerful beginnings of this mythical establishment, historically renowned for its Basque-Navarrese cuisine with French influences. And that is precisely (also) what he is. “My mother is from Alava with a Navarrese tendency, and I also spent some time in France,” he explains. Today he is one of the main partners, together with Manuel Marrón and Antonio Menéndez, of the first Spanish restaurant to win three Michelin stars in 1987.

With entrepreneurial parents, he cannot conceive of his life without cooking. A disciple of Martín Berasategui, whom he affectionately calls Martintxo, he also loves sports, talking (he admits, and it shows, that it is difficult for him to keep quiet for more than 30 seconds at a time) and, above all, the illusion and joy of living. He sleeps about five hours a day, at most, and every morning he starts his day preparing a coffee for his team in one of his seven houses (Zalacaín, U Zalacaín, Urrechu Velázquez, La Guisandera de Piñera, Urrechu Zoco, A’Kangas by Urrechu, El Cielo de Urrechu). He knows the names and tastes of everyone, from those who drink it on the rocks to those who prefer it double or with soy milk. “It doesn’t cost me any work, I always invite my friends to have coffee at home. I don’t have workers, I have friends who help me improve my project,” he says.

Zalacaín is here to stay

It was in 2021 when the Urrechu Group took the helm of the historic restaurant, after it was forced to close due to the crisis caused by the pandemic. “Recovering a restaurant like this is a tremendously hard task, but at the same time tremendously suggestive. In this case it has been very easy because we have trusted the same people who previously ran Zalacaín. We have the natural heir of Custodio López Zamarra in the world of wine, Raúl Revilla; the natural heirs of José Jiménez Blas and Carmelo Pérez in the dining room, Roberto Jiménez and Luís Miguel Polo; and the natural heir of Benjamín Urdiain in the kitchen, Jorge Losa. Restaurants are worth as much as the spirit of the people who make them up, and to respect the history of Zalacaín we needed the best pieces. Zalacaín is here to stay,” he says.

There, in this restaurant located at number 4 Álvarez de Baena, all the details have always been perfectly harmonized with the aim of dazzling the senses of its customers. Both its staging and decoration, as well as the attentive service and, of course, its unbeatable gastronomic quality. These characteristics have made it a meeting point for names from all walks of life: from international leaders, royalty and aristocrats, to literary figures and prestigious artists, such as Salvador Dalí, one of the most loyal diners, the Rolling Stones or Mario Vargas Llosa, to mention a few.

“As Jesús Oyarbide, the founder of Zalacaín, used to say, it’s the small details that make the difference. I always make sure that the chairs are well placed, that the light is always in the center of the table, that the curtains are straight… I’m a detail freak,” he explains. “Finally, I always look at the private rooms, they seem magical to me: to be able to be in the place where the Spanish Constitution was signed seems incredible to me. I’m crazy about gastronomy, but also about history. That’s why we’ve been at Zalacaín for two years now and I’m still excited,” adds Urrechu.

Quality product, well-executed cuisine and discretion

All of the above without forgetting, of course, one of its maxims: discretion. Carmelo Pérez, former head waiter, used to say that in the past, cuisine and service were very important at Zalacaín, but that discretion was even more important. And this is still the case. “In all restaurants you have to be discreet, especially here. We are talking about one of the tables of power not only in Madrid, but in all of Spain. And as a table of power, how many businesses, mergers and plots can’t be created and talked about every day?

In short, Zalacaín celebrates its 50th anniversary precisely because it has offered every day of its long history an experience that has transformed it into a unique place, a place of pilgrimage not only for gourmets, but for all those people who love gastronomy and enjoy being carried away by a well-executed cuisine with a product of the highest quality. And their maxim, as a team and as a family, is “never to disappoint” all their friends. Here’s to that and to another 50 years. Congratulations.