By Ryan Boehm
At the prep table, she appears as if she is 5 years old; elbows propped, grabbing food and shoveling it onto her plate. Her forearms tell a different story: a cross-hatch pattern of oven burn marks, a true testament of years in the kitchen. She is the eldest cook in the kitchen of Urupel, located in San Sebastian, Spain, by a good 20 years, which keeps her out of the usual kitchen antics. But she is not foreign to a joke, a smile or a chiding.
Arancha, in her late 50s, has been with the restaurant since they opened.
When she told me 27 years, I said "You’ve seen a lot."
She replied, "He visto todo," - Spanish for "I’ve seen it all."
When it is time for the mid-day meal, referred to as "family meal," I have the privilege of sitting across from her at the marble prep table. She is always the first to the table; she waits for no one — besides God — to begin.
At family meal, there are fewer formalities than at your own kitchen table. The "boarding house reach" is common. If you have to stand up and walk halfway around the table to grab a steak, you do it because platters with a dozen steaks or terrines of soup are not easily passed. Pieces of meat are picked up with the fingers; bones are picked clean and neatly lined up along the rim of an omni-useful shallow bowl. Bread is ripped piece by piece from the 3-foot-long baguette.
Arancha is the least formal of all, moving pieces of meat or fish with her fingers until she finds the one she wants. These same fingers, licked clean and passed under water, will touch every piece of food in this Michelin-starred restaurant where people will pay $150 per head for the opportunity.
Removing her glasses, she makes the sign of the cross, pours a glass of rosado, tears off the heel of a baguette (the heels are always reserved for her), helps herself and starts eating — not even pausing to wonder why no one else has started.
The rosado wine is always poured for others before yourself — except in the case of Arancha. Fingers, the most useful tool the gods gave us, are used in full effect. The bread crust — the second most useful tool the gods gave us — acts as spoon, pinching tool and plate cleaner.
She lingers, she chuckles, but when she rises, the meal is over.
When I have time between peeling potatoes and cleaning foraged mushrooms, I stand unobtrusively next to her station and watch her work. Her nicked fingers and solid, strong hands would make an awesome photo, called "Kitchen Time." As she works, she is constantly making a loose toothy whistle, just for herself, no one else.
One of the more popular dishes in the restaurant, any restaurant really, is that bottom-dwelling scavenger, the lobster. To watch Arancha prepare a live lobster is truly a sight in emotionless efficiency. Live, mind you. No PETA-sanctioned, headfirst plunge into boiling water, no knife point to the cross on the back. First she rips off the claws to disarm her prey. She then hefts a huge, scimitar-like blade that would make any executioner proud. Thwack. Crunch. In one simple movement, the entire lobster’s body is split in two and placed on a stainless steel platter for cooking. Little legs clawing, grasping, reaching for anything, but only finding a sprinkling of salt. Its anatomy has been permanently changed; its purpose changed from scavenger of the sea floor to dinner. Different organs pulsate for the last time. The tail muscle, which we prize as one of the most succulent of meats, quivers and contracts with its last instincts to propel itself away from danger. But it is dead. It’s been dead since the knife broke the exoskeleton, but like the headless turkey, the body doesn’t know it.
Did Arancha ever have to come to terms with her executioner-like responsibilities? Or are they simply one more knife stroke before the night is done? Whatever the case may be, she made her peace long ago. As she grabs another victim, pulls off the claws, she hefts her blade and flinches, not out of mercy, but to gather strength. Thwack. Crunch. Dinner.
Chef Ryan Boehme is the chef/owner of Bravo Catering. Ryan enjoys long walks in the woods foraging for mushrooms, candlelight butchering and bittersweet chocolate. He dislikes mean people and narrow-minded eaters.