Boise, Idaho—The first thing that strikes me about chef Dan Ansotegui’s cooking is the colors. I’m staring at an aromatic quartet of vibrantly red roasted piquillo peppers, stuffed with a creamy spinach béchamel, floating in an orange and red pepper sauce and topped with green parsley.
More plates of Basque delicacies, equally tantalizing, quickly follow in the brick-lined ambiance of Ansots Basque Chorizos & Catering in downtown Boise, Idaho.
The man behind this culinary magic is no less engaging than the food. With his energetic eyes, shock of brilliant white hair, and snowy beard, Ansotegui looks like he might have wandered in from shepherds’ fields to don an apron and fire up the stove.
His community stature is near legendary. Beyond his cooking skills, Ansotegui was one of the 2019 National Heritage Fellows honored in Washington, D.C. for his connection to and perpetuation of traditional Basque music and dance. In doing so, he’s following a tradition honed by his accordion-playing father decades earlier.
“My cultural heritage defines me,” Ansotegui told me. “I’m a teacher, cook, musician, but all those aspects of myself started in my Basque lineage. Everything I do seems to be rooted in my Basque ancestry, whether I think about it that way or not. I just can’t help it.”
Ansotegui’s voice was filled with awe as he described the courage it must have taken for his forebears to brave the voyage from the Basque homeland known as Euskal Herria, a rough, rural region between France and Spain, to the unknowns of American life.
After landfall in New York in 1908, his grandfather, Santiago Ansotegui, met a benefactor “go-between” for emigrant Basques seeking work. Santiago made his way to southern Oregon, one of several western states with growing Basque populations, and became a sheepherder.
Ansotegui’s maternal grandfather Epi followed a similar path, and so both Ansotegui’s parents were born on western U.S. sheep ranches, surrounded by fellow Basques speaking their native language.
A generation later, Ansotegui and his four siblings grew up with a mixture of tongues, while they remained fiercely proud of their centuries-old cultural roots. They started dancing the jota folk dance with other Basque children at age 4 and joined adult groups at 14.
Ansotegui remembers going to his grandmother Epi’s house every holiday. “Her cooking was simple but fabulous,” he said, “from clams in rice to oxtail stew, or garlic-, salt-, and olive oil-rubbed roasted chickens.”
He would sit at the end of her long table with all his cousins, acting rambunctiously, while Epi, his parents, and all of their aunts and uncles sat at the other end. Ansotegui’s food philosophy is rooted in such experiences.
“Just as Basque music is meant to be danced to, Basque food is meant to be consumed with gusto, not simply be decoration, and is best eaten in groups—the larger, the louder, the better!” he declared. “The real ingredients for a perfect Basque meal are great food, great friends, great conversation, and much laughter.”
Journey to the Homeland
Ansotegui learned the basics of restaurant work while waiting tables and tending bar in his 20s at the Boarding House, Boise’s first Basque restaurant open to the public. What really changed the course of his life, however, was when Dr. Pat Bieter, a local professor, started an exchange program with the Basque town of Onati in northern Spain. Ansotegui spent the 1978 to 1979 school year there, studying the language and getting a better first-hand understanding of what it meant to be Basque.
“Dr. Bieter’s study program changed Boise’s Basque community in ways we could never have imagined, affecting several hundred students,” Ansotegui said. “Before going to the Basque homeland, all I knew about the culture was what my parents and grandparents taught me. Grandma Epi’s style of cooking was based upon what was available on the ranch, predominantly beef and lamb cooked in savory stews with potatoes and onions. Basque food in the old country was all about fresh fish and local vegetables cooked in straightforward but delicious ways.”
From that experience, Ansotegui was later inspired to open a Basque pub called Bar Gernika in 1991, on what eventually came to be known as Boise’s Basque Block. Today, that block also houses the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, the only such institute in the United States dedicated to preserving Basque heritage.
Continuing the Legacy
Fast forward to the present day, and Epi would be thrilled to see how her grandson has raised the family’s cooking traditions to new heights. Ansots, Ansotegui’s newest culinary venture, bravely opened during the pandemic in September 2020. Ansotegui’s wife Tamara and daughter Ellie are also full-time participants and co-owners.
Several of the recipes in Ansotegui’s kitchen are from his grandmother, including the red bean, white bean and ham, and potato leek soups; the traditional chorizo sausages; and the solomo, pork loin marinated in a sweet pepper sauce.
“Grandma Epi’s homemade chorizos were like nothing I’d ever tasted, although we ate chorizos a lot in Boise,” Ansotegui said. “At Ansots, her chorizos are the benchmark to what we’re striving for. Grandma hung her chorizos for two weeks before storing them in lard. We hang our chorizos until the casing has firmed up and the flavors have tightened, as in most cured Spanish and Italian sausages.”
In addition to chorizo, they make their own Basque bacon, cured with salt and choricero peppers, a sweet, mildly spicy Spanish pepper that’s a staple in Basque cuisine.
Those intense crimson piquillo (“little beak”) peppers in the first dish I encountered are another unique Basque product, traditionally grown only in one portion of northern Spain, organically nurtured by hand. Roasting over embers makes them succulently sweet with smoky, slightly bitter undertones.
A simpler use of these scarlet peppers at Ansots has them marinated with salt, pepper, and olive oil, topped with anchovy fillets and chives, and served with garlic bread.
Idaho’s most famous garden product is presented as patatas bravas, roasted potato wedges seasoned with garlic chips and sea salt, and served with a tomato-based, paprika-tinged salsa brava and aioli. (Way better than French fries.)
My personal favorite was the Basque lamb and chorizo meatballs in a traditional, creamy española sauce, sprinkled with those same wonderful garlic chips.
What all these dishes have in common, Ansotegui pointed out, is that Basque cooking isn’t heavy with sauces that pair with a main course, but rather the sauces are derived from that main course. Pan drippings are his key to any accompaniment, from fish to chicken or pork, and he uses spices sparingly, so they don’t cover the true taste of the item they’re trying to enhance.
Ansotegui’s honesty is refreshing. “I cook because I love eating good food,” he said. “Basque food is what I know the most about, and it’s my favorite, bar none.”
It’s not just about him, of course. “There’s nothing in life more rewarding,” he said, “than seeing a customer or friend truly enjoying food that I’ve been a part of preparing in some way, and I’m not satisfied until I think what I produce is exceptional.”
It’s obvious that Ansotegui is passionate about showcasing his culture, which he feels is best represented through Basque language, food, and music. He hopes to inspire others to delve into their own heritage, too.
“Each of us has a rich history of stories, recipes, and music,” he said. “It’s everyone’s task to learn about their own culture, and understand how we’re molded by it.”