Joxe Mari Aizega on Culinary Place Branding and the Power of Gastronomy

Joxe Mari Aizega of the Basque Culinary Center was one of the keynote speakers at a recent get together in rural Graubuenden, Switzerland, an event exploring the region’s brand(ing) strategy and the trends driving it. Intrigued by the growing importance of “local”, “regional” and gastronomy in place experiences and representations (also evident in Graubuenden’s brand positioning), I caught up with Joxe Mari afterwards to learn more about the importance of culinary innovation and heritage for the identity and reputation of places.

Joxe Mari, as Director of Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, food is your daily business. Do you remember when you first got interested in the topic?

I remember being involved in cooking at home, with my grandparents and parents. Food was part of our family culture. Our everyday and our celebrations were linked with a strong food culture.

My education and professional development were not connected with gastronomy until a group of chefs approached the University in which I was Vicerector (Mondragon University) with the idea of creating a new education center focused on gastronomy. It was then when I discovered a sector full of needs and opportunities.

In a nutshell, what is Basque Culinary Center about?

It is a center dedicated to promoting the cultural, economic and social potential of gastronomy. We believe that gastronomy has the opportunity to contribute to a better world. At the center, we focus on higher education, research, innovation and new ventures in gastronomy. Basically, looking very much into the future.

To your mind, how important are food culture and heritage for a place’s identity?

There are different ways to build a gastronomic identity. The identity of a big modern city is different from that of a territory with a deep and rich history. It is clear that culture and heritage are nowadays very relevant to build a gastronomic identity. Almost every territory can look into the past -their history and culture- and find many elements that can be brought into the present.

What is the relationship between gastronomy and place branding?

Gastronomy has become very relevant in many ways in our society. It is now a transmedia phenomenon: it is in books, on television programmes, on social media… All over the internet we can find content that revolves around gastronomy.

Gastronomy is also a driving force for tourism. Increasingly we decide where to go and what to do because of the gastronomy of a certain destination. So, for diverse reasons, in many territories gastronomy is helping to create place brands.

Which trends do you observe linked to food, especially in the context of place branding and place marketing?

Some years ago gastronomic place branding and marketing were very linked to chefs and to great restaurants, mainly fine dining restaurants. They were the main icons of gastronomy and the strategies were heavily based on them.

Now, this has opened and widened, there are more actors on the scene. Not only top chefs, but also other chefs that are being recognized in traditional cuisine or street food, as well as professionals dedicated to products: winemakers, cheesemakers, ….

Nowadays, gastronomy is a movement, a community. And I think place branding strategies linked to gastronomy are becoming more holistic.

Food being a fundamental touch point of place-based experiences: do you have examples of places which have promoted their cuisine as their main assets?

We can find different examples of this: Basque Country in Spain is a clear one, where food has become very central in the local culture and also in nation branding.

Copenhagen is also a great example, as it has become a great food destination. Also Peru, where the country brand is very closely linked to gastronomy: a great example of public-private collaboration.

Which topics are you currently focusing on at Basque Culinary Center, and which areas would you consider in need of further investigation?

We have a very diverse range of activities and we are working on different topics.

First, we need to update our educational model to the needs of the future. Not only the contents but also the learning strategies. The world is changing, and it is our responsibility to prepare the next generations as best as possible.

Also, we are creating new specialization programs for professionals.

We are further focusing on research and innovation. In fact, we have just launched our PhD Program in Gastronomic Sciences.

We are developing projects that connect gastronomy and sustainable development, and also gastronomy and health. I think these two topics are key for the future.

More and more destinations (including Graubuenden in Switzerland) seek to offer “authentic” experiences through local produce and a focus on regionalism. Which are the benefits and potential limitations of such “back to the roots” strategies, in a globalized world and community of world citizens?

This trend has a double explanation.

First, it is about the sense of community and sustainable development. As citizen of a given territory, some of us want to consume local produce, want to know what we are buying and who is producing what we are eating.

Another explanation comes from tourism, from what we are looking for when we visit a destination. We want to discover the roots, the artisans, the authenticity, …

Bilbao is often cited as example of successful place branding, having been transformed from ugly industrial city to the hub of arts, innovation and entrepreneurship it is today. How did they do it? Which are the keys to success?

I think there are different factors that can explain that. Starting from the decision to use culture and art as main elements for the process of transformation, continuing with the strategy of promoting the existing industrial talent and know-how to evolve into other sectors (energy, for instance). All of this, as well as the local capital and talent with global actors, such as Guggenheim, or the recent entrepreneurship network connecting Bilbao with Boston and Tel Aviv, has been the foundation of this successful transformation.

Bilbao’s city branding is a strategy that has harnessed the strengths of the territory in a unique way and with a global vision.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

Gastronomy has great potential to contribute to better social and economic development. We are happy to do our part to make it happen.

Thank you, Joxe Mari.

Connect with Joxe Mari Aizega on LinkedIn or explore the website of the Basque Culinary Center for details on research and courses offered. Joxe Mari on Twitter and Instagram: @jmaizega.

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