By Chuck McHenry
Dan Ansotegui knows one thing for sure: His time at Boise State shaped his ideas and set him on the path of celebrating his Basque heritage in the City of Trees.
It is nearly impossible to talk about Boise’s thriving Basque community without someone mentioning Ansotegui’s name. Restaurateur, language teacher and accordion player, his influence has made him a Boise icon.
In 1978, while a sophomore majoring in accounting at Boise State, Ansotegui (BA, elementary education, 1982) was one of 35 students who took part in Professor Pat Bieter’s study-abroad program in the Basque Country. The program sent students to the small town of Oñati for a year. The experience immersed Ansotegui in Basque music, language and food.
“That one year over there changed my life forever,” Ansotegui said.
When he returned to his hometown of Boise, Ansotegui changed his major to elementary education. After graduation, he taught sixth grade for a few years, but Oñati was never far from his thoughts.
“It was because of that trip that I started thinking about opening a Basque restaurant and I think the idea for Bar Gernika came out of that year in Spain,” he said. Subsequent trips back in the 1980s cemented the idea, and Ansotegui opened his first venture on the Basque Block in downtown Boise in 1991.
Alum Brad Peachey (BA, history, 2000, MA, curriculum and instruction, 2008) teaches history and AP World History at Boise’s Borah High School. He worked for Ansotegui at Bar Gernika beginning in the mid-1990s.
“I worked for Dan for 10 years and it says a lot when you work in a place for 10 years and you’re not the senior person. There were other people at Gernika who had been there four or five years longer. In the food industry? Well, that says a lot,” said Peachey, who credits Ansotegui with not only creating a place where employees and customers alike wanted to be, but with making Basque culture a familiar part of life for many Boiseans.
Video Boise State Alum Dan Ansotegui is a Master of Basque Cuisine, Language and Music
Video has closed captions and a transcript is provided at the end of the page.
Ansotegui notes that his time in the Basque Country did more than influence his culinary ventures. He became fluent in Euskara, the Basque language, and he was introduced to the trikitixa, or button accordion. He learned, really, what it meant to be Basque, he said. As Bieter’s program rejuvenated the Basque language scene in Boise, learning to speak Euskara opened wider cultural connections for Ansotegui.
He has spent the past three decades founding and playing accordion in several Basque bands, as well as teaching the Basque language and traditional music and dance to younger generations. The accolades have piled up.
Ansotegui has been nominated twice for the prestigious James Beard culinary arts award. He received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in 2004. In 2019, he was one of just nine recipients in the U.S. of the National Heritage Fellowship, which the National Endowment for the Arts bestows to masters of folk and traditional arts.
Jennifer Stevens, director of the Boise City Department of Arts & History, and affiliated faculty with Boise State’s School of Public Service and Department of History, called Ansotegui “a treasure.” He embodies the cultural legacies of the Basque people as an individual, she said, “but he’s also an incredible representative of the larger Basque community – one with a unique local presence. And for him to be nationally recognized highlights Boise as a strong, multicultural city.”
Ansotegui treats all of these honors humbly, even with some embarrassment.
“I don’t like that kind of stuff – being the center of attention,” he said, “but when you live long enough and do something weird, you start getting awards for it; that’s the accordion and making chorizos.”
With Bar Gernika in new hands but retaining its role as a beloved Boise staple, Ansotegui currently co-owns Basque restaurant Ansots with fellow Bronco alums, daughter Ellie Ansotegui (BS, anthropology, 2018) and wife Tamara Ansotegui (BA, English, 1989).
The restaurant’s traditional fare is a nod to those intimate, small plate eateries he first encountered in the Basque region in the 1970s, serving various types of chorizos, solomo (a classic Basque pork dish), croquetas (a kind of savory fritter) and salads. By the end of the year, Ansotegui and his daughter plan to have their newest business, a commercial chorizo production facility, up and running and supplying regional eateries with heritage chorizos.
Retirement seems unlikely, Ansotegui said. “My uncle, who’s in his 80s said it best. I asked him when he was going to retire and he said, ‘I missed the cutoff.’ So, I think that’s going to be me. I’m going to miss the cutoff.”
[Dan Ansotegui, Co-owner of Ansots]: Well, I’ve been fortunate to work both in restaurants and education throughout my life. It has been something that I feel a great deal of reward from both of those. In both cases, you’re working a lot with other people and trying to help them in their current situation. They either need to get sustenance or they’re trying to learn something. And for me, the two actually played into each other very well, and I was able to use my skills in both of those things to, I think, be fairly successful.
[Dan] My cooking background is fairly simple. I learned mostly from from my mother, my sisters, a little bit from my grandmother and from watching friends and friends’ mothers in the Basque Country and asking a lot of questions. And so even though my cooking background is simple, I haven’t had any formal education in cooking, I’ve been able to apply it to the kitchen in a restaurant situation. And I always feel like what we’re serving here is something that you could have at your grandmother’s house. It’s something that’s very comforting, and yet there are layers of flavors that I remember growing up that we’re trying to recreate here.
(pan fire sizzling)
[Dan] I just love the feel of this little spot. It feels like so many restaurants I’ve been to in the Basque Country. We were able to kind of develop our menu around the chorizo. Basque chorizos typically have four ingredients: the ground pork, salt, fresh garlic and the pepper sauce. The pepper sauce comes from a pepper we call the choricero pepper. It’s a green pepper. It can be eaten as a fresh green pepper. But what we do is let that go dry, or go red, then we hang them and dry them. And then from that we reconstitute that, make a pepper sauce from that, and that’s our chorizo.
(basket clanging in fryer)
[Dan] I think Ansots is a little bit unique in what we’re doing. We’re trying to do something that you can bring a group of friends or family and it’s affordable for small and large groups. We have great variation or diversification on our menu. We have – we’re able to take care of special dietary needs, and yet still fill your plate and your appetite with great flavors that maybe you’ve never tried, or they’re flavors that you had when you were a young child and you’re like, ahh, that’s what grandma used to serve us. So I would invite everyone to come see us at some point, and I hope you have a great meal with us.