Jon Warren first arrived in Donostia-San Sebastian around 2002 on an ordinary summer’s evening that would eventually prove life-changing.
Stopping off for the night during a road trip down to Portugal, the vibrant atmosphere and sight of copious pintxos on the bar convinced Jon and his friend they had hit fiesta-time: “it was like: wow!”
Such was the draw of the place for Jon that on the way back they decided to spend two nights in the Gipuzkoa capital: “We had such a good time; standing on the Concha (beach) I said to my friend: ‘I’m going to live here one day’.”
True to his word, Jon returned to live in the city, though not after four years working in the City of London.
“Working in London.. I never really felt excited. Everyday on a desk,.. doing something I wasn’t passionate about, you think ‘surely this can’t be it’.”
“I quit my job in November 2007 just knowing I wanted to do something else… Doing this, I absolutely love it because every day’s an adventure, doing my own thing.”
Jon’s “own thing” is San Sebastian Food, his own self-run tour business. The aim of the company is to provide tourists over on a short break to the Basque Country with a culinary insight they may otherwise miss. It is inspired in what Jon calls his “six-month gastronomic adventure” sussing out the bars and discovering the best pintxos.
Jon’s personal interest in food is more broadly centred on the entire experience of eating; something which may be linked to some of his earliest memories: “I’ve got some great food memories, but always linked to the people I’m with. “
Reflecting on what aroused his love for all things culinary, Jon recalls his uncle Paddy, an “adventurer” who lived mostly in Sierra Leone, given to roasting whole pigs and baking bread on visits home to the family. It is an almost tangible memory that evokes warm summer evenings and smells of spit-roast pork wafting over lawns of playing children.
Capturing that more sensuous experience is what underlines a lot of Jon’s tours, which move away from the often sterile sensation of a restaurant, to the shouts and smells of a packed bar or busy farmers’ market; “I love Michelin-starred food but I’m a lot more interested in the social side of things,… pintxos, the cider houses, where it’s all about meeting your friends and chatting”.
Jon made the move to San Sebastian in January 2008. After an 8-week language course at Lacunza he went “armed with dodgy Spanish, a basic CV but plenty of enthusiasm” to seek work at the Villa Soro hotel in Ategorrieta. He did “a bit of everything.. bellboy, porter, barman…” though it would later prove to be a significant decision.
Aside from becoming for many guests an unofficial guide to the best places to eat, he would also, ironically perhaps, meet his English girlfriend Nicole, who came to stay at the hotel one weekend with a group of friends:
“She moved out here last May and I have her to thank for helping me so much; from brain-storming to proof reading she has helped enormously.”
As far as his success this side of the Atlantic, Jon is unreserved in his praise for the Basque people whom he has encountered over the past three years: “They’ve been so incredibly friendly from when I arrived… such warm, open people, so happy to help..
“Thanks to friends, for example, I’ve been able to make contacts with the cheese farm in Urnieta where we do a tour with the owners,” says Jon.
Jon is modest about his own contribution to his success, a trait that goes down well in this part of the world. He is, by his own admission, sociable and often “gets chatting to people”, a characteristic of a natural networker and one that has helped him to open a lot of doors into the heart of the Basque culinary experience, sometimes literally.
Jon says his “strongest” food memory was in the Rioja with Nicole looking for somewhere to eat. With a predilection for talking to people – “old ladies especially” – they were finally led by one senior citizen to a restaurant that was seemingly locked up:
“She turned the lights on and said ‘right, what are you having?’; she cooked this lunch just for us with a nice bottle of wine…
“It was nothing amazing; the TV was blaring and the food wasn’t fabulous but for me that’s what it’s about: That incredible, unique experience”.