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Basque to Basics

Elena Arzak is the fourth generation to run Spain’s first three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Arzak, in San Sebastian. As she increasingly takes over from her father, the former World’s Best Female Chef continues to innovate.

Words Chris Dwyer

*Featured in Crave’s Issue 83, May 2017

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are the world’s most renowned culinary father and daughter. They are the heart and soul of Arzak, the modern Basque restaurant that won its first Michelin star in 1974, second in 1977 and third in 1989. The San Sebastian venue was the first in Spain to earn three-star status, an accolade it has retained every year since, an extraordinary level of consistency.

Given its remarkable heritage – Arzak opened in 1897 – you’d forgive the latest generation, 47-year-old Elena, for taking things a bit easy. Not a chance. Far from resting on her laurels, the constant state of flux and innovation that has defined Arzak sees Elena now completely re-thinking the restaurant. Highlighting the flavour and naturalness, she is taking a back-to-basics approach in a world cluttered with what she sees as too much information.

We meet in Melbourne on the morning of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 awards; that evening, Arzak’s reputation will be reaffirmed when it is placed at No 21 on the coveted list. The 2012 awards named Elena the World’s Best Female Chef. Despite the accolades, in person she is modest, laid-back and thoughtful. Although she is often on the road, she’s keen to stress that her travels have minimal impact on the restaurant’s operations.

“I travel a lot, but every month I always do two weeks in the restaurant before taking a short trip. I’m closed Sundays and Mondays, so I travel on these days. Of course, I’m still working with my father and when I’m not there, he controls things. He doesn’t want to stop at all. He has reduced his timetable somewhat, but he will always be there. I was educated like that in the ways of gastronomy.”

Elena is the fourth generation to run the family business, which started as a tavern built by her great-grandparents in Alza, now part of San Sebastian. But it was never assumed that she would join the restaurant.

“When I was 11, I would visit the restaurant in the holidays with my sister, spending a couple of hours with our mother and aunts. I liked it very much and realised then it was what I wanted to do. You decide wherever you want to go in life; today my sister, Marta, is an art historian in the Guggenheim, working in education. But she has a very good palate too,” Arzak says.

From age 18 to 25, she lived abroad, attending culinary school in Switzerland, France and Italy and interning in different restaurants, including Le Gavroche in London. While she learned a lot along the way, coming home to work with her father was a pleasure, not least because he had always been an innovator and ahead of the curve.

“My father has always been very modern. I knew my father was already very famous so I knew people would compare me, but I didn’t mind. This is life,” she says.

Choosing signature dishes from Arzak’s vast repertoire and history is no easy task, but the Red Space egg, deftly constructed from red peppers, mushroom and pig trotter is justly famous. Another acclaimed dish places a translucent plate of delicate lobster on top of an iPad playing black and white video of crashing waves. It is playful, innovative, cheeky and delicious. And if you’d like wine to accompany the food at one of the Basque country’s finest restaurants, there are a mind-blowing 100,000 bottles to choose from.

Elena is always thinking, questioning, looking ahead, and exploring unexpected directions.

“We work with physicists, with research centres, even with psychologists, and we like to spread our word because we have noticed that cooking’s influence is very wide. But also wanted to order all this information which is why I started to rethink – repensar in Spanish-what we have done. It’s very important to reorder your future and to reclaim the joy of flavour. For me, I want everything, even if we use the most modern techniques, to have a lot of flavour. It’s the most important element and I don’t want to lose it.”

Along with this thoughtful deconstruction of her work she is refreshingly honest and open-eyed to the hype that surrounds the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

I want to say that we are chefs. People nowadays see us like superstars but we – with a lot of honour – are chefs. Our secret is to stay together. If you compare Extebarri [A two-Michelin-star asador close to San Sebastian] with Arzak, it’s totally different in style. I’m happy about that because so many different styles, so many places. Don’t be jealous, accept others and when there are new chefs help them. We want to have more and more chefs – it’s good for gastronomy.”

“Good for gastronomy” could well be the motto for Elena, her father and their restaurant. One hundred and twenty years after Arzak opened, its future still looks bright.”

 

My Favourite Things with

Elena Arzak

 1. How do you create dish? 

We only use seasonal local meat, fish and product. Other ingredients are different because they come from all over the world. When your produce is local, you have to add details and ingredients that will complement the culture of where the dish is from.


2. What was the first dish you served?

It was a tuna salad. The first plate I did together with my father, when I was 19. I’m 47 now and we still work together in the same way. My father adapted to my style and I to his style.

3. Any childhood food memories?

I was born in the restaurant. If there is one memory, it is the smell of cinnamon from my grandmother’s rice pudding.

 

4. What about Chinese cuisine?

Travelling is very important to us and we have studied a lot about Chinese food. One of the first books my father gave me was about the heritage of Chinese food. We used this book 1,000 times. We read that they spice with ginger, so now we do that with all our fish and use salt mixed with dry ginger. For Asian culture perhaps it’s normal, but for us it was a discovery. Or the use of sesame oil. For us, we mix it with olive oil to make it a bit softer. We need to adapt it to the Basque palate.

 

5. What will you be taking back from Australia?

Travelling is very important and you discover many things that you can adapt. After this trip I will use ingredients like lemon tartare and yellow finger limes. I’m sure that when we’re back home, many of the 50 best chefs will use the. I can’t use abalone in San Sebastian because we don’t have it – maybe in the future but for the moment, no. I wish we could, because I love the texture.

 

6. Why is San Sebastian such a remarkable food town?

San Sebastian has on the one side the phenomenon of new Basque cuisine, from the other side we are geographically located in a privileged space with amazing produce, and we are proud of all our chefs. There are many Spanish chefs on the 50 best list – Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz, the Rosa brothers from El Cellar, Azurmendi – we are proud. When one of  us gets prizes and awards, we all win.

 

7. Aside from Arzak, what restaurant would you recommend in San Sebastian?

Bokado Mikel Santamaria [near the aquarium] on famous La Concha beach, with breathtaking views. It has seafood like sea urchins and perceives, a very rare and expensive barnacle from our coastline. Delicious.

 

 

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