From the fourth generation of one of Spain’s most celebrated culinary families, Elena Arzak has won plaudits for taking traditional Basque cuisine in a new direction.
After years working at her family’s 19th-century eatery on the northern Spanish coast, her constantly evolving, research-based approach to cooking and experimentation with flavours won her international recognition as the world’s top female chef.
Now, nearly a decade on, this energetic 51-year-old is still experimenting with unexpected combinations and new textures using mainly local ingredients at “Arzak”, the family restaurant in San Sebastian which is renowned for its fine dining.
“It is research for the good of cuisine,” says Arzak, who is the only woman running a restaurant that holds three Michelin stars in Spain.
Inside her flavour lab above the restaurant, a 3D printer and a centrifuge sit next to shelves piled to the ceiling with thousands of clear boxes of flavours, textures and other culinary secrets.
All are carefully labelled with QR codes that contain detailed information about the contents.
For now, she is using the printer to create unique, very visual geometrical shapes that are used in plating up, but she has not printed anything edible as the results haven’t been good enough.
“The art of cooking must make people happy. We can use all the technology in the world, but it must bring something to the dish,” she says.
Arzak’s great-grandparents founded the restaurant in 1897 in what was then a village but has now been engulfed by San Sebastian.
Dubbed the father of modern Basque cuisine in the 1970s, her father Juan Mari won a third Michelin star for the establishment in 1989 which it has managed to keep ever since.
She herself returned to San Sebastian in 1995 and since then has been working alongside him, being named the top female chef in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list of 2012.
Five years ago, she took over the kitchen at Arzak as part of a “slow” transition, although her 79-year-old father still helps out.
The preference for local ingredients has not changed at the restaurant, which experts regularly rank among the world’s best.
“I love parsley, anchovies, squid, garlic, tuna,” she says, listing ingredients which features heavily in Basque cuisine alongside other flavours like hake or txangurro, flaked spider crab meat.
“My cuisine is an identity cuisine, Basque, very rooted in the sea.”
And while training at top European restaurants such as London’s Gavroche and Louis XV in Monaco, her “fondness” for seafood and her Basque heritage meant she was often assigned to prepare fish dishes.
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Art on a plate
Arzak, who studied cooking in Switzerland, said being the daughter of a culinary giant has not been an issue.
“It could have been a handicap that everyone compared me to him. But I was conscious of it,” she said.
While restaurant kitchens are usually male dominated, 70 percent of Arzak’s staff are women.
“I am only interested in talent, gender does not matter,” she said.
After taking charge of the eatery, she changed the menu to include dishes with fewer ingredients.
“People eat faster, more vegetables, healthier,” said Arzak, who admits she’s currently “devouring” vegan cooking magazines.
“People want more of an ‘experience’,” she reflects.
Although the focus is on using local produce, Arzak has long been open to other cultures and has never shied away from new techniques, using photos to explain some of her more innovative dishes.
One, called “Baby squid tattoo”, features a small squid with a squid tartare in ink served on a plate decorated with an elegant sketch of an octopus drawn in parsley juice.
Another is mackerel in shio koji, a fermented Japanese marinade, served with pureed tomato and fish collagen, “a natural gelatin”.
And a dessert called “Enigma” features white-chocolate filled churros shaped into letters perched on two balls of fruit fibre — a texture between mousse and jelly — one almond-cherry flavour, the other orange, but coloured a vibrant fuchsia by using beetroot extract.
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Her talent has been hailed by big names in gastronomy.
French chef Pierre Gagnaire, her supervisor when she worked at his Paris restaurant, said he appreciates “her reserve and modesty”.
“Delicate and joyful, she symbolises the Basque Country so much,” he told AFP.
Spanish chef Carme Ruscadella, whose Sant Pau restaurant in the northeastern Catalonia region that also had three stars before closing in 2018, described her as “a woman who doesn’t tire”.
And close friend and top French chef Helene Darroze calls her a “pioneer”.
Arzak, who has two teenagers, said the restaurant’s three stars don’t weigh on her.
“If you don’t have pressure, you accidentally relax,” she admitted.
Although the restaurant has been closed since December because of the region’s ongoing nighttime curfew to curb virus cases, Arzak says she’s gearing up to reopen.
“We need to encourage people because we’ve all had a really difficult time.”
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