Elena Arzak: Q&A with one of the world’s best chefs

Elena Arzak is one of the world’s leading chefs, the fourth generation member of her family to work in the kitchen at Arzak restaurant, a three-star Michelin eatery.

Winner of the Vevue Cliquot Awards as Best Female Chef of the year 2012, Elena Arzak is the 4th generation of chefs to run the Arzak, a multi-star family restaurant at the top of the Michelin list. After an international training alongside some of the greats (Ferran Adrà among others) Elena Arzak currently pursuing the experimental trend of New Basque Cuisine, starded by her father Juan Mari in the 70’s. Between innovation, research and tradition, here is the recipe of Elena Arzak for her success.

First memory tied to the kitchen?
The first time I smelled truffles was incredible. They were brought by some relatives of my father, who put them in a glass jar. Well, every time I opened that jar, I was assaulted by the unmistakable earthy smell, I’ll never forget it.

Typical aroma of your childhood?
The intense aroma of cinnamon that filled the air in my grandmother’s kitchen when she made rice pudding. I loved it.

What is the favorite dish of Elena Arzak?
I love everything that comes from the sea, but should I have to pick just one dish, I would say that my favorite without a doubt is “Cod with green salsa” extremely simple Basque recipe. It takes very few elements(cod, clams, garlic, water and parsley) and the procedure is seemingly elementary, but if well executed produces a wonderful texture and is very refined. It’s the classic example of how the oldest tradition is renewed by making even the poorest dishes of our gastronomic roots modern and contemporary and and firmly planted in the local culture.

An ingredient that you dislike, never use, and do not eat?
Celery and cucumber: don’t ask me for an explanation, for I have none, but they are ingredients that I can’t stand: I don’t even taste a dish if my father has used them.

Do you have any obsession?
My cuisine is essentially the search for the best and freshest ingredients on the market, especially with regard to seafood: only the most intense aromas stimulate my creativity and can guarantee me the excellent results I aim for. But if we really want to talk about obsessions, maybe I should pick olive oil: it’s essential, indispensable, ubiquitous and refined.

A specialty of your restaurant.
Truthfully, it’s very difficult for me to pick one dish, because we have a very dynamic menu, that varies based on the season, and is often rethought. One thing I can suggest for sure, however, is the eggs, which are ever present in the menu. Eggs are the one poor but revolutionary ingredient that in the past was capable of feeding entire populations in times of war and famine. “The Huevo Marino de Roca” is a kind of miracle of texture and history, while the “Dustedd Eggs with Mussels” will not fail to impress even the most discerning palate. Perhaps my best advice is to try the tasting menu: a series of testers, which allows a huge variety of traditional and cultural Basque cuisine and the interpretation we provide here at the Arzak.

Your favorite wine label and a matching dish to suggest.
I have several friends who produce wine, so I cannot name any winery in particular, because I would definitely run into some diplomatic issues, but if I was to recommend a bottle, I would pick Txakoli or Chacoli, a white wine produced in the Basque countryside, capable of a close relationship with the with the local cuisine, definitely the best pair-up possible.

Would you share a secret address with ours readers?
In San Sebastian, there is a restaurant called Bokado Aquarium immersed in the Bahia de La Concha, a special place with a breathtaking view. Well, their seafood menu is extraordinary, and you can find sea urchins and “percebes”, a small shellfish typical of our coastline, very rare and expensive. Delicious.

A restaurant you would recommend to our readers, besides your own obviously?
Another complicated question to answer. I don’t want to seem trivial but I’ll never forget El Bulli (the restaurant now is closed). I admire Ferann and I can say that I’m extremely lucky to have seen him at work in his kitchen. His creativity and his imagination have had a huge impact on me, and have profoundly changed my view of the culinary world.

Despite that for all of us, the kitchen is a feminine world of mothers and grandmothers at the burners, at high intensities it’s the male prerogative: Tell us your experience as a woman.
Ok, so I have to start by saying that I am the 4th generation of a family of cooks: my great-grandmother was a chef, my grandmother was a chef, so was my father Juan Mari a chef, right up to me. At Arzak, 80% of the staff is made up of women, so for me it has always been normal to see women in the kitchen, it’s part of my culture. Not to mention that the Basque country has a typically matriarchal social setting, so women have always played strong roles in the family. Then, perhaps, I was lucky: I’ve never had problems abroad, to earn the respect of my peers in the kitchen, with hard work and determination, I achieved the results I hoped for. Nowadays, women are slowly climbing the ranks: 20 years ago hotel schools were filled mostly by males, however today the percentage of women is almost equal to that of men. I think it’s only a matter of time before the women regain their spot in the kitchen.

To whom, besides yourself, do you owe your career too, and do you want to thank anyone?
My father Juan Mari is responsible for my success, besides me of course: he taught me everything and he has always supported me. He believed in me from the beginning, and he’s my biggest fan!


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