The chef who likes to do more with less

Elena Arzak has been voted the world's best female cook by 'Restaurant' magazine Her and her father talk candidly about her past and the influence each has had on the other

Elena Arzak, who has been voted best female chef by Restaurant magazine.
Elena Arzak, who has been voted best female chef by Restaurant magazine.JORDI SOCÍAS (EL PAÍS)

San Sebastián has seen a lot of rain since a young twentysomething called Elena Arzak came up with a dish called Ttonttor de bonito, a tuna salad of sorts, which would become her first personal recipe. Then came the Sorta de cigalas, or "bundle of prawns," "which we still put on the menu from time to time," says Juan Mari Arzak, Elena's father and mentor.

One might say that the world's best female chef - according to the prize awarded this year by Restaurant magazine - began her professional journey with the tuna dish and progressed to... steak and potatoes. Of course, we're not talking about regular steak and potatoes, but rather a sea bass fillet - humor also plays a role in the world of haute cuisine. A "steak and potatoes" on the menu of a restaurant with three Michelin stars - now that's chutzpah.

"It's just that I like taking risks and using humor in my cooking, and when people read about the steak they always look puzzled; they certainly don't expect to get a very subtle fish that's been marinated at the last minute with various mojos [hot sauces], with a side dish of potatoes that are reminiscent of fish skin and come in several different colors. The truth is, we were scared of serving this particular dish, but nobody's complained yet," says Elena Arzak, 42.

The days go by in this fashion at Alto de Vinagres, the sanctuary of the Arzak family, located near Mount Igueldo in San Sebastián - the only city apart from Paris to boast three restaurants with three Michelin stars, one of which is the Arzak family's restaurant, established in 1897. Several generations of Arzaks have helmed an establishment that Juan Mari took to the highest level with his new brand of Basque cuisine, paving the way for other chefs to follow in his footsteps.

Last year, Juan Mari Arzak received Restaurant magazine's Lifetime Achievement award. Now, his daughter Elena has received the Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef award for her "constantly evolving, cutting-edge, research-based approach to cooking and experimentation with flavors." Meanwhile, their restaurant ranked eighth on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list yet again (two other Spanish restaurants ranked on the top 10).

"Our way of thinking entails always staying true to ourselves," explains Elena. "Of course this prize is a jolt of positive energy, and it tells you you're on the right track. But cooking, just like real life, cannot stop, and I need to keep being myself, because I look at so many other Basque and Spanish chefs who have received awards and they're still out there, as though nothing had happened, and I figure I have to do the same thing. The prize gives me great joy, but it won't change my life... Besides, the people working around me would not let my ego get out of control - they'd put me back in my place double quick!"

This prize is a jolt of positive energy and it says we're on the right track"

These are strange days at the Arzak restaurant. Reporters from every kind of publication - from the regional daily El Diario Vasco and the BBC, to the hard-nosed food critics of The Financial Times - have invaded the peaceful if fast-paced routine of Elena Arzak Espina, the daughter of Juan Mari and Maite. She is to be found at the family home, standing among the pots, the pans and the aprons, cooking up ideas to create a glorious dish - or maybe not, since everyone is entitled to make mistakes. "And that's what the customer is there for, too, to tell you that you made a mistake."

And she has made mistakes. But if mistakes are something that we can learn from, then they deserve as prominent a place on Elena Arzak's résumé as her Restaurant award does. In fact, they do: she has no problem talking about those far-off days, when she was 29 and had just returned from an intensive and demanding period of international training at the Schwezerische Hotelfachschule in Lucerne, the Hôtel International in Zurich, the Hôtel National in Lucerne, and classic establishments such as Gavroche, Troisgros, Carré des Feuillants, Vivarois, Louis XV, Antica Osteria del Ponte di Cassinetta, elBulli, Pierre Gagnaire and more. She came back to the family business and found herself floundering.

"I had a real crisis of style when I returned to San Sebastián after being abroad for six years; I had a Molotov cocktail inside my head what with all the things I'd seen and learned; I didn't know which way to turn, and I started creating a series of dishes that failed, because I used elements that people here don't like, such as laurel, coconut and so on... Then one day I said to myself, 'All right then, let's see how this really works,' and I asked to spend the next two years working in each area of the restaurant. That gave me a new vision. Later I read quite a few books on Basque and Spanish cooking. And all that started to produce ideas..."

Back then, in the late 1990s, Elena Arzak loved just about everything that her father made. At the time, Juan Mari Arzak was already one of the world's greatest chefs. But there was one thing she disliked: "I saw that his dishes were made up of a great many elements, and I wanted to simplify that, to clear the brush, to eliminate, to do more with less. That posed a great challenge, and it triggered my second creative crisis. Even though I'm a laid-back person, I'm pretty impatient. By the way, I'm also very neat and orderly, and perhaps in this line of work it's better to be less so..."

I had a style crisis when I came to San Sebastián after being abroad for six years"

In the mid-1970s, a group of chefs from the Basque province of Gipuzkoa embarked on a new way of doing things, and in a short period of time this effort resulted in a new concept known as New Basque Cuisine. Arzak, Arguiñano, Subijana, Fombellida, Castillo, Roteta and Irízar were not yet aware of the revolution they were cooking up in Spanish cuisine; years later, the revolution was continued by people such as Berasategui, Aduriz, Arbelaitz and others, who insisted on bringing together tradition and innovation. Elena Arzak says that she is a huge fan of all of them.

New Basque Cuisine could be summed up, grosso modo, as product + evolution + foreign influence - in some cases, markedly French. This attack on, or modification of, traditional cooking was viewed by some professionals of purism as sacrilege in a land where eating is a secular religion whose ultimate goal is pleasure. Elena Arzak has clear ideas about this.

"The eternal debate between supporters and detractors of avant-garde cuisine suggests only one thing to me: that cooking is alive. Can you imagine if we all cooked the same way, how boring that would be?"

At this point, our conversation is interrupted by an ear-splitting whoop that comes out of Juan Mari's cellphone: it is an irrintzi - a popular Basque cry of celebration - that serves as his ringtone. The visitors jump out of their chairs, but the restaurant personnel seem completely unfazed, accustomed as they are to their boss' idiosyncrasies.

I'm very neat and orderly - in this line of work it's better to be less so"

Juan Mari Arzak talks about "minimalism" to define his daughter's style, and indeed she worries herself half to death about eliminating everything that's superfluous from a dish - about taking off rather than adding on. Her entire training helped shape this view, but there is no doubt that her apprentice period at elBulli changed her forever: "It was the place that changed my way of seeing things and my vision of cooking. Ferran Adrià had a real impact on me - meeting him represents a before and an after."

In a sign of the times, the relationship between celebrity chefs and their clients has undergone a real metamorphosis. There were always anonymous experts who were able to distinguish between a good pil-pil and a bad pil-pil - a traditional cod dish with olive oil, garlic and hot pepper - but these days the expertise of diners has reached a whole new level.

"The customer is no longer passive; he seeks, he finds, he contributes things, he makes suggestions, he corrects you, and if you see that a good customer doesn't make any suggestions, then you're dead. And we're human, so we make mistakes. All of us," she says.

In his latest book, La civilización del espectáculo, Mario Vargas Llosa questions whether disciplines such as fashion or cuisine, no matter how interesting or pleasurable, should really be included in the culture pages of newspapers. Is haute cuisine culture? That depends. Can extraordinary dishes from an esthetic point of view such as Tras las huellas del corzo (On the roe deer's trail), Crómlech y cebolla con té y café (Cromlech and onion with tea and coffee) or Tortilla fea de chocolate (Ugly chocolate omelet) evoke expressionist painting? Perhaps so. Are too many snobbish excesses being committed in the name of haute cuisine? That may also be the case.

New Basque Cuisine could be summed up as product, evolution and foreign influence

"What's obvious is that there are certain disciplines that develop a high degree of creativity and which can seem new compared with what is usually considered to be culture," Elena explains. "I think that cuisine is one of these disciplines. Should it be considered art? I don't know. I think that only time and people will tell. I see how there might be some confusion regarding the issue of whether cooking is culture or not. Look at Ferran Adrià: he went to the Kassel Documenta because he was considered an artist, but that doesn't mean that all chefs are artists; I certainly am not, nor do I aspire to be."

Once again, the father of the world's best female chef jumps in, using rather different language. "OK, so everyone can say whatever they want and everyone has their own opinion and so forth. But if Ferran was asked to be part of Documenta, which is one of the best contemporary art fairs in the world, then I figure that means he is considered an artist, don't you think? Having said that, anyone who goes around saying 'I am an artist' is plain dumb. That's for others to say; those who know about these things! Not all writers or all painters are artists, are they? And if they ask us, we say we don't know. Look, we're chefs."

"Yes, aita ["Dad" in Basque], but...," Elena says.

"Wait, let me finish! And cooking should be a university degree, on the same level as medicine or architecture."

Imagine if we all cooked the same way - how boring would that be?"

"Why is that?" she asks.

"Well, because everything evolves," her father replies. "Look, in the old days there were bricklayers, and later they became architects; there were petriquillos [rural doctors without formal medical training] who later became physicians. And cuisine has been evolving since the Paleolithic Age, since it occurred to someone to cook and roast meat, all the way up to our days."

Until when will this perfectly oiled culinary tandem, which has been together for two decades already, keep working this well (notwithstanding the odd fight)?

"You cannot really talk about Elena's cooking and Juan Mari's cooking," says Juan Mari. "You have to talk about Arzak's cooking. She does things, I give her ideas, she accepts them or not, I do things, she gives me ideas, I accept them or not, and that's the way we work," says Juan Mari.

You brought me modernity, and I gave you experience," says Elena's father

"I've always prepared dishes together with my father, and it's still that way," adds Elena. "And none of this would work, of course, without our team, or without many hours of research," adds her father.

But is it conceivable that the daughter will slowly become independent from the father? How long will Juan Mari and Elena Arzak work hand in hand, like a two-headed chef?

"For as long as I can," says Juan Mari.

Is that it? Is that the limit?

"And until she says 'enough'."

Does Elena agree with that?

"I agree because nowadays I could not conceive working without him. That doesn't mean that he has to be next to me all my life. But... let's see, Dad, how can I explain the way that I need you?"

"Dammit, you brought me modernity, and I gave you experience..."

"Yes, but I jumped on a moving train. Without my father - and my mother, of course - and this team, I wouldn't be here."

And what about the rest of the family? Manu, Elena's husband, is finishing up his meal inside the tiny dining room in the restaurant kitchen, where all of Arzak's collaborators and a chosen few get to eat. "Yes, I can say that I eat at Arzak every day!" he laughs. "But above all I eat here so I can see Elena for a while, because otherwise we don't see each other all day long. Actually, sometimes even if I come, I still don't get to see her."

It is Manu who is in charge of most of the housework and of raising their two kids, Nora, who is seven, and five-year-old Mateo. The best female chef in the world is aware of the price she must pay to occupy her spot on the podium of gastronomy. "They've never confronted me about it, and the other day, when we found out about the award, my son jumped up and yelled, 'Amá, amá [Mom, mom]! They gave us a prize!' It was as though it was everybody's award, and it is."

It has certainly rained a lot on this spot, ever since the days when the neighborhood locals used to stroll over to the Arzak tavern for a glass of wine. Over a century has passed since José María Arzak Etxabe and Escolástica Lete, Juan Mari Arzak's grandparents, built the family home outside San Sebastián. Later, Juan Ramón Arzak and Francisca Arratibel turned it into an eating establishment that eventually became a popular place to celebrate weddings and christenings. Later still, Juan Mari Arzak and his ex-wife Maite Espina decided that they had a culinary legacy to pass on. That legacy is named Elena Arzak.

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