The wonder of Arzak

Restaurants are fickle things with short life spans. Even the most successful often close at their peak. But, in this world, Arzak Restaurant in Spain’s San Sebastián has been a constant since it was established in 1897.

And what is more remarkable is that, four generations later, it is still in the Arzak family’s hands and has held a prestigious three Michelin stars since 1989.

Today, the latest generation of Arzaks in the kitchen is Elena, who works in tandem with her father, Juan Mari Arzak. Elena Arzak, who recently visited Australia to cook for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, is in an exclusive club as one of the highest ranked female chefs in the world.

Like Juan Mari, Elena worked in the kitchen as a youngster during school holidays, together with her older sister. “We used to go in the summer holidays to help my grandmother, my aunt, my parents. And for us, this was normal. Only, we worked two hours per day. We helped a little bit.”

There were several turning points that cemented the restaurant’s position. More recently, one of these was Elena’s grandparents, Juan Ramon Arzak and his wife Francisca Arratibel, taking over the tavern and serving proper meals, simple stews and meals cooked with seasonal, local produce.

In 1959, when Juan Mari was nine years old, his father died, but his mother continued to run the hotel and restaurant. She worked hard and with passion – something instilled in the Arzak blood – and continued to do so when Juan Mari joined her in the kitchen in 1966.

But the most important step was the creation, by Juan Mari in 1975, of a movement called “new Basque cuisine” – a reaction to the nouvelle cuisine from France.

The new Basque cuisine movement had its own spin on modern food, with Basque flavours and refined versions of traditional rustic dishes. It led to the growth of modern-style Basque cuisine, made with novel ingredients and techniques that are common today in the high-end restaurants and tapas bars of San Sebastián.

Juan Mari allowed Elena (who joined the restaurant full time in 1985) to flourish as a chef. “He’s very open-minded and, since the very beginning, he encouraged me: ‘Elena, make me something, what you want. Don’t worry.’ I had the opportunity always to make things,” she says. “Of course, in the beginning, he corrected me a lot.”

Arzak says that their signature food embodies the spirit of Basque’s culture. In their meals, they capture everything from the fruits of the shore and the sea – oysters, mussels, clams, hake, cod, monkfish and more – through to the adventurous spirit of the fiercely regional Basque people.

Their cooking reflects the Basque region and San Sebastián, but also combines new and innovative ingredients, which are kept in the flavour library among some 1,500 different ingredients on the first floor of the Arzak building.

“When we cook, we have in the mind, unconsciously … a code of flavours,” she says. “This code of flavours is different to yours, but it doesn’t mean that ours is better than yours or Australia. It’s different.”

Food is the result of culture and history. “So here [in Australia] as well, where you are born, you grow up with a taste that you are used to. The Basque, we like, for example, garlic, parsley. We add parsley to almost all the plates. Why? Because we like parsley.”

“We are open to all [cuisines] because we like travelling. This is why we like so much Australian food, for example.”(The Arzaks hold special praise for Aussie chefs and their friend Tetsuya Wakuda.)

The Arzaks are cultural magpies, bringing the best the world has to offer back to their kitchen. Their cuisine features the tandoori oven from India, mole sauces from Mexico (and the Canary Islands), lemon myrtle from Australia, and ideas from Vietnam.

They were once given green rice from Vietnam and didn’t know what to do with it. It sparked an idea, built on the beloved local ingredient parsley. Arzak explains: “We took the white rice, we [made] a juice of the parsley, we add a little bit to the white rice, and it looks green like the Vietnamese rice … It was an inspiration but at the end, we made the Basque flavour.”

The Arzaks combine a finesse of ingredients, modern techniques, and traditional Basque cuisine. They use colour and texture, and have even developed prototype serving plates, which affect the dining experience with light.

Arzak says that it is very important to balance innovation with tradition, and excellent produce is very important in the Basque country. “To make a good plate, first of all, the product has to be excellent.”

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