Elena Arzak is one of Europe’s most celebrated female chefs and among the select few to carry three Michelin stars. She talks to Joanna Wood before making her UK conference debut at the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference in 17 days’ time.
Elena Arzak belongs to one of Spain’s most famous culinary dynasties, the Arzak family. She is the fourth generation of the clan to work at the family restaurant, Arzak, in the Basque city of San Sebastian in northern Spain, and has helped her equally famous father, Juan Mari Arzak, maintain an accolade of three Michelin stars for the past decade.
The tri-star award was gained by Juan Mari in 1987 and it would have been understandable for him to have thought that his daughter could learn all she needed to know in the kitchen at Arzak. But that was not his way. As one of the leaders, along with El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià, of Spain’s modern culinary revolution, which looked beyond national borders for inspiration, he encouraged his daughter to train abroad at places such as Le Gavroche in London; Troisgros in Roanne, France; at Alain Ducasse’s flagship Louis XV in Monte Carlo; Pierre Gagnaire in Paris; and, back home, at El Bulli in Roses.
A pretty impressive line-up: and the skills she learnt on her travels, coupled with her father’s tuition back at Arzak, have enabled her to take up the reins as joint head chef. Here, in San Sebastian, the two of them continue to enhance the Arzak reputation for modern, challenging, interpretations of Basque cuisine with dishes like, “the squid circle” – centred on cooked and tartare squid infused with orange peel, sarsaparilla and ginger.
You are the fourth generation of your family to work in the restaurant. Did you ever think about training in another profession?
When I was a child, my father worked in the restaurant, my grandmother worked in the restaurant, my mother worked in the restaurant. So, for me, it was a natural thing in the summer holidays to work here. I used to do one or two hours a day.
When I finished school, the only thing I knew was the family business – and I liked what I saw. It’s fun here – and I like to cook. The atmosphere was good. So when I was 18 I told my parents that I wanted to study something to do with gastronomy and restaurants. They thought I wasn’t serious but I told them I was. So I went off to hotel school in Germany, because I wanted to go abroad and I could speak German. And I was very happy there.
When choosing to work abroad, why Le Gavroche in London?
For my father and for me, too, the Roux brothers were very, very good. My father knew them, so once I decided to go to England, there was no question of going anywhere else – at that moment in my life, 20 years ago, this was the right place for me.
It was fabulous. I learnt a lot. I liked the respect for produce I saw. I saw British produce, so that was very new for me.
You and your father sum up the qualities of your food at Arzak in the following words: “Basque, research, evolution, vanguard.” Can you explain a little more?
The cuisine is personal, but there is an historic heritage that we subconsciously draw on when we cook. We use local produce but we’re also open to other food cultures and produce and we like to try new techniques. If you ask me what are traditional Basque ingredients, I would say olive oil, garlic and tomato – and we have four basic “colour” sauces. A dark, squid ink sauce; a red pepper sauce (called vizcaina); a white olive oil emulsion sauce (called pil-pil); and a green sauce based on parsley, garlic and either clams or hake.
Tell us about your “Flavour Bank”.
It’s something my father and I set up nine years ago, a “development kitchen” if you want, where we have about 1,500 different ingredients which we use to inspire us and create dishes. We work in it with two of our chefs – Xabier Gutiérrez and Igor Zalakain. We have the ingredients, but we also have a computer on which they are categorised, with notes on their qualities. So, if we have an idea about an ingredient and we want to see what it can match with, then we can look on the computer first.
What inspires you to create a new dish?
Everything! You always have to see the world around you with the eyes of your work. Anything might make me think of a new dish. Old books, a tapas in a bar, just walking down the street at home or on holiday. Once graffiti gave me an idea – to put squid ink in to eggs.
How many new dishes, on average, do you create each year for Arzak?
We do about 40 new plates a year. As with other professions where you create, you have to experiment a lot to get small results. You make, make, make, make – and one thing leads to another.
For instance, you may start with a flavour combination and use it in an ice-cream but when it’s made, you decide you don’t like the texture, so you move the flavours on to another thing. We did this once with avocado and raspberry – we made an ice-cream but didn’t like the texture, it worked much better as a sauce.
Have you ever had any real disasters when you are creating a new dish?
Often, but as I said, that’s part of the process. And sometimes you discover things by accident. We found out accidentally, for instance, that coconut juice intensifies the flavour of carrots; that if you put peanuts with tuna, they intensify the flavour of the fish.
Is it easy to work with your father?
Yes! I’m very lucky because he’s very open-minded. He’s always told me, “Elena, if you want to make something, you make it”. So if I have an idea for a dish, I’ll say to him, “look, I want to put this with this and this”. And he might then say, “I like the idea, but how about this sauce”. He does the same with me.
We work in tandem and have great respect for each other. The respect is very important. You must always hear what the other person says, because it’s always to improve the dish.
Did you eat any traditional British food when you worked in London?
The Roux family taught me about British produce and also introduced me to some traditional British dishes. Things such as black pudding and pies; I adore pies, especially shepherd’s pie. I really liked the intense flavour of oxtail soup, too. And I love bread and butter pudding; I still cook it at home – all my family like it. Yorkshire pudding I found very curious, but I took back the idea of mint sauce and lamb. You are used to the combination in England but in Spain we don’t know it – and now we do our own style of mint sauce at Arzak.
Can you tell us about the dish you will be demonstrating at the Chef Conference?
I’m going to do Intxaursaltsa con Lombarda Mutante – a dessert based on intxaursaltsa [a Basque dessert made of nuts] and a soup of blue cabbage.
How important do you think it is to have some excitement or theatre at the table when you present a dish to your customers?
It’s very important because it gives emotion to the meal. But the theatre must never outshine, or detract, from the food itself.
Do you listen to music in the Arzak kitchen?
No. I like to focus on the food without any background distraction.
What do you do to relax away from work?
Eat out! And travel. I don’t really have much time away from Arzak. For me the restaurant is my life.
Elena Arzak will be co-hosting a culinary masterclass at the 2009 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference alongside Angela Hartnett. The conference takes place on 28 September at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel in London. For more information, or to book your place, visit www.chefconference.co.uk.