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This much I know: Elena Arzak

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Written by:
This much I know: Elena Arzak

The joint head chef of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Arzak in San  Sebastían, Spain, talks to Fiona Sims about offering a high-tech dining experience and the gastronomic wisdom that comes with age

People’s tastes have changed and the kitchen has to change with them. We don’t cook like we did 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago – we cook for today. And  today people want to eat more vegetables, more fish and less meat. We keep a close eye on society, try to understand people better, and we draw inspiration from everything around us – from the internet, from art, from the stuff happening on the streets, from social situations and from travel. Especially travel.

It’s important to be open to other cultures – you can be inspired by them. You can still do that without losing your own identity. Travelling is important to me – it’s stimulating. I went to Istanbul for the first time last year and the food was incredible – the lamb dishes, in particular, stood out. I ate a kebab and I was like “wow”. Before that, I was in South Africa. The fish they have there are amazing, and I tasted some wild vegetables that grow only there, that are used for seasoning, which intrigued me. It’s important to keep discovering new things.

I’m interested in offering a multi-sensory dining experience. We work with Samsung to produce moving images for a couple of the dishes we do, such as the  scarlet prawn with krill, which is served on an iPad playing a movie of waves crashing on the shore. We have plenty of high-tech gadgets to play with in the  kitchen, and they do help us to get results, but these mustn’t be the focus on the
plate. Technology should be there to help you – to give something new to the finished dish.

I like that some of the plates we serve have a message. The most dramatic we have on the menu at the moment is ‘Chocolate Bang’, which is a chocolate pistol with a blackcurrant filling. Our development chef, Xavi  Gutierrez, loves film noir and thrillers, so we decided to make a plate remembering 1970s gangsters.

Another course we offer is served on a crushed beer can [the black pudding with  beer and mango]. We’re not trying to preach to people, rather just reminding them that they have a responsibility to recycle. We play with lots of bold colours,  too – green is a bit of a theme. We Basques love intense colours. I think that’s because we are generally pretty happy people.

Inspiration for our dishes comes from many areas. Each of our chefs has a different approach, but I think it’s important to read a lot. I read magazines, books and scour the internet, in many languages. I read a recipe in a 19th-century cookbook the other day that combined marrow and artichoke, and I adapted it and served it with red mullet – and everyone loved it. You need to be constantly researching.

I don’t change dishes on the menu for the sake of it – I do it because I want to change it. If I don’t, then I feel lazy. I need to work; it’s my way of being. I do still feel the pressure sometimes, because you need to get results. But I have learned to relax more over the years.

It’s important to admit to yourself when ideas just don’t work. When I was younger, I sometimes didn’t recognise when a dish wasn’t working – it’s an illness of the young. Not now though; now I’m very critical – if I don’t like it, it’s
gone. But I don’t think that everything is better now than before. You should accept and make the most of each period in your life. When you’re middle-aged, you’re middle-aged. Would I be 20 years old again? No way. I’m very happy being 47 years old.

I like to keep my home and work life separate – I can’t concentrate otherwise. I love being with my children and my husband, but they don’t travel with me very often. I’m teaching my kids, who are 10 and 11, how to cook. Not to become chefs, you understand – just the basics. I want them to learn at their own pace and I  want them to have these tools, so they can be healthy. I want them to have this heritage.

The ultimate luxury for me is to be quiet. I don’t do any sport, but I’ll go for a walk. On Monday mornings, when there is no one else around, I’ll walk around  Mount Urgull. I’m very quiet at home. I love to read – about gastronomy, mostly – but novels, too.

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