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Chefs behind the chefs – Elena Arzak and Sergio Sanz Blanco

30 May 2014 by
Chefs behind the chefs – Elena Arzak and Sergio Sanz Blanco

Elena Arzak, chef-patron of the three-Michelin starred Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain, and Sergio Sanz Blanco, her head chef at Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in London's Halkin hotel, have known each other for six years. Tom Vaughan reports In association with Sergio Sanz Blanco

Elena Arzak, chef-patron, Arzak and Ametsa with Arzak Instruction

From the very start, he was always asking questions, looking around, staying late. When Como Hotels contacted us about the possibility of opening in London, we liked their philosophy and the fact it was a small, intimate hotel. We had been asked many times to open abroad, but it had never been right.

We decided many years ago to set up Arzak Instruction with myself, my father [Juan Mari Arzak], Xabier [Gutierrez], Igor [Zalakain] and Mikel [Sorazu], who travels a lot and does much of the advising. This is consulting, but in a very serious way. We don't like to promise something we can't achieve elsewhere as we know we can't always be there.

We needed a head chef and we knew and liked Sergio, so we suggested to him that he applied: "You know Arzak, you know the philosophy, you are the perfect person," we said. He made the application and got the job. Before Ametsa opened, he came and worked with us at Arzak for six months. He has worked at some fantastic restaurants - El Bulli and Drolma in Barcelona - and when he was prepping to open Ametsa he quickly started to search for and test British produce.

He is very focused on using local produce and spices, and he is often on Skype showing us an ingredient he has found. His use of spices makes me think in a different way. He uses pickles, which are not so common in our cooking, but are fantastic, and then there is the quality of the shellfish he can get here.

It is important for us that everyone is open to constructive criticism. Mikel comes out to London to advise, and I come out when I can. We know everything that happens here - when the menus change they always inform us and we are always in touch. We feel really comfortable here.

We knew Sergio could do it out here, even though it was his first head chef role. This is not Arzak - Arzak has existed since 1897. This is a new place and Sergio has so many ideas. If there is a dish of mine where my father doesn't like something, or a dish of my father's where I don't like something, that is about
being a good chef and listening - it is the only way you can improve. The lamb with beer dish he does here we don't have in Arzak, but it is a very Arzak dish.

We also have an Arzak way in the kitchen. There, it is like family - the pastry chef has known me since I was eight, and one waitress has known me since I was born. Every time I come here, it's a similar atmosphere; the same faces. You can't work well if you don't feel comfortable and Sergio's kitchen feels
comfortable. Even now, Sergio still comes back to Arzak to work for a few days during his holidays.

Sergio Sanz Blanco, executive head chef, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction
I was a sous chef at the Villa Magna hotel in Madrid when I wrote to Arzak and asked if I could watch them in the kitchen. There are so many chefs there - about 30 in total - and I was just watching and taking notes. I wanted to develop, to keep learning, to feel as comfortable in a three-star kitchen as I do in my house.

When I was a sous chef in Madrid it was a big hotel and I did a lot of head chef work - paperwork, for example. Then Elena and Juan said I should apply for this position. For me, it felt like destiny. I was ready for something different after five years in Madrid, I knew Arzak well, and I liked Como Hotels.

It was not always easy - a different country, a different language, different markets, different produce. I don't love the weather here, but there is so much to discover. We don't have things like kale and meat radish over in San SebastiÁ¡n - you can imagine what it is like for me to be able to show them something
on Skype and they get excited and ask me to send it over!

I have absolute freedom over the menu - they have enough confidence in me. It is a balance between my style and Arzak's - you can taste the difference between them. It is difficult to ever be completely separate - I couldn't imagine Ametsa without Arzak. If I want to try a new dish or new flavour I am comfortable to try it out in advance and show them.

When I started at Arzak I was impressed with how many chefs they had there and the ambience in the kitchen. Everyone felt important and a part of the project. It is what I try to do here - make it important for chefs to have ideas and opinions, to be open to change and criticism and to manage people's feedback.

Elena and Sergio on England v Spain

"Spanish and English tastes are very similar," says Sergio. "They both like sweet desserts and good fish and good meat cooked well - although Brits like a bit more cooking. They love the big flavours that Basque cooking has, but they can be healthier and want lots of steamed vegetables - something that is uncommon in Spain."

The first international outpost of Arzak has influenced its alma mater in this way, says Elena: "Now we use lots more vegetables at Arzak, but still not as much as here, where it is very healthy and I like that. What really marks the cooking here is the produce - the lamb here tastes different to the lamb in Spain, so you
have to cook it a different way. And like Spain, the British like their food to be a bit playful. The most important thing is the flavour, but it allows you to be a little bit playful in a serious way."

The pair are also in awe of the diversity of the London restaurant scene and its diners' tastes: "There are so many cultures together here," says Elena. "In San SebastiÁ¡n we use spices, but we must adapt them to the Basque culture. People here like spice much, much more than we do."

Elena and Sergio on winning a Michelin star

After barely being open six months, Ametsa picked up the coveted award of one star when the Michelin Guide was published in September 2013 - which even took the team by surprise: "I was working here at breakfast when the general manager came in and hugged me," says Sergio.

"I couldn't understand why, and he told me, but I still didn't understand him. I asked him to repeat it and then I realised. I went into the kitchen and started crying. It was a shock for me and a shock for the young staff - it was the first time in their lives and the first time in mine that it had happened. We tried to stay
calm and just continue what we were doing."

The remainder of the Arzak team were in San SebastiÁ¡n: "We didn't expect it at all, not in the first year," says Elena. "But we were so happy for Sergio and the team. This star is for everybody. To open a restaurant here is never easy, especially in the beginning - you need time to settle in and to make mistakes because they help you learn. We were so proud and because we didn't expect it, the happiness was double. We tried to ring, but the switchboard was full and it took hours to get through."

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