Book review: Arzak + Arzak

16 April 2020 by
Book review: Arzak + Arzak

Few chefs have had such an influence on modern cuisine as San Sebastián-based Juan Mari Arzak.

As Anthony Bourdin noted, "Ferran and Albert Adrià, Martin Berasategui, Andoni Aduriz: these are just a few of the chefs who looked to Arzak as an example of the new possibilities". Those ‘new possibilities' crystallised into molecular gastronomy, but their roots were in the 1970s movement of New Basque Cuisine, headed up by Arzak. So, no Arzak, no El Bulli, Fat Duck or Alinea.

Arzak + Arzak, originally published in Spanish in 2018 and now reissued in an English language edition, tells Juan Mari's story, including his ongoing, decade-long creative collaboration with his daughter Elena, the fourth generation of the family to work in Arzak restaurant since it first opened as a tavern in 1897. With extensive narrative text and some stunning black and white portraiture, the introductory chapters provide background on the day-to-day running of the restaurant, as well as the ongoing processes of Arzak's ‘laboratory' where chefs Xabier Gutiérrez and Igor Zalakain collaborate with the Arzaks to create 50 new dishes a year.

However, the lack of introductions to the often avant-garde recipes is frustrating. Dishes such as symbolic squab (pigeon decorated with variously shaped red cabbage and purple potato tuiles); flaming chickpea stew (a frozen dessert of coffee-flavoured bavarois set in a chickpea-shaped mould and served with cardamom, cocoa and gellan gum ‘rusty nails'), and the frankly bizarre ‘another brick in the chocolate and mustard wall' are baffling when presented without context or explanation.

There are some more mainstream dishes in the book, such as sea bream with nasturtium leaves and crispy crêpe lobster, but make no mistake, this is a Spanish modernist cookbook. Elena Arzak is quoted in the book as saying that, "My biggest challenge is foreseeing the unpredictable taste of people and staying ahead of them". Despite such forward-looking ambition, Arzak + Arzak feels trapped in molecular gastronomy's past.

Arzak + Arzak by Gabriella Ranelli, Xabier Gutiérrez and Igor Zalakain (£30, Grub Street)

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