A chef’s food is not the only testament to their talent. According to Chef Elena Arzak these days it encompasses their involvement in issues outside the realm of their kitchen. The world famous chef heads the kitchen of the three Michelin star Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián with her father Juan Mari.
I recently spent time with her during the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants in Melbourne, Australia. Having known her over the years I have to acknowledge that she is very real, without a trace of ego and always curious to explore. One night after the Chef Talks we took a circuitous route to find a bar opened by a San Sebastián expat in the city and a few great laughs.
A few months ago we laughed over her young sons adventures as we walked the underground cisterns in Istanbul. However when she is up on stage in front of audiences at Gastronomika, Madrid Fusion, or recently at Gastromasa in Turkey, her passion and respect for her work is easily discernible.
Her interest and curiosity for use of Indian spices often leads to conversations about cooking as something we both share as chefs. As any guest to Arzak concur every guest is warmly welcomed and sometimes even sent off at the door by her. Loved and respected by her peers around the world she is an inspiration to women in the culinary industry.
One of my many conversations with her was recently published on The Daily Meal.
Chef Elena Arzak And Her Family Legacy
by Geeta Bansal
On a Saturday afternoon in the Arzak Restaurant in San Sebastián as the sounds of laughter and conviviality filled the dining room, I was struck by what differentiates it from other temples of haute cuisine. The restaurant was alive filled with the joyous sounds of local families and guests of all ages in striking contrast to most other three Michelin starred establishments. Usually the only audible sounds at such luxe restaurants are the hushed whispers of diners and servers, the clink of glasses and silver at the table or subdued piped music playing in the background. When I asked chef Elena Arzak about it she said, “This is how we ourselves are as a family and that is picked up by guests many of whom have been coming here through a few generations.”
Elena Arzak shares the head chef responsibilities at Arzak with her father Juan Mari Arzak. Following three generations of cooks in her family, the petite powerhouse of a chef is expanding the boundaries of cuisine of her beloved Basque region while incorporating influences, flavors, and spices from other cultures. On my last visit, she was charged up about her Cleopatra monkfish plate with Egyptian hieroglyphics made of pumpkin and chickpea puree. There is often a tongue-in-cheek humor in her whimsical plates that reflect her own lively personality. Her love for cuisine goes back to her childhood when during summer break she was allowed in the restaurant kitchen for two hours every day. Those afternoons led to a lifelong passion for the creative processes in a kitchen. The entire family including her grandmother, aunt, and father, all chefs, and her mother who took care of the front of the house worked in the restaurant in which she spent most of her childhood. Given her passion for gastronomy it was inevitable that she would follow in their footsteps.
The restaurant is still located in the family home where her father was born and grew up and where she lived as a child with her family. The family has since moved out to make room for the expansive wine cellar, the R&D kitchens and offices, but she has very fond memories of those years. She said, “There are two things that I remember the most. The first is when I was a very young child maybe five or six I smelt the aromas of food the moment I entered the restaurant but every Sunday that I would come in the smells were different. I especially remember the smell of squid and that of the first mushrooms that arrived in the kitchen. One thing I remember distinctly that even when the smells were intense they were very clean and I have never forgotten them.”
“Another vivid memory is of playing in this very dining room, waiting for my mother or my father to get me when the guests arrived since I was only allowed to play while there were no guests. I would hide under the tables with my dolls and pretend that under the tablecloth draped tables was my own little house. I remember once I left one of my dolls under the table and the next day I was told that one of the guests found it.”
On my last visit, I walked into the kitchen to find Anthony Bourdain’s crew filming an episode for his show’s Spain episode with Juan Mari. With cameras underfoot the kitchen team, led by Elena, worked frantically to send out food into the dining room. I escaped up the back stairs into calm of the recently remodeled research kitchen and spice room. A comprehensive collection of spices and ingredients from every corner of the world lines the shelves of the Banco de Sabores and they figure prominently in dishes on the ever-changing menu at Arzak. A few months ago, I explored the spice market of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul with her where she was in her element with her adventurous spirit and passion for exotic spices.
After tasting a dessert on the menu with distinct taste of cloves and coconut, I was tempted to ask if her interest in spices had deepened over the years and if she found herself playing with bolder favors. She said, “Yes it’s true I do and find I take more risks now. I was just as much of a risk taker in my twenties and then became more restrained for a while and now I am back to it. You cannot have one style as a chef forever and your style changes though the base stays the same. I want to have different experiences with food. I notice over the years there are a lot of places that I haven’t visited yet and now I want to travel and explore more.”
Her culinary education took her to Switzerland after finishing high school and for six years she traveled and worked with many great chefs such as Michel Roux, Michel Troisgros, Pierre Gagnaire, Claude Peyrot, Alain Ducasse, and Ferran Adria. Her language studies were no doubt an asset since she speaks Spanish, German, French, English and of course Euskara the language of the Basque Country. Her life revolves around her family, her husband Manu Lamos an architect, daughter Nora, son Matteo, and her parents and sister Martha who after studying art history and is the Director of Education at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
The Arzak restaurant has held three Michelin stars since 1989 and was voted #21 in 2016 by the World’s 50 Best Academy. Not just food lovers, but also chefs from different parts of the globe make it their first stop in San Sebastián, for the food as well as to visit with Juan Mari Arzak and pay their respects. At seventy-four, he is still at the restaurant with Elena everyday overseeing the kitchen and feeding friends and family at the table in the kitchen.
Elena has been the recipient of many awards and accolades including Chef de L’ Avenir, the Swedish Seafood award, the Best Female Chef of the World from the 50 Best Academy in 2012, and numerous others. She also serves on the technical committee of the Basque Culinary Center’s World Prize. In any gathering of chefs, the affection and respect her peers hold for her is evident while her infectious laughter makes it easy to locate her among the throngs. Lately her duties and responsibilities at the restaurant have increased as her father gradually steps back confident that she will continue to carry forth the family legacy.
Your legacy and the family: A privilege or a responsibility?
For me it’s a privilege because it’s not just a legacy but respect. It’s a matter of huge pride for me and the reason I joined this business in addition to the fact that I like this atmosphere. I grew up seeing my grandmother, father and mother invested in this business. I imbibed the values from several generations which are very important for me. Even now I can hear my grandmother’s words and advice and I revisit them again and again.
No doubt I have a huge responsibility because the name Arzak has a well-known history and is famous in the culinary industry. It does exert pressure but sometimes such pressure helps you work harder and strive to be better. Without such pressure, you can get by without trying to excel so I feel you always need some pressure. As for me I am following the story of my family and the evolution with great pride.
You have the persona of an accomplished chef, you are a daughter of the house, a mother, wife a sister but underneath all these layers who is Elena Arzak?
I am very much my own person with my own personality and I am happy to be all these things to everyone but I am Elena first. A person from the Pays Vasque, who likes to be around people. I find people and I should say most everyone interesting. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they do. I like to interact with different kinds of people and one thing about me that I can say is that I am a very positive person.
I feel that life is not as complicated as we make it sometimes. I always find life to be interesting with many things around to discover. As a very practical person I don’t get upset or aggravated about inconsequential things. My opinion is that we should try to keep things simple without unnecessary complications. I view food in the same way and I am usually quiet unless I’m around people I know. Always active but always willing to listen as that is what people who know me will often say about me.
Once people enter your circle they are usually there to say because of your friendly personality. Have you always been good about bonding or building relationships?
Always, even at school or with friends all I want is to make life agreeable as much as possible. Of course I realize I have been privileged in my life and career but I still have problems like anyone else. As for problems, I realize that there are many people with far more serious problems than I could ever face. There is a lot of suffering and more serious problems like hunger in the world. I do work very hard and very for long hours but compared to many others I am very fortunate.
It’s an attitude, isn’t it?
It certainly is and I can never stop working this way. I think there are many people in very bad situations so I can never complain and I feel no one should.
There is so much conversation these days about the pressure and stress on people in the industry, about them getting burnt out. What is your opinion about this?
I grew up never hearing my grandmother complain and she never took a day off. She didn’t take any vacations while we are very lucky these days that we get to take break or time off. Of course there are many things that we can improve in the kitchens to make them better work places. For our teams, we make schedules in such a way to enable them to work in an agreeable atmosphere, take time off with family. However, gastronomy is gastronomy and it comes with those pressures. It’s not that I like them but sometimes we need that pressure in the middle of service in the kitchen or dining room to work better. Things improve with time as they have from my grandmother’s time who never went out of the restaurant whereas I go on holidays and travel.
I think we can improve many things by learning about organization. If chefs are well-organized like we chefs mostly are, but there is always more room for improvement. Of course there are long hours in this business but there are many other professions with such hours.
You are a very creative person. How important is freedom of expression to someone like you?
It’s very important for all humans since we all have the capacity to be creative. For me that creative capacity is in cooking and all human beings through time have always shown this creativity in their cooking. It was in the mix of all cultures so for me this creative freedom and contact with other people is very significant. When I was younger I remember I had no compunctions about expressing my creativity. Now I am older and more restrained but I still have that freedom of expression. A ten-year-old child is very honest with sharing their opinions unlike older people. I like to ask young children what they would like to eat and they are never shy in answering. They are not conscious of what they say and as we get older we lose that. I feel we should be able to share and express freely at any age. To express your self is not so easy, specially for chefs. I learnt to express myself by saying Elena, stop think and express what you want to say in very simple words.
You are always so positive. How do you handle negativity or criticism?
I learned from my father how to deal with those situations. Of course like any one I get sad when someone says something that I don’t like. Honestly I react very positively because I feel in order to progress and go far you need to be willing to accept criticism. There are two kinds of criticisms one is positive and the other destructive. I feel you need to be able to handle all the positive criticism as long as you teach yourself how to differentiate between the two. If you start to believe that you are the best of the best, then it is not good for your progress. We all make mistakes and if for instance you get a comment like it was very good but not salty enough then it simply means that the seasoning needs adjustment.
If you had gone out on your own instead of joining the family restaurant and your father would your life path have been very different?
Looking at it one way I would say yes. Then it would have been more of myself or me but on the other hand it would have been just as busy and hectic as it is now.
As for having gone out on my own I cannot imagine my life away from this restaurant. For me coming here is like coming to the dining room or living room of my own home. I see the same faces, personnel and staff who have been here a long time. Even when we change the decor there are small details like the doors leading into the dining room which are very old. For me they are the same doors from 40 years ago, and when I look at them I feel time has not changed and I am in the same home.
You and your father are consulting on Ametsa in London. Have you ever wanted to open more restaurants?
As we spoke about once earlier chef’s these days have become famous and are like celebrities now. We do get a lot of proposals to consult or open restaurants not because of our fame but because they like our food. Chefs need to know for themselves what they want and in the case of our family we can do consulting with our team called Arzak Instruction and we have a few such projects right now.
There are others who can do more projects or open restaurants it is all a personal preference and attitude. It’s a personality that certain chef’s have to do these multiple projects. I respect the chef’s who do because they have the capacity for it. If we were all the same it will be very uninteresting.
Where do you see yourself five ten years from now?
Not much will change or be different except I will cook differently for sure. If you look back ten years from this point it was all so different even in Arzak. When I look at pictures of food twenty years ago, I am amazed. In those days we thought we were super modern and when I look at those pictures I feel nostalgic but also realize it was a very old fashioned way of cooking compared to right now.
You are always so busy working and your family is used to that, but do you build in time for yourself in your schedule?
I know there are times when I miss important events of my family. I feel the transmission of values in my case affects how I view these things. I always think of my parents who are so proud and convinced about what I am doing and hence my desire to maintain that pride.
My husband and my children know and understand that there are times when I cannot be there but when I can I am always with them. I look at it from the point of quality over quantity of time I spend with them.
There are instances, such as when my daughter who plays piano has a recital or concert at school, when I cannot go but thanks to my husband who videos it on his phone for me. I am thankful for the technology that allows me to watch those moments when my son is participating in a theatrical performance. Of course they always ask, “Mama can you come?” and if I can’t as is usually the case I tell them I will be there in spirit.
The amusing thing is if they ask where I am going and I say to the restaurant then all is well but if I say I am going to the cinema then right away it’s “and we?”
As you observe the younger generation of cooks emerge, are there some elements in the industry you feel could or should change?
For me as you know gastronomy is the most important part of my life and in recent years the media, TV, radio and internet has helped grow the interest exponentially. I am part of this industry and I feel very happy when it is in the news. I like do like quality but to me it doesn’t matter if there is competition on reality TV or a show about travel I feel that regardless the information will go out to many more people through these channels.
Has such dissemination of information changed the preferences of guests?
A few years ago not that many people were interested in watching shows about cooking or food travel and now this has taken audiences a step further. With the variety of options even I entertain the ability to see shows of my choice. Of course some people idolize these reality shows while others take it as a source of information.
When you go out to dine casually what do you look forward to or expect?
I don’t go out much but when I do I like quality, I am not so concerned with style. Whether it is contemporary or traditional I always look for quality first. It’s also important that it is a friendly and welcoming place and the service is relatively quick. I don’t like to wait too long for food and whether it is a pinxtos bar or a Michelin star restaurant it has to be good quality foods foremost.