The world’s best female chef steps out of the shadow of her famous father
the San Sebastian restaurant their family has owned for 115 years. Paquita took over the kitchen at Arzak on the death of her husband when Juan Mwas nine. ‘‘He was an only child surrounded by women, in a matriarchy,’’ Elena says. ‘‘I think that is why he idolises women now.’’
‘‘The restaurant was different then,’’ he adds. ‘‘Our bedroom opened on to the dining room, there was my mother, my grandmother among five cooks, not the 30 now, serving traditional food. But I was very happy.’’
By the time Elena was chopping vegetables as a child, Juan M was maybe the most important chef in Spain, famed for the revolutionary nueva cocina vasca he helped create with fellow San Sebastian chef Pedro Subijana.
Like her father, she cherishes her time as a child in the kitchen. ‘‘We were only allowed to work for two hours a day in the holidays,’’ she says. ‘‘I always wanted to stay longer. I adored being there with my sister, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, my family. My mother was in my father’s shadow,’’ she says. ‘‘It was harder for women then, but I trust her palate so much. I owe her everything.’’
Elena was always an adventurous eater. ‘‘I can remember the smell of my first truffle when I was eight, and a txangurro [crab] dish without laurel [bay], as we like it here. My parents also brought home wonderful cheese from their travels.’’
Good at school, she was, though, always determined to be a chef. Calming her concerned parents by first passing her university entrance, she studied and cooked outside Spain — including a six-month stint at Le Gavroche in London, aged 20 — before returning to San Sebastian.
‘‘I spent six years abroad,’’ she says. ‘‘I had a cocktail of ideas, but I had to find my identity at Arzak, otherwise I wouldn’t be useful. I worked in each station of the kitchen to relearn what happens in my house. I also studied many books of Basque cooking to learn more about my roots.’’
She found her style in San Sebastian’s markets. ‘‘In the 1990s, chefs here were cooking with mangoes,’’ she shudders. ‘‘I saw the local produce, the small peppers, other things, and I thought: Why are we not using more of this in modern food? After four years I had found my voice.’’
Introducing her ideas for a cutting- edge Basque cuisine took time, patience and intense negotiation. ‘‘My father risked very much with the ideas he started to make with me,’’ she says. ‘‘Sometimes he would say: ‘The sauce is horrible, we will change it.’ And we would lose half the plate. I think my father thought: ‘If I don’t allow Elena to make her new things, she will get bored and leave.’ But he also knew that if I introduced a tandoor, ginger, a mole from Mexico, it would work with the tastes of my region.’’
A world-beating father-and-daughter team was born. ‘‘Sometimes I wonder whether my father would have evolved in another way,’’ she says. ‘‘Perhaps he would be better. But we have been working together for 17 years. I am 42 now.’’ Even today, both must agree on each new dish that appears on the menu.
Back in the kitchen at Arzak, I ask Juan Mwhat makes his daughter one of the best chefs in the world. He pauses, smiles and orders vintage Cristal to accompany our simple bowl of potato and peas. ‘‘Primero, she is very ordered,’’ he says quietly. ‘‘Segundo, most important, is her palate. To be a good chef, you must know what is well done and not. Even where we are now with our cooking, we recognise Basque tradition.’’
She has always had the sensibility of a chef, he says. ‘‘When she was five years old I took her to the best restaurant in San Sebastian. She asked for her meat ‘less well done, but warm’. I was embarrassed. Even as a child, she was always showing others what to do.’’
It is Elena’s turn to be embarrassed now. ‘‘What we eat, how we eat, is in our culture,’’ she says, taking the conversation into a more comfortable area. ‘‘Our signature cuisine is Basque. My father and I talk about this all the time. Our taste is from here. We were born here. Since childhood we have in our minds a flavour: parsley, squid, hake throats. Even if we use herrings or dill, we cook unconsciously with this identity.’’
While Juan M pours more champagne, Elena tells me that he cried for two days when told of her award. ‘‘I am 70 in a month,’’ he shrugs. ‘‘My life is very long. It has been very special. She is a woman, I am a man. But in cooking there is only a plate. Sometimes she makes dishes I don’t like. Sometimes I will make dishes that she won’t like. But we make many, many dishes on which we agree. I have given a lot to her, she has given a lot to me. Our cooking is not from Juan Mari. It is not from Elena. It is Arzak!’’
After seven hours together, Elena sums it up. ‘‘I am Elena Arzak,’’ she says simply, ‘‘the daughter of Juan Mari. The possibility of cooking was always in my heart.’’