Fa­milia flavours

The world’s best fe­male chef steps out of the shadow of her fa­mous fa­ther

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - AL­LAN JENK­INS GUARDIAN NEWS & ME­DIA

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.’’

sanse­bas­tian­tur­ismo.com; arzak.es

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