Elena Arzak is the fourth gen­er­a­tion to run Spain’s first three-miche­lin-starred restau­rant, Arzak, in San Se­bas­tian. As she in­creas­ingly takes over from her fa­ther, the for­mer World’s Best Fe­male Chef con­tin­ues to in­no­vate.

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words Chris Dwyer

Fourth-gen­er­a­tion chef Elena Arzak takes the wheel at three-miche­lin-starred Arzak, in San Se­bas­tian, Spain

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are the world’s most renowned culi­nary fa­ther and daugh­ter. They are the heart and soul of Arzak, the mod­ern Basque restau­rant that won its first Miche­lin star in 1974, sec­ond in 1977 and third in 1989. The San Se­bas­tian venue was the first in Spain to earn three-star sta­tus, an ac­co­lade it has re­tained ev­ery year since, an ex­tra­or­di­nary level of con­sis­tency.

Given its re­mark­able her­itage – Arzak opened in 1897 – you’d for­give the lat­est gen­er­a­tion, 47-year-old Elena, for tak­ing things a bit easy. Not a chance. Far from rest­ing on her lau­rels, the con­stant state of flux and in­no­va­tion that has de­fined Arzak sees Elena now com­pletely re-think­ing the restau­rant. High­light­ing flavour and nat­u­ral­ness, she is tak­ing a back-to-ba­sics ap­proach in a world clut­tered with what she sees as too much in­for­ma­tion.

We meet in Mel­bourne on the morn­ing of the World’s 50

Best Restau­rants 2017 awards; that evening, Arzak’s rep­u­ta­tion will be reaf­firmed when it is placed at No 21 on the cov­eted list. The 2012 awards named Elena the World’s Best Fe­male Chef. De­spite the ac­co­lades, in per­son she is mod­est, laid-back and thought­ful. Although she is of­ten on the road, she’s keen to stress that her trav­els have min­i­mal im­pact on the restau­rant’s op­er­a­tions.

“I travel a lot, but ev­ery month I al­ways do two weeks in the restau­rant be­fore tak­ing a short trip. I’m closed Sun­days and Mon­days, so I travel on these days. Of course, I’m still work­ing with my fa­ther and when I’m not there, he con­trols things. He doesn’t want to stop at all. He has re­duced his timetable some­what, but he will al­ways be there. I was ed­u­cated like that in the ways of gas­tron­omy.”

Elena is the fourth gen­er­a­tion to run the fam­ily busi­ness, which started as a tav­ern built by her great-grand­par­ents in Alza, now part of San Se­bas­tian. But it was never as­sumed that she would join the restau­rant.

“When I was 11, I would visit the restau­rant in the hol­i­days with my sis­ter, spend­ing a cou­ple of hours with our mother and aunts. I liked it very much and re­alised then it was what I wanted to do. You de­cide wher­ever you want to go in life; today my sis­ter, Marta, is an art his­to­rian in the Guggen­heim, work­ing in ed­u­ca­tion. But she has a very good palate too,” Arzak says.

From age 18 to 25, she lived abroad, at­tend­ing culi­nary school in Switzer­land, France and Italy and in­tern­ing in dif­fer­ent restau­rants, in­clud­ing Le Gavroche in Lon­don. While she learned a lot along the way, com­ing home to work with her fa­ther was a plea­sure, not least be­cause he had al­ways been an in­no­va­tor and ahead of the curve.

“My fa­ther has al­ways been very mod­ern. I knew my fa­ther was al­ready very fa­mous so I knew peo­ple would com­pare me,

but I didn’t mind. This is life,” she says.

Choos­ing sig­na­ture dishes from Arzak’s vast reper­toire and his­tory is no easy task, but the Red Space Egg, deftly con­structed from red pep­pers, mush­room and pig trot­ter is justly fa­mous. An­other ac­claimed dish places a translu­cent plate of del­i­cate lob­ster on top of an ipad play­ing black and white video of crashing waves. It is play­ful, in­no­va­tive, cheeky and de­li­cious. And if you’d like wine to ac­com­pany the food at one of the Basque coun­try’s finest restau­rants, there are a mind-blow­ing 100,000 bot­tles to choose from.

Elena is al­ways think­ing, ques­tion­ing, look­ing ahead, and ex­plor­ing un­ex­pected di­rec­tions.

“We work with physi­cists, with re­search cen­tres, even with psy­chol­o­gists, and we like to spread our word be­cause we have no­ticed that cook­ing’s in­flu­ence is very wide. But I also wanted to or­der all this in­for­ma­tion, which is why I started to re­think – repen­sar in Span­ish – what we have done. It’s very im­por­tant to re­order your fu­ture and to re­claim the joy of flavour. For me, I want ev­ery­thing, even if we use the most mod­ern tech­niques, to have a lot of flavour. It’s the most im­por­tant el­e­ment and I don’t want to lose it.”

Along with this thought­ful de­con­struc­tion of her work she is re­fresh­ingly hon­est and open-eyed to the hype that sur­rounds the World’s 50 Best Restau­rants.

“I want to say that we are chefs. Peo­ple nowa­days see us like su­per­stars but we – with a lot of hon­our – are chefs. Our se­cret is to stay to­gether. If you com­pare Ex­te­barri [a two-miche­lin-star asador close to San Se­bas­tian] with Arzak, it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent in style. I’m happy about that be­cause peo­ple come to San Se­bas­tian be­cause there are so many dif­fer­ent styles, so many places. Don’t be jeal­ous, ac­cept oth­ers and when there are new chefs, help them. We want to have more and more chefs – it’s good for gas­tron­omy.”

“Good for gas­tron­omy” could well be the motto for Elena, her fa­ther and their restau­rant. One hun­dred and twenty years af­ter Arzak opened, its fu­ture still looks bright.

Clock­wise from below: The ex­te­rior of Arzak; huevo rojo es­pa­cial; “em­panadil­las”

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