A passion for food pulsates through the veins of the Arzak family. For more than 100 years, its generations have enthusiastically toiled in the kitchen of its namesake restaurant – Arzak – in San Sebastian, Spain, producing creative yet comforting Basque cuisine that has endeared itself to tastebuds far and wide. Standing in the kitchen as joint head chef alongside her father Juan Mari, Elena Arzak is the family’s fourth generation to add her culinary touch to the restaurant’s legacy. But despite being named the ‘Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef 2012’, Elena is adamant that she is simply part of a team – and that she still has plenty to learn.
I was very happy as a child … and I didn’t have a special dream. I jumped from one idea to the other and wanted to be many things that children often want to be – a doctor, a teacher and things like that.
My parents … ran our family’s restaurant of which I am now the fourth generation to run. As children, we were always in contact with the restaurant. My mother worked in the restaurant, even though she was not a chef, and I would visit her there often. My sister, Marta, is one year older than me and from the age of 11 we used to come for two hours a day during the summer holidays to visit our mother and our aunt while they were working in the restaurant. I wanted to spend more than two hours but my parents wouldn’t let me because I was just a child. That was when I realised that it was what I liked to do and, when I finished school at 18, I was very sure I wanted to be a chef. My parents tried to tell me that there was a big difference between coming for just two hours per day and doing it as a real profession and asked me to really think about my decision to become a chef.
I have always had a choice … which I appreciate, because my parents have always let me be free to do whatever I like. So I started at the restaurant at 18 and I have never stopped. Marta, on the other hand, studied art history and she now works in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as the sub-director of education, so we really could choose what we did with our lives.
My father and I … still work in tandem. My parents have always told me that if I wanted to change or improve something about the restaurant, I should do it. Since the beginning, my father allowed me to be in the kitchen and I still work with him in the same way that I worked with him 25 years ago. I’m very lucky, and very thankful, to have my parents.
We are people who … have never expected anything and we let things happen as they happen. It was completely unexpected for me to be named the ‘World’s Best Female Chef’ and, of course, I am very thankful to the people who gave me the award – and to my family and the indispensable team at Arzak, as well as for cooking in general. But I am surrounded by my father and other chefs from this area of Spain who have also won many prizes, and we are all of the opinion that there are many good chefs – you can never think you are the best. That’s unthinkable for me. I’m very thankful that people recognise us, because it says that we are doing things well, but it’s not good to always be looking for, or expecting, awards. Fortunately, there are a lot of good people in the world.
You shouldn’t have too much pressure … because pressure is rarely good. Of course, to maintain a high quality in your work and to be innovative in the kitchen, you need a little bit of pressure, otherwise it’s only human to relax and the quality goes down. But in order to be innovative, you can’t just change your dishes for the sake of changing them. If you have economic problems or pressure, you collapse and you stop being innovative. We have a rule to always try to do your best with what you have.
Travelling is … necessary for me, because it opens my mind. You have to be open to things. Of course my family and I have a certain taste because it’s local, but it’s open to the world. Our signature cooking style at Arzak is to create cutting-edge and evolving Basque cuisine. But my taste is not better than your taste, and yours is not better than ours; it’s just different. When I cook, I cook unconsciously with my Basque taste, but I can use, for example, tandoori. Travelling opens you up to other flavours, which I always find to be very enriching.
There are fantastic chefs … all over the world. I have travelled to many different places and I was very lucky to go to Australia last year for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and also to be a part of filming for Masterchef in Sydney. There are so many fantastic chefs in Australia who I will never forget, and I ate in so many great restaurants. But the person who introduced my father and me to Australian food was Tetsuya – and I fulfilled a dream I’ve had for a long time by eating in his restaurant.
When you are a chef … you see everything through the eyes of a chef. Everything is inspiring to me. Reading inspires me – there are so many forms of media today that you can read what is happening in Indonesia, Mexico or New Zealand. I also like to read very old books to study what humans used to eat compared to now. Or when I am walking down the street and I see a house painted a nice colour, I am often inspired to use this colour in my dishes. Or I see a traffic light and I am inspired to make a garnish with three colours. Even the advertisements on TV inspire me. Once I saw an advertisement where there were a lot of dirty dishes and a drop of soap dropped into them and the grease disappeared. It inspired me to create something similar, but edible, in the restaurant. So we made a soup of blue cabbage with citron and this same effect happened.
The most important thing in life for me is … to love your profession, to respect it, and to be humble and listen to everybody. I am of the opinion that I am still learning – I wish I knew much more – and I learn a lot from the other chefs and from the guests in the restaurant. I have very few hobbies because I am very happy in the restaurant. Of course I like to be with my family as much as possible – my husband is an architect and I have two small children who are seven and five – but they are very happy because they see that I am happy. At the moment I am teaching my children to cook. I want them to be free to choose what they do and, even if they end up with careers other than being a chef, I want them to know how to cook because it’s not only important for their health, but also for their pleasure.
If I had one piece of wisdom to give to my children it would be … to be happy, search for your destiny and eat well.