As part of our journey through the Basque Country, we had the pleasure of visiting the world renowned Restaurante Arzak, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in San Sebastian. Run by the legendary Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, it consistently ranks as one of the best restaurants in the world. Arzak is at the forefront of la Nueva Cocina Vasca, the New Basque Cuisine that has influenced chefs all over the world, including back home in New York. This is the third installment of our three-part feature on the Arzaks and their restaurant.
|Chocolates and other goodies in the Arzak workshop.|
Juan Mari and Elena emerged from the door opposite the dining room where our tour of the kitchen had begun a few hours earlier. Our coffees arrived and Elena summoned herself a glass of cava. Then they sat down opposite us on the couch, and together they began to tell us their story.
|Elena and Juan Mari in their restaurant kitchen (source: Arzak).|
"Some people ask us why we do not move to a fancier setting or a more prestigious location," Elena interjected. "That would be impossible," she said, "there are so many things here that I remember from my childhood." Juan Mari nodded, looking at his daughter proudly. "This is a family restaurant," he added.Elena, for her part, began working in the restaurant during summer vacation at the age of 11, when her grandmother was still the head chef. When she was old enough, her father sent her abroad to work at several of Europe's top restaurants, finally returning to Spain to work at the renowned El Bulli. Today she is co-head chef with her father at the family restaurant. In 2012, she was named best female chef in the world in the survey organized by Restaurant Magazine.
The two seem thrilled to work side-by-side in the kitchen. "Elena and I are a tandem," Juan Mari explained. "No dish is served in the restaurant unless we are both in agreement."
Experimentation and Invention of New Basque Cuisine
|Cromlech with caramelized onion and foie gras|
Two years later, in 1976, something very important happened. The "Club de Gourmets" magazine organized a mesa redonda--a "round table" discussion in Madrid attended by well regarded Spanish and French chefs, including 34-year-old Juan Mari.
(At this point in the story, Juan Mari leaned forward on the couch and became very focused; I could tell he considered this part very significant and needed me to understand.)
At the mesa redonda, the great French chef Paul Bocuse was talking about nouvelle cuisine; the New French Cuisine. This was extremely exciting to Juan Mari, and also to his lifelong friend Pedro Subijana, whose own restaurant Akelaŕe also went on to receive three Michelin stars. After the mesa redonda, the two of them—Arzak and Subijana—went off to France to learn more about this "new cuisine".
Then they went home and started working on something really big. They were going to create a style of cooking the world had never seen before: la nueva cocina vasca—the New Basque Cuisine.
Inventing an entirely new cuisine required a lot of thought, study, and experimentation. They had to consider the history and tradition of the Basque people as well as its future.
"Were you trying to reinvent your mother's old classics?", I asked. "No," Juan Mari said firmly, wagging his finger at me. "We are always looking forward; never backward."
|Juan Mari Arzak (source: Arzak)|
Then he explained: Arzak and Subijana took from the round table discussion simply the idea that a chef could study his roots and cause the gastronomic culture and cuisine to evolve, never losing sight of his tradition. The project was—and still is—entirely forward-looking, experimental, and centered in the culture and character of the region. The idea was not to modernize traditional dishes, or to incorporate worldly influences. It was to create the Basque cuisine of the future.
The Characteristics of New Basque Cuisine
|Monkfish at low tide (source: Arzak)|
I may not be competent to answer that question, but I can tell you what I observed about the food at Arzak. First, the food is centered on local ingredients; not all of the ingredients in each dish, but the principal ones—the fish, the meat, the corn. It is prepared with great respect for the bounty of the region.
"We always use parsley in our dishes," Elena had told to me as I enjoyed crispy "cromlech" filled with foie gras and caramelized onions. "The Chinese use ginger. We use parsley because it is from this region." The parsley was pulverized into a fine dust, but it retained its flavor and also its place on the Basque table.
Second, the dishes incorporate familiar Basque and Spanish flavors, which should appeal to the local palate. Several dishes incorporated pimentón, the smoked paprika that is an essential ingredient in Spanish cooking. The egg course was on a bed of what tasted like concentrated garlic shrimp, the gambas al ajillo that are a staple of tapas bars. The fresh sardines reminded me of the anchovy pintxos for sale in the old town.
Many basic ingredients incorporated in the elaborate dishes could be found on typical Spanish and Basque menus—chorizo, melon, eggs, mussels, blood sausage—integrated with exotic ingredients from around the world without depriving them of their essential character. Ham was conspicuously absent.
Perhaps most importantly, there is something much more intangible, more philosophical, about Juan Mari and Elena's cooking. The spirit of the cuisine is Basque. "This food could not be made anywhere else," Juan Mari insisted. Perhaps it was his convincing and passionate demeanor (or perhaps it was the wine), but sitting there I believed it was true.
The Draw of San Sebastian as a Culinary Mecca
|Elena preparing Arzak's famous "cromlech and onion with tea and coffee" (source: Arzak).|
"We don't know," they replied, shrugging, perhaps a little too quickly.
|Arzak's wine cellar (source: Arzak)|
There is a cultural emphasis on great food, too.
"There is very little socio-economic disparity in San Sebastian," Elena explained, "it's almost entirely middle class." And the middle-class population makes great food a priority. "People save their money to come here," Juan Mari added. "Ordinary people. Some people come once every month or two if they have the money; others once a year."It also matters, of course, that San Sebastian is where Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana chose to do their work. Their innovation on the New Basque Cuisine has attracted other creative chefs who want to tap into that creative spirit and, of course, to learn from the great masters themselves.
On New York's Food Scene
|The chefs test sauces in their restaurant kitchen.|
"It takes so much money to start a restaurant," Elena said. "We are lucky. We inherited this place." Most talented chefs don't have the luxury to inherit a space like that or the money to invest in it, she explained, so when they strike out on their own they turn to casual joints where they can show their stuff without the need for crystal chandeliers. Customers benefit because it reduces the price of fine dining and expands its accessibility to a greater number of people.
I was unsurprised to learn that Elena and Juan Mari were quite familiar with New York's food scene and thought highly of it, rattling off numerous restaurants in the Big Apple in which they had had memorable meals. Their sous chef Igor Zalakain had volunteered to me earlier during our tour of the restaurant that he thought "what is happening in New York is very important" and that he had traveled there with Elena and Juan Mari to sample the food. Elena agreed. "What is important is the result," she said. "Everyone gets there in different ways."
|Triangles of prickly pear with thin red chili threads|
I have had too many meals lately where the food was great, but the restaurant made me feel like I should consider myself lucky to be graced with a chance to eat there, and not in a good way. There have been bizarre reservation systems, hours-long waits for a table, attitude about food preferences, weird rules, an absent head chef. No warmth.
At Arzak, there is no such arrogance. As intellectual as their food is, the Arzaks and their staff display great appreciation for the chance to please the you, the customer; to delight you with superlative food and a warm atmosphere. The restaurant demonstrates that you can wow your customers with a parade of spectacular courses while at the same time making them feel like you have welcomed them into your home.
"Either Elena or I has to be in the restaurant every day," Juan Mari told me, explaining that when they must travel together they simply close the restaurant. As we talked and enjoyed our coffee, father and daughter would get up periodically to exchange kisses with regular customers who had come to enjoy their yearly meal.
I could not help but notice that Elena's children—Juan Mari's grandchildren—had been having dinner in the next room when we arrived. Elena's husband designed the kitchen. During dinner, Juan Mari and Elena regularly roamed the dining room, patting shoulders, sniffing wine, and chatting up their guests.
"This is the kind of restaurant that I want to have," said Juan Mari. "We give you a little bit of our heart."
|Juan Mari and Elena with a happy customer, my wife.|
Av del Alcalde José Elosegi, 273
20017 Donostia-San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Gipuzkoa, Spain
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