Maintaining the legacy of one of Spain’s finest restaurants while becoming the best female chef in the world? Its all in days work for Elena Arzak.
Elena grew up in a world dominated by food. Both her parents and her grandmother worked in the San Sebastian restaurant that her great grandparents built in 1897, and as a child she spent her summer holidays helping out in the kitchen. Given her background, it was maybe inevitable that Elena would follow a path into the world of gastronomy, a path that would ultimately lead to her being named best female chef in the world in 2012.
By the time she finished studying hotel management in Switzerland at the age of 20 her father Juan Mari Arzak had just received his third Michelin star and was not ready to let her loose in his kitchen yet. Instead she was encouraged to broaden her horizons beyond the insular environment of the restaurant. This experience would provide the grounding and life experience that could not be achieved by remaining in the comfort zone of her father’s wing.
Elena new exactly where she wanted to go and headed to England to work with her father’s friends, the Roux brothers at Le Gavroche. There she learnt her trade alongside Michel Roux Jr, who was also training at the time. After six months she was ready to move on. Her training odyssey continued at the prestigious French restaurant La Maison Troisgros in Roanne. This was followed by spells at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, under Alain Ducasse; and Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. When she eventually returned to Spain she worked with legendary chef Ferran Adria at el Bulli in Catalonia.
Armed with the knowledge gained from her privileged apprenticeship, Elena was now ready to return to her roots and apply her considerable skills to the evolution of Arzak. With three Michelin stars at stake, her father showed full confidence in his prodigy by naming Elena joint-head chef, a decision that was fully justified as the restaurant continued to flourish.
As a team they create an unrelenting ‘tempest of innovation’, always determined to be at the vanguard of cutting-edge cuisine. They explore new ideas in their development kitchen and keep a computerised ‘flavour bank’ for reference. The food is always innovative, artistic and challenging but with a nod to tradition and local heritage, as has become the hallmark of great Basque cuisine.
The Arzak family restaurant has never stood still. Since its humble beginnings as a local bar selling cheap wine, through to its present status as one of the world’s top 10 restaurants, it has always evolved and continues to do so. With over 100 years and four generations of blood, sweat and tears already invested, there could be no better custodian of this legacy than the forward-thinking and incredibly talented Elena Arzak.
(Photos: Arzak via Twitter)