Elena Arzak

Elena Arzak

Those skills and Elena's care for produce mean she has become known as the 'Queen of Basque cooking', and the affection for her in her hometown of San Sebastian is obvious. ‘On my way to this interview,’ she tells me, ‘a woman stopped me to tell me that her and a group of friends have been putting money into a kitty for months so that they can come and eat in the restaurant. We get a lot of local people like that visiting us and it is a real honour to know that people here trust me to give them an experience worth saving up for.’

And what an experience they get. Elena’s food is famous for combining innovation and tradition, using the latest culinary techniques and influences from around the world rooted in Basque produce, to produce some of the finest culinary dishes available while still retaining that Arzak signature. There’s a modern version of the signature San Sebastián dish of txangurro (spider crab) as well as monkfish, which has been smoked in whisky-soaked cedar wood; the entire menu at Arzak is a marriage of innovation and tradition.

Elena and her father have always had a close culinary relationship, similar to that of her father and grandmother, and from the very beginning of her career her father asked for her advice and valued her opinion. She tells a story of her father phoning her at hotel school, as he had just been asked to cook for the British Queen during her state visit to Spain in 1988, ‘I told him to go easy on the garlic on the txangurro. He did, and got a delightful letter from the Queen thanking him for the dinner he made her.’

She can’t repress a smile when saying that her father, who is over 80, still comes into the restaurant almost every day to see what is going on and say hello to the staff. Does she think the family business will continue with either of her daughters? ‘You know I have no problem if the Arzak restaurant ends with me. My daughters, like most teenagers, seem to be more interested in their mobile phones than anything else, and I would say the same to either of them exactly the same as my parents told me. You should only do this if you really want to. You can’t continue this restaurant out of duty, or any reason other than an absolute love of the job and a desire to cook the best. It will never work for you otherwise.’