Elena Arzak: balancing tradition with modernity

Elena Arzak: balancing tradition with modernity

by Nick Harman 29 January 2018

Nick Harman sits down with chef Elena Arzak – who holds three Michelin stars at her family's establishment in the Basque Country – to talk restaurants, reinvention and record players.

Nick Harman combines work as an advertising copywriter with writing and photographing stories around food and travel.

Nick Harman combines work as an advertising copywriter with writing and photographing stories around food and travel.

The chef sitting on the sofa in front of me is hard to recognise as the same person I saw thirty minutes ago. Then, Elena Arzak was dressed in chef’s whites, commanding the stage at Madrid Fusion 2018 and holding an audience of over 500 chefs, food writers and food professionals rapt with her ideas, passion and charisma. Now, back in civvies, it’s clear her mind is constantly bubbling with passionate, creative energy, and she reveals herself to be very human and self-questioning.

For Elena, creativity in the kitchen is in the blood; her father is of course the legendary Juan Mari Arzak of the eponymous three-star Basque restaurant revered by gourmets around the world. He’s just left the room in fact, a charming man whose modesty belies his culinary influence.

Elena began helping him, ‘voluntarily’ she says smiling, in the restaurant kitchen at the age of eleven. Then came many years of gaining experience around the world, including time at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and elBulli in Catalonia, until finally she came back to Arzak in the 1990s to work as equal partner with her father. In 2012, she was named Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef.

If that award makes her see herself as a role model for women in the industry, she doesn’t talk about it that much. ‘The world is changing; more and more women are becoming top chefs,’ she says. ‘And in any case, a woman in the kitchen was normal when I was growing up. It was a matriarchal society.’

For her it’s the work that is the main focus, and at Arzak the work never ends; there is no resting on the comfort of all the awards she and her father have acquired, and imagination and invention never stop driving her as she sets about redefining Basque cooking. At Arzak there is a laboratory and test kitchen, separate to the main one where every day they try to create something new.

This year she brought another visual showstopper to demonstrate, a dish of Kokoxtas. ‘Hake’s ‘cheek?’ she asks me, before correcting herself. ‘No, in English it is throat, I think – the gelatinous part under the head.’ It’s a classic example of her style; old always meeting new in surprising ways. ‘Hake kokoxtas are eaten pretty much only in the Basque country, usually grilled or served with pil-pil, a kind of emulsion made with olive oil,’ she explains.

The mesmerising swirls on the re-imagined hake dish are created by putting the plate on a record player turntable that spins while the emulsion is applied by a multi-nozzle squeezy bottle. ‘It is quick, in order to keep the food hot, and it is precise,’ she explains. ‘The guests never actually see it in action. We have three old record players in the kitchen, two to handle an average day’s service and a third in case one breaks down!’ What speed do they run at? 45rpm or 33rpm? ‘Oh, always 33rpm,’ she grins.

Elena was giving a talk at Madrid Fusion 2018, an international gastronomy summit
Her dish of kokoxtas with pil-pil – hake throat with an olive oil-based sauce – is a perfect example of how she is redefining Basque cuisine whilst respecting tradition

‘What I am saying is that we should use the same pieces of the jigsaw that make up Basque food but assemble them differently and with different movements,’ Elena explains. ‘For example I will always use parsley, which we add to everything in Basque cuisine. If I am not using parsley, I am not cooking well. So, parsley is a piece of the jigsaw, and while I use things like the record player, I still use the same pieces. You don’t have to stop using something to be innovative; you simply move the parts around differently.’

Elena also recognises that different eating habits require different ways of cooking. ‘People today know more about food than they did in the past,’ she says. ‘They want to be healthy. Today at Arzak we cook with more green vegetables and the cooking time is shorter. When we serve carrots that are still crunchy no one complains that they’re undercooked, which they might have done before.’

Arzak Restaurant is now over 120 years old. Elena’s great-grandparents opened it as a bar in 1897 and it has just had a major facelift. For Elena, it was a challenge similar to her cooking; how to retain the look, feel and emotion of Restaurant Arzak, but at the same time move it forward. Luckily, she had someone she could trust with the delicate job – her architect husband Manu Lamosa. ‘Décor and architecture is not my area of expertise. I didn’t want to do a job I am not skilled in so I had to be brave, I had to trust people. My husband understands how important the restaurant is for us and we think the result is perfect.’

Looking at the photos of the redesigned restaurant, you can see it is still recognisably Arzak. The shape hasn’t changed but the external features have been modernised and rethought. It’s still a place that her great-grandparents would recognise and approve of.

Elena draws the obvious comparison between her cooking and the restaurant’s facelift. ‘You see, no matter how original and creative I want to be, I always try and stay Basque. That’s because I don’t want to lose our food values – but I don’t want to live in the past either.’ The future clearly still has much to hold for devotees of Arzak’s cooking.