Elena Arzak: "Now it is my father who asks permission to go home"

His last name and cuisine are almost the same. Worthy heir to his help, Juan Mari, is one of the greats of the national gastronomy and, after the closure in 2018 of Sant Pau de Carme Ruscalleda, the only chef in Spain to lead a three Michelin stars. Quiet woman, Elena Arzak (San Sebastian, 1969) she is a little nervous these days, with those “good nerves” that one has when positive things happen. The cause? Less than two weeks ago the restaurant Arzak reopened its doors after months stranded by the pandemic and just launched the haute cuisine and avant-garde sauce that he has created to pair with the Lay’s Gourmet fried potatoes and turn the aperitif into a gastronomic experience.

“At Arzak we feed 60 people, but we make a dressing aimed at a Such a wide audience has been a challenge. We have done many tests until we got the flavors and texture that we want; a sauce that could be poured well over the potatoes, because the idea is eat it with them“explains the chef.” Its main ingredient is the pickled mussels, accompanied by pickled chillies and a touch of nori seaweed. “That is, tradition and avant-garde, like Arzak’s kitchen.

To Elena, the inspiration to create the Salsa Aperitivo Gourmet It came to him with the sea breeze, it could not be otherwise, with marine cuisine being one of the pillars of his house in San Sebastian. “When I can, I usually go to the beach. I love looking at the sea, feeling its breeze and eating chips. It’s true! No kidding! So I thought: Why not make a sauce that I will remember that breeze And that moment of the aperitif so pleasant for me? “.

Elena with the Gourmet Appetizer Sauce that she has created for Lay’s potatoes.

Said and done, although not as fast as it seems. “It was a very enriching creative process. The key was to find the balance between all the ingredients and the acidityAfter a lot of testing and thinking in Arzak’s lab and his bank of over 1,000 flavors, Elena and her creative team they came up with the recipe. “The result is a fresh, tasty sauce, made respecting raw materials and that goes very well with the salty and crispiness of the potatoes. “This is a limited edition, sold in the brand website (9.99 euros, shipping costs apart) and, shortly, at physical points of sale.

The chef has had some luxury tasters, his family, with Juan Mari at the head. “They loved it. I think this sauce could be perfectly put on Arzak.” Contina: “It was a lot of fun, but, above all, with the restaurant closed, It has helped me escape from what we were living“, recognize.

Today, with the canteen up and running -it started on May 28-, there are no worthwhile escapes, especially after the vdeo/acicate with which Juan Mari Arzak announced the opening, “remngate and cook”he said. And inspired by that message, in Arzak they have rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Juan Mari and Elena, in Arzak's dining room.
Juan Mari and Elena, in Arzak’s dining room.SARA SANTOS
How was the return?
Wonderful. During these months, clients have had to change their reservations several times and they have been very understanding, far from being a problem, they encouraged us. And the reunion was beautiful, just like the video of the help. For me it is very nice to see the illusion that he has. The economic impact has been brutal for the entire hospitality industry; It will take time to recover, but no one takes away our desire. The night before the reopening I couldn’t sleep from the excitement …
In that time we have all changed a little, also Arzak?
The protocols mark our path, our organization, and I don’t think they will disappear so quickly. From now on we are going to be time managers, to be aware of the movements of clients, when they will be able to move. On the other hand, I think that today we are more supportive; less individualistic and we seek to be more pious.
Are there changes in gastronomy?
Even before Covid there was a global concern for the environment. I think that the kitchen is going to follow this trend of respecting nature, of energy efficiency, of helping local producers, of rediscovering ingredients that tend to disappear … For example, we have a dish -‘Egg with carran wheat’- for which we have recovered a primitive cereal. I call that rethinking, and we’ve been at it for years. It is about rescuing valid things from the past but always looking to the future and remembering that eating is a pleasure.
The chef with her team in the kitchens of Arzak (San Sebastián).
The chef with her team in the kitchens of Arzak (San Sebastián).MIKEL ALONSO

If this cook knows something, it is that quality and innovation have to go hand in hand with flavor and enjoyment. I learned the premise from “very young”, during those summers that I spent with his sister Marta in the family restaurant, led by Juan Mari Arzak, one of the founders of the New Basque Cuisine. And, since the Arzak are of precocious vocations, Elena immediately knew what hers was. “My sister always wanted to be an art historian [hoy trabaja en el Museo Guggenheim de Bilbao y es la asesora de arte y gastronoma del tres estrellas Michelin], and I, with 15 years, knew that I loved being in the restaurant and that I wanted to dedicate myself to the hospitality industry “.

Study in Switzerland y despus pas por ‘grandes’ de Europa (Maison Troisgros, Pierre Gagnaire, Carr des Feuillants y Le Vivarois in Francia; Louis XV in Montecarlo; Le Gavroche in London; The Bulli in Spain …), and one good day, in the 90s, joined the family kitchen. His father “has always had that ability to believe in young people and in me he did it from the beginning. One of the reasons I stayed in Arzak was because I knew I could do a lot of things and that they were going to let me do them“.

Father and daughter, cooking together.
Father and daughter, cooking together.SARA SANTOS

-Don’t you plan to work with other chefs? Open your restaurant?

-Was seven years abroad, and I had proposals to stay, but I wanted to go back to San Sebastian and to my house. Then others came up, but I wanted to be in Arzak, because there was a lot of work here. I have never regretted. If I hadn’t had those offers, maybe I would have stayed with the uncertainty, but that’s how I was convinced of my decision.

Since then, Elena and Juan Mari go in tandem; yes, each with its own style. “He likes to mix more ingredients and me less; he is more of spices; I, of forgotten products. Although we are very different, when it comes to cooking, we both decided right away and, when we try something, we usually coincide. It’s a lot of fun. “Fun and fruitful, because they have achieved that tradition and avant-garde; innovation and flavor and signature and market cuisine are in equilibrium.

In recent times, a sweet transition. “Little by little, logically, due to age, he has cut his work hours, although he comes every day and, for me, they are all a gift“He expands:” As long as my father is still here, to continue being my boss, I can’t help it and, besides, I love it. Is my teacher. It makes me laugh, now it is my father who asks permission to go home “, laughs the chef, whose fetish products are the extra virgin olive oil and parsley, “Like Arguiano. Sorry, but I use it a lot.”

Grouper with mushroom leather.
Grouper with mushroom leather.MAGDALENA STAURINO
He has worked with his father half his life, it will not have been easy …
When you work with the family, things are said more directly. Anyway, I think that as we are very different we have gotten along very well. My mother, Maite, who is already retired but was 50% of the restaurant and worked in the dining room and in finances, also usually comes here. He is very brave and has always advised me well.
Do you remember any paternal scolding?
Once I made him some fried chickpeas, there were five varieties. He liked them and told me to serve them the next day, but I didn’t write down the ones he had used! I spent days repeating the dish until I found them. Again, don’t ask me how it happened, we ran out of salt and the bar across the street had to leave it to us. I was very amused; to none. He got very angry because I laughed … We laugh every day, but I adore him, thanks to the fact that he believed in me, I’m here today.
And he made sure everyone found out about his talent.
He kept propagandizing me, he talked tirelessly about me to the whole world. I remember it with great affection and it was very beautiful. The insistence was such that people got used to me and trying my things.
Has it weighed you being the daughter of …?
At first, yes. But I knew what would happen. I too have inadvertently judged other children of … It is human and normal. After so many years and with the support of our team, which also helped me to have confidence in myself, I knew I would change. My father told me that if I was constant and hard-working, people would eventually realize that I was not there to be and how passionate I was about cooking.
How have you handled the comparisons?
When I was younger, they affected me more, but it is the law of life and there is no need to be offended. I wear them well and it is an honor to be compared to him.
In this tandem in which you go, what have you learned from each other?
He has taught me to be proud of my profession, to seek excellence, and to be very consistent. He tells me that he has learned new ways and the color on the plates.
Ruins of chocolate, carob pectin and crunchy honey.
Ruins of chocolate, carob pectin and crunchy honey.MAGDALENA STAURINO

Elena adolescent s imagined herself as a cook and “working for many years with her parents, but not how much the kitchen was going to change and that I had a revolutionary at home. I am very happy and surprised by what the Spanish gastronomy has achieved. “The gastronomy, and she, who has not been left behind: Head of the Future from the International Academy of Gastronomy; Prize National Gastronoma; Best Female Chef in the World Veuve Clicquot and director of a three-star that, in 1897, was born as wine cellar and tavern, then became meal House and later and by the hand of Juan Mari, one of the greats of the restoration (1972, first Michelin star; 1978, the second and in 1989 the third). Three stars that they maintain 32 years later and whose secrets Elena is clear: “Do not lose the desire to do things, open your eyes wide and have a great team. For me, it is key to cook, travel and know other gastronomic cultures and be in continuous evolution “.

In that continuous evolution, where is Arzak going? “Towards sustainability since the diner be an accomplice of what we are doing. Today the client asks, wants to know more about the dish and its origin and look for an experience, not just eat“.

-You are the fourth generation of cooks and mother of two teenagers, will there be a fifth generation?

-I would love it, but they are the ones who have to choose. Since the age of 5 I have taught them to cook, to eat healthy, for survival, to respect the kitchen, so that when someone knocks on their door they can offer them something delicious and share it. That’s what they taught me.

Address: Avda. Alcalde Elsegui, 273 (San Sebastián). Tel .: 94 327 84 65. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Price: 242 euros (tasting menu) and 190 euros, a la carte menu, drinks apart.


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