However intentionally low-profile, Chef Elena Arzak has made quite a name for herself over the years, alongside her father, one of Spain’s most celebrated chefs. How? By methodically following in the footsteps of her pioneering parent, guided by research and invention.
With her gentle gaze and steady smile, Elena Arzak could certainly rake in thumbs-ups on social media. But the chef at the three-Michelin-star Restaurante Arzak doesn’t even have her own Instagram page. Well, she does, but with just one post saying, “I’m in the kitchen. Better to follow what we do at @arzakrestaurant,” directing followers to the establishment’s page. People in the Arzak family aren’t much for fanfare, except when it comes to work. Elena’s father, Juan Mari, became a renowned culinary figure in southern Europe by shaking up Spanish Basque Country dishes with his younger peer Pedro Subijana in the late 1970s. Legend has it that, following a Madrid conference attended by Paul Bocuse and Raymond Oliver (from the historic Paris restaurant Le Grand Véfour), Arzak and Subijana flew to France and tried the country’s famed nouvelle cuisine – and then brought that dynamic back home with them. Thereafter, the two friends and other local chefs cooked for relatives and journalists, experimenting with what would later be called “New Basque Cuisine.” In the ten-mile radius encompassing San Sebastián, there are now 18 Michelin Guide stars, a dazzling density that traces the trail blazed by Subijana and Arzak Senior. The whole world now comes to dine in this small section of northern Spain, known for its top-quality ingredients and surrounded by sea and mountains. This past is important to understanding Elena Arzak, 51, and her leitmotif of going where no chef has gone before. “We don’t like monotony – we think it’s sad,” she remarked on stage at a presentation in South Africa.
She and her sister (an associate director at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) were born and raised in a culinary context. Even as children, they went to gourmet restaurants, sampled fresh truffles at an age when other kids focused on dolls and model cars. At age 17, after helping out over the summer at the Restaurante Arzak, Elena was invited to cook the family’s Christmas dinner. Her menu, as she told the Financial Times in an interview, included seafood, cardoons, artichokes, capon, duck à l’orange, and fruit compote. Over the course of her training, she worked in the kitchens of other big names in the industry (Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, and even the effervescent Ferran Adrià), then, in 1995, started working at her father’s establishment, which had joined the Michelin Milky Way six years earlier, a first in Spain. Though the young woman was certainly getting her professional sea legs, she would have to wait until 2012 before the outside world turned the helm over to her: That year, she was voted World’s Best Female Chef by the panel of the British ranking The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. From then on, the media more readily associated her with the test kitchen built a decade earlier, the laboratorio on the second floor of the building housing the restaurant. There, two longstanding loyalists to whom she unhesitatingly tips her toque – Elena Arzak doesn’t monopolize the spotlight – develop future recipes without the pressure of waiting clients. A library, discernable in the background, contains countless little boxes of spices, seeds, and nuts (we’re talking about 1,500 ingredients). While fine-dining guides praise the lobster with fermented asparagus, the catch of the day marinated in cinnamon and black salsify, or The Big Truffle, a large (faux) chocolate truffle with carob and honey, it’s quite impossible to reduce Ms. Arzak to menu blurbs. In the former tavern opened in 1897 by the Arzak family themselves, forward motion is unceasing. The heiress to that throne intimated that she could be inspired by just about anything, even an advertisement for ... dishwashing liquid. Which is utterly characteristic of the greatest creative minds: They’re never where you expect them to be.