As Ametsa with Arzak Instruction celebrates its fifth anniversary at Belgravia’s COMO The Halkin, its co-founding chef Elena Arzak recalls her highlights so far
It’s fitting that my interview with Elena Arzak is arranged for the morning of International Women’s Day. The cook is not only one of a handful of female chefs in charge of a three-Michelin-starred kitchen, but even back in 2012 she was named Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Best Female Chef, an accolade that has since been awarded to the likes of Hélène Darroze and Ana Roš. Elena is, she muses, in good company. “The world is full of incredible female chefs, and the number is increasing,” she smiles. “The award was completely unexpected; I felt very honoured.”
We are sat in COMO The Halkin, the home of her restaurant, Ametsa with Arzak Instruction. It is the first Arzak outpost outside San Sebastián, her hometown where her family has owned a restaurant for more than a century. Elena joined the business aged 11, spending holidays in the kitchen alongside her father Juan Mari, a pioneer of New Basque cuisine (a lighter version of the seafood and grilled meat dishes popular in the region).
Now, she’s in charge; although her 75-year-old father is very much keeping watch from the sidelines (he apparently still tastes every dish the restaurant serves). Together they opened Ametsa in 2013, a decision that earned the family its fourth Michelin star for its mix of British-cum-Basque dishes: crunchy black pudding, pork belly and scorpion fishcakes, to name a few.
When we meet, Elena is in London to launch a selection of new dishes, created to mark the restaurant’s fifth anniversary. It’s a whistle-stop trip during a world tour of talks and demonstrations, but “I had to be here for the party”, she jokes. As she prepares to break out the balloons, she recalls her highlights from the past five years.
1. My biggest learning curve
“Cooking in London is not the same as it is in San Sebastián. During these five years I have discovered so many positive things; I’ve learned from mistakes and have taken many of the ideas back home. It’s very curious, but in London people are much more open to different spices. They also use less salt and eat a lot of greens. But, people also adore sweet things – Londoners have no problem with sugar.”
2. My favourite dish
“I’m most proud of our scallops with pollen. Scallops in Britain are so good that the dish is better than the one we originally created [in San Sebastián]. As a Basque chef, I have a sensibility towards seafood, so I was pleasantly surprised by how good British seafood is. We adapted our dishes to fit the produce we could find here. Our monkfish comes from Cornwall and we also source fish from Bristol, Devon and Scotland.”
3. My love of London
“My family has always admired London and its food and restaurants. On the one hand, there is a lot of tradition here and on the other a lot of modernity –
it’s very similar to San Sebastián in that sense. I lived in Kensington when I was a student; I spent six months training at Le Gavroche with the Roux brothers in 1989. It was fantastic. I was 19 years old and saw how inclusive London was. Being here is a dream come true. That’s why we named the restaurant Ametsa: it means ‘dream’ in Basque.”
4. The foodie fans
“All our guests have a passion for food, otherwise they wouldn’t visit. I remember one family that came to Ametsa to celebrate their grandpa’s 80th birthday, because they knew that Arzak was behind it. They told me they would never have been able to afford a trip to San Sebastián, so they travelled especially to London to celebrate. That night was something magical. It was one of the most beautiful things that has happened in my career.”
5. My top highlight
“Getting the Michelin star was incredible. Some of our guests sent us congratulations, which was priceless. We appreciate it when people tell us that they had such a nice experience, because we work for people. We are here to make them happy.”