Elena Arzak splits her time between San Sebastián and Belgravia, where she holds a total of four Michelin stars. Luxury London talks to the chef about her two greatest passions – food and family
An award “that doesn’t separate nominees based on their gender says something about how we perceive the human experience,” said Emma Watson as she accepted MTV’s gender-neutral acting prize in May. While the debate over gender-specific awards rages on, Elena Arzak, winner of the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef Award in 2012 regards the distinction between men and women as a badge of honour. She is nothing but proud of the accolade – among the many others she has received.
Born and raised in San Sebastián, Arzak split her time between a German school and her family’s famous three-Michelin-starred kitchen, then run by her father, Juan Mari Arzak. Yet it was equally upheld by her mother and aunts.
“I grew up in a very matriarchal society,” says Arzak, in a thick Basque accent. She is currently in London for the launch of her new seasonal menu at Ametsa, her own Michelin-starred restaurant at COMO The Halkin. “I grew up in an environment where being the woman in the kitchen was normal. This [Veuve Clicquot] prize is to encourage women who aren’t in my situation. I took it as recognition of my career, but if it can help a woman under different conditions, then even better.”
Arzak is bubbly and friendly, and gives the impression she would happily spend the whole day chatting endlessly about her two greatest passions: food and family. She describes an almost idealistic childhood, where everything revolved around the eponymous family restaurant.
“I would go to the restaurant to be with the family,” she reminisces. “It wasn’t really work.” Marking 120 years this year, the Spanish Restaurante Arzak has been a local attraction since she can remember, and today she runs it with her father. When she was younger, Arzak would spend two hours a day helping in the kitchen during the summer holidays in order to spend time with her parents and aunts, as much as to slowly absorb the culinary wisdom around her.
Although as a pre-teen she wasn’t responsible for any tasting menus, or signature dishes such as the Red Space Egg, she was given small tasks to whet her appetite. “I would do bowls of chocolates, separate the herbs and make a julienne of orange zest,” she says, “and also clean the squid.” To me, this doesn’t seem too run-of-the-mill for a child. “Every day I wanted to stay longer. I would ask, ‘please let me plate for the dining room’.”
Arzak was raised on a diet of fresh fish, seafood and soups. Hake with garlic parsley and clams – “simple but very nice”– and potatoes with leeks and squid in its own ink were two of her favourite dishes growing up. “In my home the most important thing was the food. My father always wanted to discover new ingredients.” She remembers tasting her first truffle at the age of eight, hating it initially but faring better second time around. “I was so lucky to try all that food.”
As Arzak grew up, she was given the freedom to research different combinations. “I liked to experiment, so I tried salty soufflés with ham and with cheese. The first dish I cooked from start to finish was tuna with peppers. It was a little bit dry, but my family ate it.” At 16, she was expected to cook Christmas dinner for the entire Arzak clan. “They said: ‘Elena, it is your time.’ It was like an examination – they taught me to accept criticism and to improve… they always found something.”
At 16, she was expected to cook Christmas dinner for the entire Arzak clan.
A year later, she told her parents that she wanted to study gastronomy. It was a decision they neither encouraged nor dissuaded her from, but insisted she had a university education first. While her older sister Marta, who spent the same hours in the kitchen, decided to stick to academia and pursue a career in art history, Arzak was always pulled back to food.
She spent the next seven years earning her stripes in Europe at some of the best restaurants in the world, including Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and elBulli in Catalonia. But things weren’t smooth sailing every day. While in Paris training in the pastry section, she made a catastrophic error with a tarte tatin. “I used sugar instead of salt!” she laughs. “Just 15 minutes before service I noticed there was no shine. It tasted awful and it was my fault. But they said don’t worry, that this is life.”
During six months stationed at Le Gavroche, she got her first taste for British ingredients (albeit with a French twist). After listing various vegetables, fish and meat, knowing each of their origins in immense detail, what she learned most on her travels was the number of different ways to run a restaurant. “The human side [is the most important],” she says. “To show your personality in the way you want to cook and serve.”
With summer approaching, Arzak doesn’t get much time off, splitting her hours between San Sebastián and the wonderful Ametsa at the COMO in Belgravia. Often the family will come to London, and she says her husband and children – Nora, 12 and Matteo, ten – adore discovering new restaurants and attractions while they’re in the capital.
Arzak is reluctant to pinpoint any favourites to save hurting any friend’s feelings, testament to her warm and instantly likeable nature. This time she hopes to try Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social. “Mayfair is very big for gastronomy, no?” Her good friends Heston Blumenthal and Hélène Darroze also get nothing but praise.
When she’s not working (about ten days a year), Arzak likes to stick to the Mediterranean, enjoying simple picnics on the beach with her family. She implores me to come to San Sebastián with my own, and to try the food at Restaurante Arzak, having so enjoyed the sardine doughnuts and langoustine crunchy-crêpe at Ametsa.
As for her favourite aspect of British food culture, her answer doesn’t surprise me – it is not so much to do with the food, but what it implies. “The Sunday roast,” she says, “because it brings the family together.”