In conversation with Elena Arzak – 3* Michelin chef from the Basque Country

In April of this year, I had the incredibly good fortune to dine at Arzak, a 3* Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. I have written a full review of the meal here, but another highlight of the day was getting to speak to the joint head chef of the restaurant, Elena Arzak.

Elena clearly embodies the Basque hospitality she holds dear, and I felt genuinely welcome in her presence, despite what must be an incredibly demanding schedule. She never appeared rushed, insisting I ask more questions and even leaving the room to get a book she mentioned to illustrate one of her answers. She clearly doesn’t do things by halves, as evidenced by her thoughtful, eloquent responses (in perfectly fluent English), and of course the elaborate cooking we experienced afterwards.

Upon finding out I was Swiss, she even threw in a bit of Schwiizerdütsch (Swiss-German), which just made me warm to her even more! Her vivacious nature was further evidenced when she joked with us that small women are the ones who make things happen, whilst simultaneously marvelling at my friend’s high heels. A world-class chef she may be, but at the heart of it, she is a down-to-earth Basque woman who simply loves sharing her culture with everyone.

Having studied in Switzerland and worked under a number of world-class chefs (including Ferran Adria, Michel Roux Jr, and Alain Ducasse), Elena Arzak embodies the qualities of a great leader. Her eye contact never wavered, and she projected an innate passion that undoubtedly inspires people to do good work for her. If she had asked me to go and peel potatoes in the kitchen, I would have done so without a second thought, and I would have made sure they were the best damned potatoes anyone had ever seen.

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak. Photo credit: Arzak restaurant

This interview been edited for clarity and length. 

Arzak being a family restaurant, you work very closely with your father, as he did with his mother. What is the best thing about working with family – and what is the worst?

If you work with family, it is the passion they transmit. You work for your own story – for your own history. And the worst… I always say, if you work with family, you work a lot. And you are too direct with each other… I always say we should be a bit more delicate! I accept criticism, but with my father, he will sometimes say: “Elena, what is this? Is this a joke?” I don’t get angry, but I feel that an external chef would never tell you that. But you know, ten days after, I hear “Elena, can you repeat that, that thing you made?” And I say “Ah, the joke?!” (laughs)

What about your children, are they interested in cooking?

When I was a child, there were 11 people in the kitchen here. Now there are 30. So there is not really much space for children anymore. I teach both of them to cook at home, as for me, cooking is very important, for survival as well as for health. I want them to have some basic cooking knowledge, also because cooking is about sharing. If somebody comes to my home, I always give them food, and I want them to have that capacity to cook for those guests, because here in Basque, we are very hospitable people.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like they will work with us at the restaurant. I cannot force them, but also, I want them to choose, like I did.

What does hospitality mean to you?

A good host means giving food. You know… chefs, we eat a lot. We are always eating. And we are always hungry! And we think that a guest, a person who is visiting you, he must also be very hungry, and so, we feed him.

As you said, working with family means you work a lot. How are you able to maintain a work-life balance?

When you are the child of a restaurant like I was, you learn how to organise yourself. I live very close by, and my environment is very positive towards my work. The Basque society is a matriarchal society, where the woman is very strong. You will see a lot of women working here – around 70% of the staff are women, including leading posts. The year my daughter was born, five more Arzak women had children. And they all came back. My husband is an architect, and he has a bit more time than me, so he takes a lot of care of the children, with my help. So yes, you definitely learn to organise, which is something I learned from my mother and grandmother.

Do you feel that the restaurant industry is male-dominated? What do you think could change in order to have more women in top positions?

I think it’s a question of time. When my father did the hotel and cooking school in Madrid, there were maybe three women on his course. When I did it in Switzerland, the ratio was around 40%. And today, when you go to the Basque Culinary Centre, it is equal. But all over the world, the job of women historically has been limited to working at home. It is changing, but it needs more time. Even in Basque, with our matriarchal society, the women were so busy running the restaurant, as well as having the children in the restaurant, that they told the men “Hey, go out, go to the dining room, go to the presentations abroad, I don’t have time”. But this is changing. Now the women are doing it too. In Spain there are a lot of young women that are becoming chefs, and they are really good. They are 28, 29 years old, and this makes me very happy.

Now there are so many food trends, like veganism, paleo diets, and various ingredients. What do you see as a long-term trend, rather than just a phase?

I think people are going to be consuming more vegetables and fish. At Arzak, we try to adapt as much as possible, like vegetarian or vegan versions of our dishes, but the truth is, when we do, it is not 100% the Arzak experience. Even if we try our best, and we do respect it. I see the world changing towards more sustainability as well. I think the mentality of people is changing, people are more aware of the environment, and I am happy about that. We need to do something.

What’s the best dish you have ever made?

I like cooking so much, that every time I make a new dish, I am very happy. But I remember the very first dish I made with my father, which was a tuna salad, with strings of vegetables. It was called “Peak of Tuna”. The other one I am very proud of was a shrimp surrounded by rice noodles and fried, which had the form of a bunch. I called it “Bunch of Crayfish”. Everybody asked for it for a long long time. And there are still some people who ask for it in advance when they come. For me, these are the best dishes I have ever made.

Have you ever made a dish that was a complete disaster?

Many. So many! But the worst… it was a soup of codfish with mint. You know, it was just really horrible. I tried it for a long time, and I gave up. Really horrible. I tried and tried, but it was horrible. Si si, nobody liked it.

If you were not a chef, what would you be?

I cannot imagine not being a chef, but I would do something related to languages, as I like to travel, and I like people from all over the world. Here at Arzak, one of the nicest things is that you can get people from everywhere, from Togo to Latvia. Even from places that I sometimes need to look up online. It’s fantastic. And we speak the same language – through the food.  Thanks to my job, I am able to travel. Only for short periods, because I like to be here in the restaurant as much as possible, but I have travelled to many places, that if I weren’t a chef, perhaps I would never go. Of course my agenda is limited, and there are many places I cannot go, but I will not stress. I will arrive there. I don’t know when, but I will.

Where would you like to travel to? 

A place that I would like to visit is Peru, because they adore fish. There are many cultures together, and this I would like to see. And another one is a radical place. I met a chef from Smøla, it is a very Nordic place, an island that belongs to Norway, where everything is frozen. I would like to see how a chef cooks there – what a challenge! But there are so many places to visit. I wish I could go to them all. I have never been in India, for example. But the problem in India, is that there are so many places, and they are all so different. Where to go?? I cannot go for one month, because also, I don’t know if I am ever going to retire! But I have holidays in November, so maybe then. (I comment that November is a good time to go to India, as it’s not as hot and she responds “Ah I don’t mind! As long as I go! Even with 50 degrees, I will go!”)

Being Swiss, and knowing that you studied in Switzerland, I am curious: What is the best culinary thing about Switzerland?

Switzerland is very similar to the Basque area. We have similar products, because there are a lot of farmers, and the landscapes are very similar. So I felt very at home. I particularly like how the Swiss use vegetables and dairy products. I took some ideas of regional items and I did some things – like here, I did a small Rösti, with saffron, and also I did Spätzle of parsley and garlic. The giroles, which they use for the cheese – I use it for chocolate. So I adapt many ideas, but I especially like how they use milk products in form of desserts, and how they incorporate it into the food. I also love how they use potatoes and celery.

If you were to open another restaurant, where would you like to have it? 

(no hesitation) No idea. No idea, because I don’t like to make plans for the future. The only thing I know, is that I would like to continue here. But I like also the surprise of the future. What is going to happen? This is life.

Do you have a favourite ingredient?

Extra virgin olive oil. And fish. Fish is so delicate, and you need to react very fast, and be very careful. In one minute, you can damage it. If you overcook it for just one minute, all the work you did before is lost.

If you could be a character in any book or film, who would you be?

I would like to be Babette in Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. There is a woman who makes a very special dinner. Me, I wear trousers – but this woman was in a skirt, with an apron – which reminds me of my grandmother. She had such control of the food, wow. I wish I was her!

If you had to give a talk that was not about food, what would the topic be?

If I need to talk about something that is not food, I would like to speak about people helping each other. I miss that in the world: Collaboration and community between humans. It is difficult because maybe I trust people too much? But I still believe in people. It is true, not all people are good, but I miss having spontaneous interactions. People are afraid of being open. I am a person who travels a lot, and fortunately, people are still very kind, but sometimes they are frightened. Once I went to Galway, and I was in a local shop, buying a pullover. And a local woman came to me and said “My daughter is around your age, and she has this one, which is more easy to wash”. In Bucharest, I went to a market, and a woman told me “This is good, but this is better”. There are still kind people! I think we need to have the capacity of seeing that not everybody is bad. Being a little more open. I miss that.

Do you have a favourite book?

Mh, no, not really. I read a lot of cookbooks (smiles). Si si, a lot of cookbooks. The last one – I will show you! (runs out of the room and comes back 2 minutes later). They are bringing it, then I will show you!

Arzak has had 3 Michelin stars for quite a long time now. Do you feel pressure to maintain these?

It’s pressure, of course. But we got used to it, and I think sometimes pressure is necessary. If nobody puts pressure on you, you will relax, and you will start doing less. But my family, we learned to live with that pressure, and my father would always say to me “Elena, we cannot do more than we do. We try our best. And if you get too obsessed you will collapse, you will get blocked, and that is not good.”

But pressure is necessary. I like criticism. If somebody says to me “I expected more from that dish” I will ask “Why?”, they will explain why, and I will thank them. The easiest thing to do is to leave and say nothing, and then I will never know. Of course, if they tell you they don’t like the dish because they don’t like avocado, pues, in this context, that is not my problem. And if he says, this plate has too much garlic, I will say, “That is Basque”. Or “This crab is too strong”, well… we like it like that. Sometimes, you just need to explain, because there can be misunderstandings. But sometimes, they are right. Not long ago, we accidentally put double the sugar in the ice cream. We are human – we make mistakes. And I had one guest, who said that in his opinion, it was a little too sweet. I tried it, and told him, it was impossible to eat! And then we joked about it, because how could he have liked it?

We have four more days in San Sebastian, and have loved exploring all the pintxo places. Do you have a recommendation for where we should eat?

Bueno, in San Sebastian, we adore pintxos! One of my favourites is Bar Ganbara… you have to go there! (She takes her business card and writes down the name of the restaurant and the chef, with a personal greeting, and signs it with a flourish). It’s in the old part, I have a friend there, pregunta por el!

Then the recipe book she had mentioned is brought in, which is a Turkish cookbook. She shows it to us, thumbing through it, chatting about how she loves trying out new recipes, but always in her own way! She tells us about how she once made piña con tandoori and a foie gras dish with pearl powder, after reading about how the maharajas used pearl powder in cooking. She then urged us to take a picture of the cookbook before we left.

(This paragraph has been translated and edited from Spanish)

It was an absolute pleasure speaking to Elena Arzak, and if you enjoyed learning more about her, then do read my review of her restaurant, Arzak, here

Disclaimer: Our meal at Arzak was complimentary, but all opinions are my own. Thank you to Elena and the team for hosting us, and taking the time to answer all my questions.