Elena Arzak
Photo by Sara Santos

Elena Arzak: “We need to be open to change”

Short Profile

Name: Elena Arzak
DOB: 4 July 1969
Place of birth: Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
Occupation: Chef

Ms. Arzak, when did you first fall in love with food?

Everything was always based around food! I remember my father used to bring me and my sister to the local market here, and if we were well-behaved, he would take us to eat pintxos at our favorite restaurant. Still, even today, when I have free time, I love to go to that bar to have a bite and a glass of wine. So I have always loved food, I have grown up around it. Our restaurant Arzak has been passed down through the generations: my grandmother was a chef, and my father is still today. I liked that atmosphere so much that I decided to be a chef at a young age… I never thought to be something else.

It seems like food is not only part of your family tradition, but also deeply ingrained in the culture of San Sebastián and the Basque region.

Yes. San Sebastián — where I was born, where I live now, and where our restaurant Arzak is located — is a gastronomic destination. There are a lot of bars, tapas bars, which we call pintxo bars, small restaurants, even several Michelin star restaurants, avant-garde restaurants… This is a place where you can come and find a lot of possibilities to eat, even for the locals. There are markets where tourists can even bring food home with them. So the Basque region has always been intertwined with food culture.

“We respect the heritage of our culture; so what is valid from the past, we use for the future.”

Where do you think that stems from?

We don’t know exactly why… One reason could be geographical: we are located in the north of Spain on the border of France and the North Atlantic, so we have a lot of marvelous seafood. The climate is also very good for farmers selling their products. Another reason is that we respect a lot the heritage of our culture; so what is valid from the past, we use for the future. In the seventies, there was a revolution called New Basque cuisine, nueva cocina Vasca, which my father helped pioneer. And that movement was very important to the cultural interest in food.

What did that food revolution look like exactly? What kind of transformation can we see?

So, the revolution was very important because one of the main things they did is to correct some traditional recipes that were perhaps not cooked in the right way. For example, a beloved Basque dish is squid with ink sauce — perhaps this traditional recipe was too oily or overcooked. Perhaps the flavor of something like crab a la Donostiarra was too strong or too extreme, so they would correct it. They also opened the register of flavors from other parts of the world: ginger, spices, exotic fruits that could withstand the travel, they added all of this to our cuisine, and started to create modern versions of the dishes we knew and loved.

By modern, do you mean more refined?

More refined, lighter flavors, shorter cooking time, local ingredients, fresh products… But also a more playful approach, more personality on the plate. For example, in San Sebastián, everyone at one time in their life will go fishing for crabs. So one of our dishes is based on a traditional recipe, but with a surprise: spider crab galette served in the special net used for crab hunting. It has a lighter flavor than the original recipe, it’s fun, and it’s local. I like to play, I like that kind of humor!

It just goes to show that a classic dish can still be forward-thinking.

Yes! Classic is always classic, but I’m of the opinion that classic also evolves. As our attitudes change, so do our food traditions… This is fantastic. If you think, for example, of sushi: when I was a kid, I never ate sushi in San Sebastián. The first time I ate sushi was in London when I went on a work trip! And today, you can find sushi with local fish from San Sebastian… I even make it at home with my kids. So we need to be open to change!

And do you hope that Basque cuisine continues to evolve in this way?

I hope that Basque cuisine continues to stay very creative. I think the biggest evolution for our cuisine in the next 10 years will be more pride in the local products. We are already working to be more sustainable, but I think in the next years, there will be more of a focus on trying to express everything that is around you, but with thought and innovation. We can’t forget about the new technology; we know more about food thanks to technological innovation than before. And to get even more textures on a plate, we need innovation. It would be a shame not to use that.

These kind of food revolutions and innovations are really essential to keeping things moving forward in the industry.

I think to stay doing the same thing is very boring! But at the same time, I’ve also been thinking that things can move too fast, and I want it to slow down! Some traditions and values have been forgotten… I think it’s important to slow down. Not to relax or stop, but just to slow down. As humans, we need to be creative, we need to express ourselves and to communicate, but we don’t need to rush it. The changes don’t have to be such a big movement either; if I look at what we are doing now at Arzak, smaller plates with fewer ingredients, different flavors, more simplicity… I would say, “Wow, we have changed.”

More of a personal revolution than a worldwide movement.

Si. I’ve moved to this way of rethinking. I think one of the keys to this kind of rethinking is to be surrounded by young people! A lot of young chefs come to train at Arzak, they come from all over the world. I don’t mind where they are from, I just like their talent. Right now we have chefs here training from India, from Madrid, from Finland, so there is a good mix of our Basque cuisine, and what they bring to us from their homelands; spices, recipes from their families, traditional cookbooks. They’re also asking a lot of questions about our cooking culture and history — questions I would never think they would ask! But this helps to make a study of your own cuisine, and it turns into a learning experience for you, too.