Pleasure / September 2015

Arzak & Arzak, San Sebastián

Juan Mari Arzak, the founding father of nueva cocina vasca, and his daughter, Elena Arzak, continue to push the boundaries of Basque gastronomy at their family restaurant in San Sebastián.

Cocooned by impenetrable mountains, the Basques are the oldest indigenous ethnic group in Europe. Resisting the onslaught of Indo-European invasions, they have lived uninterrupted in the region since the beginning of recorded history. They speak a language with no linguistic relation to any other Indo-European tongue, one dating back to before the Roman conquest. A rare exception within the context of European political history, their traditions derive directly from the Neolithic Age, with many cultural features of ancient Europe surviving well into the nascent 1900s, most remarkable of which are the religion of Mari, the mother goddess, and the sacrosanct matrilineal kinship.

It comes as no surprise, then, that at Arzak - located in San Sebastián, the culinary nexus of the Basque region, and one of the most revered three-Michelin-starred temples of haute gastronomy in the world - a woman should be at the helm, co-conducting the intricate orchestra that is the running of a restaurant of this calibre.

Softly-spoken, svelte and gamine, Elena Arzak - lauded in 2012 as the best female chef in the world by The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, and, as of 2015, the only woman in the list's top 20 - is as much the face of the restaurant as her father, Juan Mari Arzak, the founding father of nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cuisine) whose 5'5' stature belies his larger-than-life gregariousness and charisma.

A colossus of a chef, whose trailblazing modernism paved the way so others, such as Ferrán Adria , could do what they did at places such as elBulli, Juan Mari Arzak inspires veneration from peers, acolytes and admirers alike. Adria  has said, 'He's the most important figure in Spanish cooking ... the hinge between generations. He is more than a chef. He is a leader.' José Andrés, the Washington D.C.-based chef/owner of Minibar and Jaleo, and all-round Spanish foods ambassador-at-large, hails him as, 'El grande. El unico. Juan. Mari. Arzak.'

It's exactly the kind of legendary repute that casts a long shadow. That Elena Arzak stands tall, never in the shadow, is as telling about her as it is about the depth and strength of this unique father-daughter bond. Of course, that she happens to be a woman in the driver's seat is not unusual in the Basque country, traditionally a matriarchal society. At the restaurant, women account for 80 per cent of the team (including service staff and chefs de partie). Elena says: 'When my father was a child, he was sometimes the only man in the kitchen. Basque culture is a matriarchal culture, and women have a lot of power. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in that environment. I know a lot of female chefs have not had an experience like mine, and I wish they could have.'

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Joycelyn Shu