Home Cooking with Elena Arzak: Basque spirit, learning from her father and cooking for the family

Giulia Sgarbi - 03/05/2019

In the third part of our Home Cooking series, presented by Miele, Elena Arzak takes us on a trip down memory lane through her first recollections of Restaurant Arzak, what she learnt from her father Juan Mari and how she continues to find inspiration as a chef

Read the interview, then watch the video with the Basque cook and discover her recipe for homemade spider crab and crab cookies.

Arzak was founded in 1897 by my great-grandparents. At the beginning it was a tavern and later it turned into a restaurant. My father, Juan Mari, and his team revolutionised new Basque cuisine. They changed the restaurant’s style from traditional Basque to an innovative, modern restaurant. 

I will never forget when I was very young, about six years old, and I entered the restaurant – it was an incredible aroma. My father, seeing him with my grandmother cooking at the restaurant, boiling crabs, chopping vegetables – it was fascinating to learn from them. That moment stayed in my mind. 

My father and my family always tasted my food with a lot of respect. When I was around 11 years old, I used to make simple soufflés with cheese and ham. My technique wasn't very good and my soufflés always collapsed, but they were encouraging because they didn't want to stop my excitement and progress.

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak; the exterior of Arzak in San Sebastian

When I started to do professional gastronomy in the late 80s and early 90s, my father was already very well-known. I had two possibilities: either do something else or give it all I had.

I will never regret my decision. I want to thank everybody who helped me and understood that I wanted to live for this cause. When your family is in the business, the passion is very contagious.

Eighty per cent of the success of a good dish is down to the produce. Going to the market in San Sebastian and bringing my family and my friends the best ingredients is an exercise of showing them how to consume food for their health, for their pleasure, and also because we want to help the producers. We prefer to buy from them directly – for me that’s a must.

By showing your family what is healthy and how to enjoy it, you share with them your knowledge. This is something we need to pass on from one generation to the next.

Twenty years ago, Arzak’s dishes were extraordinary, but in my opinion, they had too many elements. You can’t define our cuisine these days as ‘simplified’, because behind it there is a lot of technique and thought, but there are fewer elements.

Elena Arzak at the local market

Basque food is subtle and delicate. It depends a lot on the seasons and the produce available. We don't use many spices; we like to extract the best from each product and convey its essence with the right cooking technique and texture.

My father likes new people and new ideas and he is always open to them. For me, he's so good at it that I still ask him to taste all our dishes. He comes to work with us every day, and he always talks about the future as if he were to live 60 more years. That energy is also what he wants to transmit, and what I want to share with my team.

My brain is full of ideas and new projects. I want to be a chef and continue to make new dishes because what I like about cuisine is that even if you think everything has already been invented, you always can find new ways of doing things.

My biggest source of inspiration is my local area. I like to go to the pintxos bars and see classic combinations or look at what my friends are cooking. I might see two products at the market that are available in the same season but that I’ve never combined, like eels and pomegranate, and put them together.

Lobster with banana threads and leek

Inspiration is everywhere, but it's up to your eyes to see it. I also read books and listen to young people to get new ideas. You could be inspired by the colours being used by a painter, the shape of a sculpture, or even by a song.

Cooking at home is not the same as cooking at the restaurant. At the restaurant there is a team, the garlic is chopped, the foams are made. At home, you need to do everything by yourself, you cannot be too complicated. But if you are a chef, you don't mind where you cook.

We have lots of fun cooking at home, for us it's like a hobby. I want to pass on my knowledge to my children and teach them how to cook, so that even if they move to the other side of the world, they can go to the market and buy fresh food and cook something healthy that they can share.

The most important thing is the effort you put in. I burnt so many things that you cannot imagine. Cook the recipe that suits you better, believe in yourself and believe that you can be a chef.

Now watch Arzak prepare a dish with spider crab for her friends:

Go inside Jorge Vallejo’s home in Mexico City to discover how he makes his signature chicken casserole:

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