At Arzak you don’t come to eat, Instagram, pay and leave. You are there to savor, linger, ask, discuss and enjoy. It’s delightful.
Much Ado About Elena
Chef Elena is a head chef alongside her father, Juan Mari Arzak, of world-renowned Restaurant Arzak. They’ve held their three-star Michelin ranking for 27 consecutive years. Chef Elena is born and bred Basque but speaks five languages. She trained under some of the greats such as Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adria. She’s simply one of the best.
The journey to San Sebastian was unquestionably well worth the meal. Nine years after first learning of this culinary destination, my husband and I were seated in Arzak’s main dining room. Our pilgrimage was complete. We were ready to take part in food and drink.
Within minutes of entering the restaurant, we were whisked into the back of the kitchen by the chef’s table. There she stood. Chef Elena, all smiles. She greeted us with a small bow of the head, handshake and apologized for not having enough time to sit down and speak at length. I felt as if someone just handed me a backstage pass with VIP access to meet the rock star of the show. I was a speechless dumbfounded teenager.
Sous chefs were chopping, stirring, pouring liquids and ingredients. It was busy but not chaotic. I even got a couple smiles among the tall white hats. Creative genius in the works. I loved it.
I recognized the chef’s table from Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown.’ In fact, they filmed an episode in this same spot just six weeks prior. To think I was hanging behind the scenes with the woman I was watching on TV not long ago was my reality show moment. Only this time I was the guest.
In Real Life
We met Chef Elena’s husband, an architect, who was on his way home to cover kid duty. She remarked at the yin and yang of their personalities and how they find balance. Where she is creative, he’s mathematical. Where she is exploratory, he’s analytical. I could relate to her story, and soon enough we were chatting and laughing about kids and travels. I let go of my nerves when I realized I was speaking with a genuinely lovely, warm and bright human being.
Chef Elena inquired about my blog (pinch!). She was curious of my passion for food and culture. Her appreciation for fresh ingredients and stimulation of the senses is contagious. You realize you could talk hours about flavor compatibility, textures, scents and how it ties into emotions and memory. However, her intensity for creation and experimentation goes beyond the finished plate. She genuinely loves foodies.
I watched her speak to nearly every table that evening, making the rounds more than once. She doesn’t just report the concept behind each creation, but she invites conversation. It’s not often you get to hear about the 59 failures leading up to the final dish. Moreover, she wants to hear about similar kitchen disasters or experiential culinary adventures you’ve had of your own.
We spoke of Basque identity and how the sea is an integral ingredient in her dishes. Sea bream, cod, anchovy, sardines. These are everyday Basque food. Found in the kitchens and dining rooms of most Basque families, Chef Elena think it’s only appropriate they show up on her menu. Seasonality plays a critical role and the menu changes accordingly. Only the freshest and recent harvest will make it to your plate. Each ingredient is tested ad nauseum and carefully selected when it finally comes together in a playful representation.
Chef Elena is also open to influences from other cultures and countries. Recent travels to South Africa have encouraged her to bring in array of exotic spices. She explained she is open to “anything different” and it’s her curiosity and acceptance of diversity that comes alive in her dishes. I like to think she possesses a healthy dose of #interculture.
I will admit eating haute cuisine is expensive. It’s indulgent. The dishes come out looking so artistic that you feel like you’re eating pieces of Picasso or Monet. There was a time when I was young and frivolous and chased after Michelin stars. But like most things, the thrill fades and you’re left with a false sense of fulfillment. I like to think I’m more appreciative now of these experiences that are fewer and far between. These are delicious moments frozen in time. I remind myself to be present and take it one bite at a time.
Over dessert, I had a chance to ask Chef Elena a final question – ‘If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?’ She laughed wide-eyed ‘I have no idea.’ Her response is genuine and you can tell by her confused shrug of the shoulders that she really can’t imagine doing anything else or wanting anything else. I envy that. It must be liberating to have self-assurance in your life’s work. Later I realize that being a chef is so-ingrained in her identity that it’s never “if” this or “what about” that. It’s “how” do I improve, make things better, and share this with others? Chef Elena is an innovator, a genuine artist.