A Teacher with the Eyes of a Child
Text: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
Image: Spanish chef Juan Mari Arzak. Toya Legido/© ICEX
Patriarch? Teacher of teachers? Pioneer in avant-garde cuisine in Spain? Defining the influence and personality of Juan Mari Arzak requires a special effort at synopsis, considering he has been working behind the stove for over 40 years, at every section of a restaurant that has retained its three Michelin stars since 1989. Today he is the Spanish chef who is most widely respected by his professional colleagues, for his seniority, his impeccable career and, above all, his untiring enthusiasm.
Juan Mari did not take long to decide on his profession. As a child, he was used to smelling the aromas of traditional Basque food both at home and in the restaurant his parents used to run on the outskirts of Donostia-San Sebastián. Everything began a generation before, in 1897, when the grandparents of Juan Mari Arzak built a house where they opened up a tavern. The business was inherited by Arzak's parents, who decided to turn it into an eating-house, which soon gained a good reputation locally. Juan Mari's father died when he was a child, but his mother, Paquita Arratibel, continued the family business and passed on her love of cooking to her son. That was where he learnt about ancestral foodways and the importance of using good ingredients, notions which stood him in good stead throughout his career.
In the mid-1960s, Juan Mari traveled to Madrid to study Technical Architecture, but within a year was back in Donostia-San Sebastián. He studied at the Hospitality School there, then spent some time at various restaurants across the border, in France. Then back to join the family business under the orders of his mother. Arzak is full of praise for all he learned from her. "She taught me how to shop in the market, and to put care and affection into everything being prepared in the kitchen. I'm convinced that a sensitive palate can tell what mood the cook was in when making a dish". He often mentions another trait, "She was modest, a much-appreciated virtue in this profession".
The culinary avant-garde at first hand
Arzak soon took responsibility for the restaurant’s grill and became an expert. But as from the mid-1970s, he moved from tradition towards his own, unique style. Arzak was one of the main figures in a key phenomenon in the recent history of Spanish gastronomy, New Basque Cuisine (Nueva Cocina Vasca). A group of Basque chefs, influenced by Nouvelle Cuisine and Paul Bocuse, took the first steps towards innovating local cooking, introducing sophistication into the traditional recipes and products.
Today, the Arzak restaurant is managed by Juan Mari and his daughter Elena, who has faithfully followed in his footsteps. Elena has studied at catering schools in Spain, France and Switzerland, and has worked at a number of top-level restaurants, including elBulli with Ferran Adrià. But her plan was always to return home, and today she is mainly responsible for the research carried out at the restaurant.
One of Arzak's treasures is his laboratory, which is partly behind the prestige his establishment has won over the last ten years. This is where they experiment with flavors and textures, trying out different combinations. It is the testing-ground for new recipes, the aim being always to surprise and please.
Arzak's menu is constantly changing, adapting, amongst other things, to the seasons. His cuisine is meticulate and full of taste, and has its roots in tradition. Juan Mari states clearly, "Our work is based on our legacy, our culture, but not on things that have already been invented and are already wonderful. The Basque gastronomic culture has its own code of flavors, a sort of heritage that has been built up over the centuries. That’s why, even if we add modern touches, our tastes are still Basque". An example is the freeze-drying technique used in the preparation of traditional fish recipes to enhance flavors.
The products, the seasons, the land and the sea form the foundations of his cuisine, which he observes with the eyes of a child, with innocence. "It's important to think like a child, because that way we can be surprised. Cooking continues to surprise me, and I try to transmit that feeling in my dishes". A child who enjoys traveling, visiting markets and discovering new products. A child who seeks enjoyment. "People who eat well are happy and cheerful. Where there's good food, there's happiness".
Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are definitively expanding their empire. The team announced in december 2012 that it is branching out from San Sebastián, and heading to London. The home of the duo’s second restaurant is none other than the Halkin Hotel, a luxurious 5-star venue in the city’s Belgravia district. The team behind this project, called Ametsa, is equally star-studded: Juan Mari and Elena will join forces with chefs Mikel Sorazu, Xabier Gutierrez, and Igor Zalakain.