On my recent trip to San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, I met a legend of Spanish gastronomy, Juan Mari Arzak, regarded as one of the world’s top chefs. I called unannounced to present him with a copy of my new book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London.
He’s seventy-four and he’s still cooking in the kitchen at his restaurant, which was awarded three Michelin stars in 1989, a time when Spanish cuisine was still struggling to make a name for itself. He has been at the forefront of what has been called the new Spanish cuisine, taking traditional ingredients and dishes and adapting them.
His daughter Elena, an equally talented chef, works in the kitchen with him, overseeing a team of 30, which includes 10 interns from various parts of the world.
I wanted to know if Juan Mari was still as passionate about cooking as when he began his career.
“Yes! When I can’t sleep I sometimes think up new recipes,” he said.
He has a laboratory at the restaurant, which has over 1,000 plastic containers, each with a different ingredient. It’s here that Juan Mari, Elena, and their team
Come up with ideas such as sardine and strawberry, squid with banana, and chistorra with beer and mango.
They might sound odd combinations, but having tried all of them I can say that they were absolutely delicious.
Elena has received many offers to do TV shows, but she isn’t interested in them.
“I don’t want to be on TV,” she said. “I don’t like it. I prefer to be cooking in the kitchen.”
She also receives many invitations to attend conferences. In the next few weeks she is off to New York, Istanbul, and Milan.
What struck me about the Arzak restaurant is that it is a family business with a deep sense of tradition and views the team as part of the family. In one of the wine rooms is part of a tree and a bottle of wine dating back to 1897 when his grandparents opened the restaurant. Several of the kitchen staff have worked there over 30 years. Two remarkable chefs and a remarkable restaurant.