Elena Arzak (San Sebastián, 1969) is one of the big names in haute cuisine in Spain. Her last name has helped keep her on her toes and continue the legacy her great-grandparents began. The three Michelin stars (because that’s as many as you can get) speak for themselves.
When did you decide to devote yourself to gastronomy?
Pretty much when I finished school. I already knew when I was 16 years old. I used to help out in my parents’ restaurant every summer and I realized I loved it.
How much is your father to blame for your love of and passion for gastronomy?
A fair amount, but they never forced me. I always paid attention to how he, together with his peers in new Basque cuisine, worked very hard to dignify the cuisine, respect it, improve it, and communicate it to society. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, my father was always bringing strange products home. My sister and I often ate truffles, ginger…
How do you see the role of women in the restaurant world?
They’re finding their path and, little by little, carving out a place for themselves. There’s still a lot to be done, but we’ll do it in the end.
Cases such as Carme Ruscalleda’s or yours are a model for many women who are starting out…
Of course, Carme is a great point of reference both professionally and personally. She really likes cuisine and really respects the flavor. She’s a very generous person and wants to show off her own spirit and her own identity. She tells me to always be myself.
Is it easy to work in a family business?
For me, it’s very special. I spent 7 years away from it with bosses who weren’t my parents, and it’s true that in a family environment you’re more sincere, more direct, and they’re more straightforward with you. My father always told me what he didn’t like. There’s too much trust, but at the same time, you’re fighting for a common goal. I love it. I’ve realized how right they were.
What was COVID-19 like for Elena Arzak?
I got the scare that everyone got. We didn’t know what to do, how to act… I was afraid, to tell the truth. I was at home with my family and I took the opportunity to do an intensive cooking course for them. As for the business, we had to make a temporary redundancy plan; we were really worried. It was a very big blow to the hospitality industry and the world of wine. Still, I took the opportunity to do lots of online recipes, interviews, and work with charity projects.
Do you think the changes in the industry have come to stay?
Somewhat. Especially all the health and hygiene management of the raw materials we get every day and especially the relationship with customers. There’s less physical contact, advice is welcomed, and they’re more respectful of arrival times.
How do you reach the pinnacle of gastronomy?
Well, with a buildup of circumstances. On the one hand, being lucky enough to have been born into a family like mine; second, in knowing how to recognize the efforts of earlier generations; and third, knowing how to maintain it with lots of work.
What do you feel when the Michelin stars arrive?
I grew up around Michelin stars. I remember when they gave my father the third one. He called me (I was in Switzerland back then and there weren’t any cell phones) and he told me he didn’t know how many years he was going to keep them, and today we still have three stars. It’s a great honor for us. Every year, we’re not sure what’s going to happen. We like the pressure because that way we don’t relax.
What do you do to innovate every day? Is the Banco de Sabores responsible?
It’s really important to have the Banco de Sabores [Flavor Bank] because we chefs have lots of ideas, but with the daily grind, they fade away. We’ve had the laboratory since the ’90s; my father believed it was important to separate production from creativity. We make lots of recipes and we work a lot. To give you an idea, 30% of the trials we do are discarded. There are really scary things.
What is the health status of the industry?
The current crisis has really affected us. The situation is really serious and we’re going to need time to recover. We’ll need assistance.
Is there the strength to overcome this?
Those of us who work in hospitality have always been fighters, but the truth is that we’re really worried.
What would you recommend to young people who are starting out in the world of gastronomy?
To get good academic training, to practice a lot, and to believe in themselves. To not throw in the towel right away.
Are there any interesting trends in terms of consumer tastes that you’d like to share?
Yes! We’re really looking at local produce to help out the local economy. You have to combine products that can travel with the ones that can’t.
Tell us about your short-term plans.
In the short term, taking good care of the restaurant and traveling again. I love it. For me it’s like breathing, it opens my eyes and it’s really good for me.
A little taste
Best time for having a glass of wine:
In good company and with food.
A song to enjoy wine to:
Anything with piano. I love the Labèque sisters and a pianist from my neck of the woods called Josu Okiñena.
Somewhere you’d get lost:
The Paseo Nuevo esplanade in San Sebastián, looking at the sea.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to go for walks, eat, read, travel around, go for pinchos and some wine.
A flaw and a virtue:
A flaw, that I repeat things a lot. A virtue, that I’m affectionate.
What did you want to be when you were little?
I always liked cooking, but not ever since I was little.
And now that you’re grown up?