San Sebastián and Basque Cuisine
San Sebastián is an elegant, majestic city that was chosen by Queen María Cristina, widow of King Alfonso XII, as a summer retreat in the late 19th century. Looking out over the Bay of Biscay, traces of the city's splendid past can still be seen.
Elena and Juan Mari Arzak at marketReal Academia de Gastronomía
San Sebastián is famous for its cuisine. As well as being home to the restaurants of several internationally renowned chefs, the city is known for high-quality local produce from the Cantabrian Sea and Gipuzkoan mountains, its popular bars offering "pintxos" (tapas served on cocktail sticks), and the locals' love of good food.
The "Basque pantry" is the main source of the area's varied gastronomic offerings. These include anchovies, tender peas, and Idiazabal cheese in the spring; tuna, sardines, chilies, and peppers in the summer; seasonal mushrooms, "kokotxas" (the lower part of a hake or cod's chin), and game in autumn; and Tolosa beans, spider crab, and much-loved baby eels in winter, to name but a few.
The Arzak Family
It was in this environment that Juan Mari Arzak was born and raised. Arzak was one of the driving forces behind the New Basque Cuisine, which put the Basque Country on the international gastronomic map during the 1980s. Now 75, he remains at the helm of the family business, along with his daughter, Elena.
Wedding Celebration in the Arzak RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía
Located on Avenida Alcalde Elósegui, in the Alto de Miracruz area of San Sebastián, Arzak started out as a small bistro.
In the words of Arzak himself, "My grandparents built the house in which the restaurant stands today. That was in 1897, and from that day on the restaurant has always operated under the family name."
In its early days, Arzak was a wine cellar, bar, and bistro. When Juan Mari's parents inherited the business, they specialized in banquets for family celebrations.
With his parents still running the restaurant, Juan Mari began to look into taking the business in a new direction.
Young Juan Mari ArzakReal Academia de Gastronomía
Training and Returning Home
At 17, Juan Mari began studying at the Escuela Superior de Hostelería y Turismo (School of Hospitality Management and Tourism) in Madrid, later training under Paul Bocuse and Alain Senderens in France, and Frédy Girardet in Switzerland.
In 1966, he and his mother took over the running of the restaurant, and the 2 of them began to discover the secrets of traditional Basque cuisine. Within a short time, the young chef was putting his own stamp on these traditional recipes.
"I wanted to breathe new life into it, being surrounded as I was by the great professionals of the trade, in what would later become known as the New Basque Cuisine," he says.
Juan Mari and the New Basque Cuisine
In the mid-1970s, a group of chefs headed by Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana created the movement known as the New Basque Cuisine. It included the chefs Karlos Arguiñano, José Juan Castillo, Tatus Fombellida, Ramón Roteta, Patxi Kintana, Luis Irizar, Ricardo Idiakez, Xabier Zapirain, Pedro Gómez, Manolo Iza, Jesús Mangas, and Ramón Zugasti.
Group of Basque chefsReal Academia de Gastronomía
"Using the innovative example of French nouvelle cuisine, our group of restless chefs was the driving force behind the movement that would come to be known as the New Basque Cuisine," says Juan Mari.
"Its journey began in a significant year, 1976, after an equally significant event: the first Gastronomy Roundtable, organized by 'Club de Gourmets' magazine, founded in April of the same year. That was the first step in the monumental culinary revolution that went on to take place across the nation."
Juan Mari ArzakReal Academia de Gastronomía
As Juan Mari recalls, "After the hardships of the post-war period, Basque cuisine—like all Spanish cuisine—had lost its best qualities. It had become routine and ordinary, and international haute cuisine was becoming a victim of its own rigid and immutable principles."
Begi haundi' (a kind of squid) in its ink sauce (1986)Real Academia de Gastronomía
The Recipes that Paved the Way
In a Spain that hung on to tradition, these innovations were not initially well-received.
However, some of the dishes that came in for fierce criticism are not only still on restaurant menus, either as they were or in a modernized form, but have frequently been copied and adapted. These include "hojaldre de puerros" (leeks in puff pastry), warm salads, scrambled eggs with scallops and mushrooms, and "begi aundi" (squid with warm vinaigrette).
A Constantly Evolving Cuisine
Juan Mari's personality permeates Arzak's cuisine. Faithful to his roots and with a constantly evolving inventive energy, the produce dominates every dish, and his creativity and Basque spirit shine through.
Hake with clams a "salsa verde"Real Academia de Gastronomía
Hake with Clams
Hake with clams in a "salsa verde" or herb sauce was a popular dish in Juan Mari's mother's day, and Juan Mari reinvented the recipe, giving it a touch of haute cuisine.
Scorpion Fish CakeReal Academia de Gastronomía
Scorpion Fish Cake
One of Juan Mari's classic creations is "pastel de kabrarroka" (scorpion fish cake). The dish is now popular throughout Spain and Juan Mari has made several different versions of it.
Menhir of OystersReal Academia de Gastronomía
Another of Juan Mari's creations was his "Menhir of Oysters," which were a frequent ingredient in Arzak's kitchen.
One of his latest methods of serving these molluscs is to roast them, then use a metal clamp to hold the shells shut once separated by the heat of cooking, as seen in this photo.
Arzak restaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía
Beyond the Kitchen
Over the years, changes and developments have taken place not only in the kitchen, but also in the dining room. What was once a small family home has been renovated and converted into a modern, elegant, and welcoming restaurant.
San Sebastian 2016Real Academia de Gastronomía
For a few years, Arzak's cuisine was simultaneously acclaimed and misunderstood. The restaurant received its first Michelin star in 1972, and its second one 6 years later. In 1989, Arzak became the first Spanish restaurant to have 3 Michelin stars.
"I don't know if it's the best in the world, but this is the land that I love the most because my roots are here. Although that's not to say that there aren't many great cuisines," says Juan Mari. This philosophy is evident not only in his cooking, but also in the talks and conferences on gastronomy that he has attended over the years.
Elena Arzak joined the family-run restaurant in the 1990s, and now shares the running of the kitchen with her father.
Juan Mari Arzak visiting his daughter, Elena, in SwitzerlandReal Academia de Gastronomía
"My first contact with the kitchen was when I was little, in the summer. I used to go to my father's restaurant in the summer break and spend a couple of hours there, helping out with whatever they asked me to do," Elena remembers. She would later go on to study hospitality management in Switzerland.
Before settling back at home, she spent time in great European restaurants such as Maison Troisgros, Pierre Gagnaire, Carré des Feuillants, and Le Vivarois in France; Le Louis XV in Monaco; Le Gavroche in London; and Antica Osteria del Ponte, in Italy.
Elena Arzak cookingReal Academia de Gastronomía
"The first dish that I made with my father was when I was 19. I used to cook at home, and experiment with recipes such as savory soufflés." At Ferran Adrià's El Bulli, one of the restaurants in which she worked before joining her father's team, she created many other dishes.
Squid circleReal Academia de Gastronomía
An Internationally Renowned Chef
In 2001, Elena Arzak received the International Academy of Gastronomy's "Chef de l’Avenir" (Chef of the Future) award. In 2001, she was awarded Spain's National Gastronomy Award, and in 2012 she won the Veuve Clicquot Award for the World's Best Female Chef.
Local produce, the evolution of Basque cuisine, innovation, and research are the pillars of Elena Arzak's kitchen, and they are clearly visible in one of her signature dishes, "círculo de chipirón" (squid circle).
Paquita Arratibel in Arzak restaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía
"Having so many women at Arzak is normal for us. My paternal grandmother and my great grandmother were both cooks. And in the restaurant, there have always been more women than men in the kitchen and dining room. I've never had to think about being a woman; the only thing I've had to do is work hard."
She recalls that when she had her first daughter, Nora, another 5 babies were born to staff at the restaurant, and it continued to run as usual.
Chemistry and Creativity
These 2 pillars of Arzak's kitchen are developed in the restaurant's laboratory.
Elena and Juan Mari ArzakReal Academia de Gastronomía
"Our work at Arzak is divided into several parts: the kitchen, the dining room, the laboratory, the office, and maintenance," explains Xabier Gutiérrez, director of the innovation department, in his book "Asfalto culinario, el laboratorio de Arzak" (Culinary Asphalt: The Arzak Laboratory).
"Each of these 5 elements plays a vital role in the smooth running of our restaurant. The whole complex mechanism is managed by Juan Mari […] He has the final say over what works and what doesn't. If things go well, it's down to him; if they don't, he takes the blame."
Elena Arzak and Xabier Gutiérrez in the laboratoryReal Academia de Gastronomía
In the laboratory, which is equipped with the latest technology, Gutiérrez comes up with ideas for future dishes, alongside Igor Zalakain, Elena Arzak, and other chefs. "We focus on developing ideas, looking for flavors, and reinventing concepts, with everyone contributing to the process. That is the main reason why we read and travel."
They have a "flavor bank" that contains over 1,000 products and ingredients, which they use for research and to inspire their creativity.
Arzak wine cellarReal Academia de Gastronomía
An Impressive Wine Cellar
"The collection was started by my grandparents, expanded by my father and I continued to add to it later," says Juan Mari. It is managed by Mariano Rodríguez, who was given the award for best sommelier by the International Academy of Gastronomy in January 2016.
The index of almost 3,000 items uses a labeling system that makes them easy to find and shows how many are left, the purchase price, and their price on the menu.
Foie Totem with Mango DressingReal Academia de Gastronomía
Ametsa: The Arzaks' London Restaurant
In 2012, the Arzaks opened Ametsa in London. The restaurant combines the traditional flavors and techniques of New Basque Cuisine with a touch of the cutting edge. Faithful to their philosophy of staying rooted in the land and its produce, the raw ingredients for their dishes are sourced not from the Basque Country but from across Britain.
The restaurant's interior was designed by Ab Rogers Design, based in London, and inspired by the original aesthetic of the San Sebastián restaurant.
Elena and Juan Mari ArzakReal Academia de Gastronomía
In the words of Juan Mari Arzak, "Chefs can't be replaced by robots because they have something that robots don't: imagination and creativity. And the most important thing about creativity is the ability to always think like a child."
Text: María García.
Imagen: Arzak Restaurant.
Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy
This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.