Geeta Bansal Interviews Elena Arzak, Best Female Chef in the World

Categories: On the Line
Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit to the Basque country, where Elena Arzak rules the kitchen alongside her legendary family. Enjoy!

Top Female Chef en el Mundo!
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef, Clay Oven Irvine

I am constantly trying to learn more about cuisines around the world and individuals in the culinary world who develop new cooking techniques and flavor profiles. Over the last decade, I have followed the career of Elena Arzak of the Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. I was thrilled when Elena was named Veuve Cliquot's Top Female Chef of the World in 2012, part of the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards presented every year. The winner reflects Madame Cliquot's attributes of determination, innovation, and creativity with which almost two centuries ago she established the brand in her attempt to enter and survive in an all male wine industry. In 2011, Anne-Sophie Pic of France was the first recipient of this award. Over her career, Elena has received numerous awards and accolades such as Chef de L'Avenir in 2000, Cofradía de la Alubia de Tolosa in 2002, the Swedish Seafood Award 2011, La Gran Noticia Del Año Gastronomika 2012, and of course the Veuve Cliquot award last year, to name a few.

She is a petite, beautiful, soft spoken, young fourth-generation chef (barely 43) who is creative and inventive at the same time. Elena grew up in a household with many brilliant cooks including her grandmother, aunt, and of course her father Juan Mari Arzak, who is responsible for raising the profile of Spanish (particularly Basque) cuisine in the world. His restaurant obtained one of the first three Michelin stars in Spain for his restaurant Arzak, which Arzak has maintained since 1989, ranked 8th best in the world. Elena has accomplished an impossible task, emerging from the wings backstage of her father's fame into her own spotlight on center stage. She is the head chef along with her father at the only top ten restaurant in the world with a team that includes a female chef. She lives and works in San Sebastian along with her husband Manu Lamosa, a well regarded architect who has designed the kitchens and the salon at Arzak, and her two young children: Nora, who is eight, and her son Matteo, who is six. Aside from working alongside her famous father, she has trained in the top restaurants of Europe with chefs like Ferran Adria, Pierre Gagnaire, and Michel Troisgros, amongst others.

Elena and her father Juan Mari Arzak in their food lab

Elena, along with her father, is constantly exploring the boundaries of cuisine, attempting to create a new form of their Basque cuisine. All this occurs in the food lab that they operate on the restaurant premises. They work as a team, and each dish on the Arzak menu has input from both of them. This month, their new project Ametsa (which means "dream" in the Basque language), on which they have consulted, debuts at the Halkin hotel in London. Elena described it as a dream of a kitchen beyond our frontiers in the heart of London. According to her father, Ametsa will have a team led by Arzak's training and unique culinary style using locally-sourced and organic produce from the sea and land.

Elena and her husband Manu Lamosa

We first met many years ago when I celebrated a birthday at Arzak, and it was as if we were meant to know one another. After dinner we ended up discussing spices and unusual products used in Indian cooking. A few months ago, we attended a gala together and exchanged news, and she was still the same shy, unassuming person who has not changed in any way over the years that I have known her. The first thing she said was "Geeta, everyone is talking about you and whoever comes to Arzak and San Sebastian from California knows you and likes your food."

I told her that it's just that every food lover I know has by now made it to San Sebastian and Arzak (many friends have made culinary explorations based on my hand drawn maps). She first wanted to know how I was doing after my battle with the big C last year and the warm hug did a lot for my spirit. Everyone who visits Arzak comes back raving about Elena not only for her food but her personality (once she walked people to the taxi waiting for them out front after dinner). Elena exemplifies that to be a good cook you have to be a good person first, as the food you create is a reflection of your personality.

I made a request to write about her and ask a few questions, and she said she would be happy to do that but I would have to write something that she thinks about me: "Do not be shy and write that I [Elena] admire you as a chef and your food is very inventive and interesting because you have adapted Indian cuisine and culture to the place where you live and work."

She made me repeat it and said to write it down and she would be looking to read this in my article about her. That, in a nutshell, is trademark Elena: a gentle soul full of warmth, humility and passionate about everything and everyone. We keep in touch and in a conversation a few days ago her first concern was if I was taking care of myself and not doing too much (what with my pop-ups and demos). It is difficult to write about someone you appreciate as a person and the interview process this time was much more difficult for me.

My questions for Elena:

You grew up in a family-run restaurant environment, but did you make a conscious decision to embark on a career in this field? You first ventured into the family restaurant at the age of 11!

I decided myself with complete freedom to enter into cooking and gastronomy as a career. At 11, I was only allowed into the kitchen for 2 hours a day during summer vacations. It allowed me to be with my family, my parents, grandmother and aunt (they were both chefs). I liked the atmosphere and the creative process occurring in the kitchen. It was at the age of 18 after finishing my schooling in San Sebastian I decided to begin my career as a chef. I had also studied languages (she speaks Spanish, French, German, English and, of course, the Basque language of her region). I travelled abroad, studied and trained for six years before coming back to Arzak. I attended the Schweizerische Hotelfachschule, in Luzern, Switzerland and during this time did stages and internships at many restaurants and with many great chefs. I did a lot of training in hotels and restaurants abroad. (Her resume includes time at restaurants such as Michel Roux's La Gavroche, London, at Maison Troigros with Michel Troisgros in Roanne, with Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, Alain Ducasse's XV Monte Carlo, with Claude Peyrot at Le Vivarous, Paris, and at El Bulli, Rosas with Ferran Adria)

Does your sense of familial responsibility to uphold your family's tradition play a role in your professional life?

As you know, my parents gave me and my sister Martha (one year older) complete freedom to choose. My sister Martha studied art and art history (she is currently the Director of Education at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) and I chose to pick up on the passion of my parents as sometimes happens when you are in a certain atmosphere and ambiance. Especially when you are born in a restaurant family, the love of cooking is contagious. My parents were happy with any choice we made and of course it made them happy when I chose gastronomy.

How do you classify your particular style of cuisine? I know it is rooted in the Basque culture but how have you interpreted it in a style that is uniquely your own?

My style is a signature style--Basque, evolving, avant-garde, research-based--passed through a filter of flavors and style rooted in the Basque culture. For example, you know that we use a mole taken from Mexican cuisine in my own style in a filter of Basque flavors, we use products like ginger from Asian culture and you know we have used the Tandoor from your culture as well. We use modern techniques to get the desired results and interesting flavors from the product.

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