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Geeta Bansal Interviews Juan Mari Arzak, the Father of Spanish Cuisine!

Categories: On the Line
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Juan Mari Arzak and Isabelle Adria (Picture by Albert Adria)

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 with Juan Mari Arzak, the renowned Basque chef. Enjoy!
The Father of Modern Spanish Cuisine: Chef Juan Mari Arzak
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner at Clay Oven Irvine


It was with quite a bit of trepidation that I requested chef Arzak if I could ask him questions about his work and life. I have to say that despite my extreme regard and respect for him, I am a little intimidated by him. Then I remembered the jovial side of him, especially around pinxtos (tapas) and Jamon Iberico. One of my most cherished memories is enjoying tapas with Chef Arzak, Isabelle Ferran Adria and my husband Praveen and having that memory saved forever by a photograph that Albert Adria took of all of us. On my last visit to San Sebastian I showed him that picture and he said "Wow!" The next day he said let me see that again and another "Wow!" He is known to play practical jokes on people, and then it became a joke between us. He did say that he has the heart of a child despite his 73 years on the planet.

Chef Arzak is a very well-liked and respected chef and personality in Spain and is credited with being the instigator of the New Basque cuisine. In Donostia, San Sebastian he is treated as the uncrowned king of cuisine as well as the town. His story is fascinating and his journey from humble beginnings to the Chef receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Restaurant Magazine 2012 ceremony is an inspiration in itself.

His restaurant Arzak has been on the culinary landscape of San Sebastian for over a hundred years. His grandparents opened a tavern in the village of Alza in 1897, which is now part of the town of San Sebastian. According to the locals in this part of the Basque country (Alto de Miracruz), the wine served in their tavern was of poor quality and the locals, with their typical sarcastic Basque sense of humor, called it the Alto de Vinagres (House of Vinegar).

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Arzak Restaurant in San Sebastian

In 1942, Ramon Arzak and Francisca Arratibel (his parents) took it over and turned the tavern into a more refined establishment. With Paquita Arratibel (a renowned Basque female chef) in the kitchen, they served simple local dishes based on the plentiful seafood bounty of the area. The cuisine was centered on eels, hake, and squid from the harbor in various forms: batter fried, with parsley sauce, or squid ink to name a few. I mention this because to this day, these Basque traditions have been maintained at Arzak by Chef Arzak and his daughter Elena, despite them both being at the forefront of culinary innovation, with cutting edge techniques and scientific research that is ongoing in their food lab upstairs. There is also an area that holds over a 1500 plus ingredients that they refer to as the Banco de Sabores or the Taste Bank, with spices and ingredients from around the world.

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Bonito Canela

Chef Arzak was born into this environment in 1942 in the restaurant itself where the family lived and worked. He lost his father at the age of nine, and then his mother took over the operation of the family business. At this time the restaurant had a well developed reputation but was far from the elegant fine-dining establishment it is now. At the age of ten, Juan Mari (an only child) went away to El Escorial School in Madrid. When he turned 19 he enrolled in the school of hotel and restaurant management Escuela de Hosteleria de la Casa de Campo in Madrid. He had never planned to become a chef though he had learnt a lot about cuisine from his mother while growing up in the family business. After graduation he wanted to study architecture (many of his plates at Arzak have architectural components), but with encouragement from a friend who was studying gastronomy, he changed his mind. While a culinary school he found his true calling in life and is still pursuing it to this day.

In 1966 he joined the restaurant that his mother Paquita was managing. His mother gave him an area of the diner with a small grill where he started creating contemporary cuisine. Juan Mari started preparing his new plates despite the objections of the locals, who took time to come around. If, according to his mother, his food tasted fine, she was on board with his new cuisine, and he continued his culinary explorations. His wife Maite Espina joined Restaurant Arzak in 1967, and the couple worked together to bring the restaurant standards and style up to where it is now. Their two daughters Marta and Elena were born during this period, and when he was 32 he earned his 1st Michelin star as well the National Gastronomy Award. He was on his way to taste the landscape of Spanish cuisine forever.

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With Pedro Subijiana, his close friend, in the Basque country

A new era in the gastronomy of the Basque region called the New Basque Cuisine was initiated by a Round Table on Gastronomy in 1976, where a speech by French chef Paul Bocuse gave a new direction to Chef Arzak and his long time friend Pedro Subijana (of the acclaimed Akkelare restaurant in San Sebastian). The two friends packed their bags and took off for Lyon, France, to learn from the master of nouvelle cuisine. During this time Juan Mari created lifelong relationships and friendships with chefs who later became household names around the world. They kept meeting at subsequent round tables and cooking together. I can only imagine the conversations and the work of these present day gods of cuisine. Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Ramon Olivera, Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana (here is the perfect story for a movie!) discussing the future of gastronomy.

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With the Adria brothers, Ramon Olivera and Robuchon

This led to the creation of monthly dinners at restaurants that were part of this movement to be prepared as a team with all those involved in this Round Table on Gastronomy II. Chef Arzak was a part of this initiative to transform and energize regional cuisines, which continued until 1989. That year Arzak was awarded its third Michelin star which it has maintained to this day. This 22-year span from 1990 to 2013 has brought Spanish cuisine to the forefront in a movement by Ferran Adria alongside Juan Mari and other notable Spanish chefs.

During this time Arzak Restaurant has thrived and continued its commitment to taking their heritage into the future. Now his daughter Elena has joined him and they have worked as a team for the last 12 years. Elena, with her Best Female Chef award last year, has brought more glory to this century old house of cuisine. There is a close family-like bond between the members of the team at Arzak, with the majority of the staff being female. I find it endearing that Chef Arzak, this patriarch of the Arzak family, has such respect for women and their capabilities. His older daughter Marta works as a Director of Education at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and is also involved with the restaurant in an advisory capacity.

Chef Arzak has been part of the effort to create conferences and events such as the Madrid Fusion, the Gastronomika , BCN Vangaurdia, and the Salon Internacional del Club de Gourmets. He is an important part of the dialogue regarding cuisine at the National and International levels.

This past week Chef Arzak opened a new restaurant (Ametsa) at the Halkin Hotel in London which is under his instruction and guidance. Elena and he, along with five key team members from Arzak, have worked on the concept and organization. In his own words, they work at their operations in a disciplined, educated, and fraternal environment always in close cooperation with other relevant chefs. His daughters are the fourth generation of this historic tradition and gastronomy is in their blood. This house is here to stay!

My questions for Chef Arzak in a mixture of French, English and Spanish.

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