An interview with Juan Mari Arzak

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd November 2014
Ahead of the Michelin guide Spain and our videos with this months featured chef Elena Arzak, we spoke to her father, world renowned chef Juan Mari Arzak. Juan Mari was made for the world of cooking. He was born into a family of chefs and grew up in the kitchen of his parents’ restaurant. The Basque restaurant in San Sebastian was originally a tavern until being turned into a restaurant by Arzak’s parents and, after Juan Mari took over in 1966, has won a string of awards including a first Michelin star in 1974. He has become a legendary chef, not just in Spain but around the world, revolutionising Basque cuisine in the process. J.M. ARZAK M1What made you decide to become a chef? “I was born in a restaurant and I lived in a restaurant. I was studying and, on holidays, I helped my Mother in the restaurant so it was a natural progression.” As a child, Juan Mari spent a lot of time in his parents’ kitchen, but originally he didn’t want to become a chef. He went to Madrid to study technical architecture, but a friend convinced him to study hotel and restaurant management but he acknowledges that most of his knowledge comes from his mother Paquita. In the 1970s, the New Basque Movement took place, inspiring Juan Mari and his colleague Pedro Subijana to go to France and learn about nouvelle cuisine. After returning to Spain he experimented with Basque ingredients and his newly acquired knowledge. He did a lot of research in culinary technologies and made his food ‘avant-garde’. The results have changed Basque cuisine forever and made Juan Mari famous. He changed the way people think about Spanish food and gave chefs like the renowned Ferran Adrià the courage to implement their own ideas. Obviously, you’re one of the forefathers of modern Basque cuisine. What made you decide to become part of the movement? What was it that needed changing? “It needed to evolve. I went to study different things but when I came back, it felt like Basque cuisine needed modernising. Food is a real cultural building block in the Basque country so that’s why we started, we felt like we needed to give Basque food more of a global presence.” In 1969 his daughter Elena was born, eventually joining him at Arzak. They worked together as joint chefs and developed the Arzak cuisine further. Elena has inherited her father’s willingness to experiment and gave the Basque cuisine a more modern touch. Together they received three Michelin stars in 1989 and opened another restaurant in London, the Ametsa with Arzak instruction, in 2013.Ametsa entrance 2 without model resized Do you feel that the current menu at Arzak reflects the style of San Sebastian? “Basque cuisine, like all the cuisines in the world, has evolved. Right now, San Sebastian is spear-heading the global food movement. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my daughter and the team behind me.” We certainly noticed the team ethic when we visited the restaurant. How does the work in San Sebastian reflect in the London restaurant? “All we’ve had to do is adapt to the country. We’ve adapted to the country in terms of the products that are available to us here. We’ve not adapted our ideas. British people seem to really like Basque food, particularly contemporary Basque cuisine, it appeals to the pallet so we haven’t had any problems here.” There are many British chefs who are influenced by Spanish cuisine. What does Spain now think of British food? “Now, it’s really strong.” What’s your relationship like with The Halkin? “We’ve been here for a year and half now. There are ideas and dishes from the restaurant that we brought here with us. They had a clear idea of what they wanted to do from the very beginning. It’s been good so far, we communicate well.” Ametsa interior resized SMALLHow do you find the produce here in the UK and does it lend itself well to what you’re trying to do? “Obviously it’s a bit more of an effort for us to source the ingredients but we’re able to find everything we need. We’ve found lots of suppliers we really like but we’ve had to adapt a little bit. The hake here, for example, won’t have the same taste as it does back home so we’ve had to adjust some of our recipes slightly to get the tastes that we want. In Spain the produce is different, here you have grouse, woodcock and partridge. These are small differences that have forced us to adapt slightly but they are not problems, it is exciting.” The game dishes that you’ve spoken of, do you think you could take them to San Sebastian? “Well we don’t have grouse. We could do, the taste is excellent but it would undermine our basic criteria which is to use local produce. So we could, but we wouldn’t. The regional differences are interesting. For instance, hake is something we prize in Spain but here, it is not very well thought of.” What do you think of British shellfish? “They’re fantastic. You should eat more fish on this island of yours, you are surrounded by water so there’s an abundance of fantastic produce.” Juan Mari is a great chef with innovative ideas. He has done something no one else has ever dared before him: he made it possible for chefs to vent their creativity and leave the traditional path of Spanish cooking. He has pioneered modern Basque cuisine and changed it forever and shared his valuable knowledge with his daughter Elena. Chef, thank you so much for talking to us you’ve been fantastic. “Our pleasure, thanks for coming. I must add, we love your videos!” By Tom Evans

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd November 2014

An interview with Juan Mari Arzak