We met Elena Arzak, from 3 Michelin-starred Arzak in San Sebastian and Ametsa with Arzak Instruction in London, to discuss her career in cooking and her thoughts on the restaurant industry.
What would you say is the unique charm of Ametsa which diners love so much?
I like Ametsa because it is a small restaurant and we get very much in contact with the guests. Also, many diners coming to us know us in advance. On the other hand, the guests are mixed – we get diners from all over the world.
Which is the star dish at Ametsa?
Egg dishes are always very popular at Ametsa. For example, ‘egg in the leaf’ is a new dish we have now. Fish is also very important, as it is in San Sebastian. Most of our fish comes from Cornwall and in particular I like the sea bass and John Dory. The quality of the fish from Cornwall is fantastic, and as a Basque I need to serve nice fish.
Who has been the most influential chef on your own cooking?
I have been influenced by many chefs, but of course the most influential to me was, and is, my father. I have worked with him for more than 25 years. For creativity I admire El Bulli, but I like to discover new chefs, and day by day I discover many great chefs.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is a personal style with a modern touch but its roots are in my Basque culture.
Which restaurants do you enjoy dining in when you come to London?
Every time I come to London I try to go somewhere new – the food scene in London is enormous, I would need a month to try everywhere. Last time I was here I went to The Ledbury, Jose Pizarro and Clove Club.
Is there a secret formula for running a successful kitchen?
You need to love your profession, believe in what you do, and work a lot but enjoy it. It’s a way of life where you don’t count the hours – if you are a chef, you must enjoy what you do.
What do you see as the future of food trends?
The future for me is chefs being closer to producers. And also having a close relationship with the guest – we don’t just cook for the plate, we cook to have a dialogue with the guest, to give the guest a message on the plate.
Most memorable meal of your life?
I will always remember the first time I smelled boiling crab. I was very small in the restaurant, and it was a seafood taste, but very clean. I also liked very much when I went to El Bulli, and had a plate based on different textures of vegetables.
How did you find your experience on MasterChef Australia?
I enjoyed learning how people who are not professional chefs approach food. They see it in a different way, they are not as technical as we are. I also noticed how important these programmes are for people, and it’s great that they help spread gastronomy.
What do you do to relax when you aren’t in the kitchen?
I am almost always in the kitchen, but I have a family and I like to discover new places with them. I also like to travel and to read.
What cuisine excites you most?
I like all cuisines that I don’t know. I like Asian, Latin, Nordic, anything that is well done. I love to discover.
What was it like becoming a Michelin-starred chef at such a young age?
My father got the third star in 1989 so I jumped into a system that was working very well. I am very proud to belong to this group, and we have held 3 stars for 28 years.
How has the restaurant developed over this time?
I learned from my father how to stay up to date. For example, one day my father came home and said ‘we are going to change the dessert buffet to a dessert plate,’ and I was surprised, but he knew that this is what people wanted. I have also learned to serve much quicker, as people have less patience these days, so want to spend less time in the restaurant.
Who would you like to cook for?
I enjoy the food writing of Julian Barnes, so I would like to cook for him.
Which restaurant would you most like to visit?
There are 2 restaurants I’d like to try in London. StreetXO by David Muñoz, and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
Do you test your recipes on your family before serving them?
First we taste ourselves, then in the family, and then with guests who come regularly – we know that they will tell us the truth.
Are there any places in the world in particular which put a smile on your face?
I always love travelling to Latin America, but I like to discover – you can find good chefs all over the world. For example I recently went to South Africa and discovered Test Kitchen in Cape Town.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is all over. I can see a flower in a vase and imagine how I might serve asparagus. I can see a painting and be inspired by the colours. I can see my children playing a game and be inspired by the characters. We have so much information that we don’t know how to use it, but we are inspired by what interests us.
If you didn’t become a chef what would you have been?
I can’t imagine that but I’m sure it would be something related to people and languages. I trained as a chef but I was always very happy serving customers and working on reception.
What couldn’t you live without in the kitchen?
I couldn’t live without olive oil and garlic.
Are there any new techniques that you think you will use more in the future?
I like fermentation, which is new for me even if it has existed for centuries. I also like using essential oils.