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Chef Juan Mari Arzak: Basque-ing In Culinary Glory

Chef Juan Mari Arzak is often called the master of the complex Basque cuisine. But he dismisses these accolades and says he just enjoys cooking innovative dishes and keeping his guests coming back for more.

Juan-Arzak---Photo-by-Mikel-AlonsoFirst-time diners at Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, are often bemused to see a genial gentleman stop at their tables and enquire about the food they ordered, probing them on what they liked and what they didn’t. But regulars at Arzak just greet this visitor with a big smile and often a hug. After all, if a celebrated chef takes the trouble to know what you think about the food that came out of his kitchen, and happily takes the bouquets along with the brickbats they are willing to dole out, who wouldn’t appreciate this kind of personal attention?

Ask Juan Mari Arzak about this long-held practice, nay tradition, and he scoffs it off saying that he just enjoys talking to his patrons and learning what they expect when they visit his restaurant, from the food to the décor to the service – everything. And perhaps, it is this kind of minute attention to details that has helped him become the first chef in Spain to win three Michelin stars. “Food is not something that you cook and forget. It’s an exploration, a journey – one that you can make only if you know what your diners like and seek from your kitchen,” he says smilingly.

A Family Of Food Lovers
Juan Arzak was born into a family whose history is steeped in food and culinary expertise. The building that houses Arzak restaurant today was originally built in 1897 by his grandparents, Jose Maria Arzak Etxabe and Escolastica Lete. In the mid-90s, his parents, Juan Ramón Arzak and Paquita Arratibel, transformed this place into an refined eating house. Back then, Paquita was renowned for her stews and basic Basque preparations. So whether it was her humble fish soup, freshly caught squid cooked in its own ink, baked merluza (Spanish hake fish) in parsley sauce, people associated the restaurant with fresh food served with a twist.

Juan, who was born on 31st July, 1942 remembers spending most of his childhood hours in the restaurant’s kitchen, soaking the nuances of Basque cuisine, without realising it – especially after his mother took over the management of the place after his father’s demise. Arzak restaurant became increasingly popular with families that were celebrating momentous occasions. Juan recalls that in the ‘50s and ‘60s wedding dates in San Sebastian were decided keeping in mind the availability of the restaurant, rather than that of the parishes!

When he was 10, Juan went away to El Escorial in Madrid for his schooling. After that he pursued technical architecture, before he realised that food was where his heart lay. So, when he turned 19, he joined the Escuela de Hostelería de la Casa de Campo Institute of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Madrid. While he maintains that he learnt a lot at this institute, his mother was his main teacher in all things food.

“She taught me that affection is the most important thing – affection towards the produce and the people who supply the produce and most importantly, our guests. Without affection and empathy, the best prepared food and superbly presented dish is nothing,” notes Juan.

Taking Over The Reins
Elena-&-Juan-Arzak---Photo-by-Mikel-AlonsoIn 1966, Juan decided he was ready to take over the mantle of the restaurant. So, his mother lent him a small diner with a small grill to carry out his experiments – this was also the time he started exploring contemporary gastronomy – with one simple rule: it had to taste good, no matter what! A year later, Juan found the second love of his life, his wife Maite Espina, who too joined Arzak restaurant to enhance its operations and administration.

As their domestic life blossomed – they were blessed with two daughters, Marta and Elena; so did their restaurant . And in 1974, the Arzak restaurant obtained its first Michelin star, when Juan was just 32 years old.

Around this time, Juan, who was always intrigued by the Basque cuisine, started researching it more. This culinary tradition, which is named after the Basques who were early Spanish settlers, is a fairly complex one, where meat, especially seafood are finely chopped, cooked in rich sauces and combined with very innovative accompaniments like puff pastry and foie gras and served alongside another meat-based dish. A very elaborate cuisine, it is credited with having very complex flavours – which is why
Juan wanted to know all there
was to about it.

So, he, along with friend and colleague Pedro Subijana, travelled to Lyon and the more they learnt about Basque cuisine, the more it strengthened their resolve to introduce it to people at San Sebastian. Today, Juan is considered to be one of the masters in Basque cuisine in the world and his restaurant is renowned to presenting food that can best be termed as a culinary symphony. A case in point is the freeze drying technique he uses for select seafood preparations, and similar innovations. This novel way of reinventing a heritage cuisine probably explains how in 1989 Arzak restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star.

A Family Tradition Lives On
Continuing the tradition of food in the family, Juan is now assisted in the kitchen by his daughter Elena, who is a renowned chef in her own right – marking the entry of the fourth generation of Arzak into the culinary world. Having studied hotel and restaurant management in Switzerland, she later broadened her knowledge in many prestigious French, English and Italian restaurants before she decided to work alongside her beloved father.

Juan and Elena keep trying out new recipes and ingredients in a small enclosure in their restaurant that they lovingly call their laboratory, to ensure that the menu of Arzak restaurant is forever evolving. “While Basque cuisine is the basis of all our dishes, we try to think of newer flavours we can add to the recipe to enhance its taste. So our guests know that every time they visit us, they can expect to be surprised with food that is traditionally Basque but with contemporary touches,” Juan points out.

And every new dish that is created, tasted, presented to guests and liked often finds Juan clapping his hands in glee, animated about its success. With numerous achievements under his belt and a long list of loyal patrons, Juan loves it when his creations are liked by his diners.

“The best compliments that I get from my guests is when they say that dining at Arzak makes them feel like they are dining at home. Because for me, they are all my extended family and as long as they are happy, I am happy,” he says with a happy glint in his eye. And the cherry on the cake is that he gets these compliments often!