Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena at a cider house outside San Sebastian. [Photo: Joshua David Stein/Eater.com]
It is hard to overstate the importance Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak has had in the evolution of today's gastronomic world. It is also hard to describe the esteem in which he is held both in the Pays Basque as well as abroad. At 68, Arzak runs his three Michelin star restaurant Arzak with his daughter Elena and continues to push the boundaries of nueva cocina vasca even while serving as a mentor to his fellow chefs. Arzak is a sort of godfather to a generation of Spanish chefs as well as fellow travelers such as David Chang, Wylie Dufresne, Rene Redzepi and more. Walking down the streets of San Sebastian with Juan Mari involves a lot of handshaking and avuncular face patting. [One of the most pleasant experiences ever.] While in town for Gastronomika, I drove out with Juan Mari Arzak, his daughter Elena, author Peter Meehan, David Chang and a small camera crew (an as-yet-unnamed Chang show is in the works) to a cidreria outside of San Sebastian. Over cider, poured from great heights, and steak, served in great slabs, we spoke.
[A special thanks to Maite Montenegro, who served as a wonderful translator.]
Elena Arzak: Our restaurant is from the year 1897. It's always I been in the same place. My father is the third generation and I am the fourth. My grandmother, my father's mother, was widowed when he was nine years old but she built up Arzak, specializing in traditional Basque food and banquets. In the year 1976, there was a small revolution called nueva cocina vasca, new Basque cooking. In this year, the magazine Club de Gourmets organized a round table in Madrid and invited Paul Bocuse and Raymond Oliver from the French nouvelle cuisine, my father, Pedro Subijana of Akelarre and others. My dad was young, in his early 30s. He and Pedro were so impressed when they listened to Bocuse and Oliver that when they came back to the Basque region, they started their own revolution. This is very important for what is happening today.
[Arzak plops a big piece of steak on my plate.]
This is for you.
Your daughter was telling me about 1976, when you went to Madrid?
We went not sure what we wanted. But it was a new philosophy we found.
Were you casting about for a new philosophy already? Were you unhappy or bored with the traditional styles?
I was already doing different and new things before I went to Madrid. I had already gotten one Michelin star in 1974 but I was essentially deconstructing what my mother was doing and tweaking them.
You grew up in the kitchen with your mother. I wonder if this new style was youthful rebellion made culinary?
I don't think so. I was very inquisitive and I wanted to go beyond what my mother was doing.
[David Chang is hanging out at the table.]
Dave, you once had said to Dana Cowin a chef makes his mark when he's young, unmarried and without kids and then you can build your legacy after that?
DC: Juan Mari known for his philosophy for always looking at food from a child's perspective. I don't think it applies?I can't speak for him but I don't think it applies to him.
[To Juan Mari Arzak]
I'm basically saying it's easier to be creative culinary-wise when you don't have other commitments like family and kids.
JMA: My case is peculiar. I inherited my restaurant. It was successful but I didn't like it. I was inquisitive. I needed to do something else. By 1975, I saw that cuisine was starting to be a big part of a culture. Cuisine is in the roots. It is the spirit of the roots. Using those ideas, I wanted to fly. Based on the spirit and the Basque tradition, I wanted to go much farther. I've never stopped flying since.
In the late 60s and the 70s, there was a very active Basque separatist movement. Does this revolutionary spirit tie into the idea that he doesn't want to use inherited techniques but wants to reclaim a different sort of nueva cocina vasca?
No, no, no. Absolutely not. When I started this was before those problems. In this region, there have always been people fighting for their own culture. Some fight through music. Some through writing. Some fight through cooking.
So it is a political reclamation of cuisine?.
There were parts of the culture that were recognized without any political problems involved. Cuisine is one of them. Spain has always been a mosaic of cultures, peoples and cuisines. Basque cuisine has nothing to do with the cuisines of Galicia or Extramadura. We cooked Basque cuisine because that is all we knew, not because it was a political statement. We didn't want to mix politics and cuisine. In the kitchen, we mixed all sorts of political views. It didn't matter if it was right wing or left wing. It the kitchen, we all helped.
You speak of this movement inherently seeded in the cultural ferment. What do you think is special about San Sebastian, in particular, that so many of these nueva cocina vasca restaurants are clustered here?
I don't know. Things happen here that don't happen anywhere else, not in Spain and not in the rest of the world. Here, there are no social differences. At the Michelin star restaurants — mine, Mugaritz, Akelare, Martin Berasategui— there is no really difference in the clientele. They can be very poor or very rich.
Well, how much is the tasting menu?
200 Euros but with everything included. But I want to finish this theme. There are more in the lower to middle income bracket than higher who come to Arzak and other three Michelin starred.
As compared to other three star Michelin restaurants worldwide?
No, compared to the other restaurants in the Basque country.
Do you think there is less of a difference in social class because the overriding identity is of being Basque?
We don't know. Because in Bilbao it doesn't happen but here, in San Sebastian, it does. Everybody has a passion about eating.
Elena Arzak [to her father]: Explain what you mean.
Rich people prefer to come here to Roxario, to eat traditional food, than to my restaurant. The people have more disposable income they come to Arzak maybe once a month. The other ones, they keep on saving throughout the months to be able to come to my place. They come maybe once a year.
Elena Arzak: Finish because this is important.
The people who save all year, they have such great expectations. These are the people who fill our restaurant. I did a study in 1999 with my clients who are either Spanish or Basque who I could recognize and 60% of the people are once a year. Forty per cent are there every month.
Do you both feel you are cooking for a community as opposed to cooking for a destination clientele?
Our cuisine is our cuisine. We don't think of anyone else. Every dish that you'd have in our house, you'll never have in any other house. We have the Basque spirit but we fly around the world.
Is that part of the Basque spirit that it flies around the world?
Yes but it's hard to explain. We serve cuisine with its roots in the Basque tradition. Not in the sense of individual plates but in the sense of the spirit of the cuisine.
Elena Arzak: We have Basque spirit. To let you know, there is traditional Basque cooking which contains many dishes like Hake with clams and Bacalao. We don't make that. But unconsciously we are influenced by that. The spirit we take of that, you understand? This is the spirit that we have of our childhood and when we cook we cook with these tastes.
But also consciously, you are using ingredients from this area, for instance, you do use hake.
But we use it with molé, ginger, and tandoori and adapt these tastes.
[By this point, the steak has been mostly eaten and David Chang has been replaced by Peter Meehan, who slides into his seat and into the conversation.]
Peter Meehan: Their food feels like you are in the Basque country but it's not just riffs on Basque shit. It's not derivative at all.
Juan Mari Arzak: It is complicated because Basque people are very complicated. We have a spirit which we continue in our cuisine. It's a spirit of investigation, experimentation and the avant garde.
PFM: They have a flavor laboratory at the restaurant which contains thousands of flavors from around the world.
JMA: To continue with the theme: The people who come to our house come to find the food that we are making.
EA: They come for our signature style.
JMA: We are a very imaginative people.
That might explain why there are so many stars clustered here.
There's a lot of imagination to fly with.
EA: There are lot of people who want to find out why. In the last year, a team of anthropologists came to find out why the food here is so successful and why there are so many stars. They asked all the chefs and we explained our philosophy. We told them the food is very important and that there are a lot of signature styles and that there's a dynamic evolution of the Basque spirit. But at the end of the day, we don't know.
But with Arzak and the revolution of 1976, it seems there was the kindling already there in the Basque spirit but that he was the spark.
[It takes a few minutes for this to be translated but when it is, Juan Mari Arzak breaks into a large smile.]
I like that.
You said the Basque spirit is dynamic, how is it changing now?
I don't know exactly how but we are always looking for new emotions and new feelings.
Do you think of your cuisine as more cerebral or more emotional?
It's more emotional. They obviously use techniques that are more cerebral but the point is emotions. This is an argument I always have with Ferran [Adria]. Sure, technique is valid and you need it, but it must come with emotion. There are so many times we need to more forward but we don't know how?.
EA: Perhaps others don't notice but we know we are turning on the same circle and we want to go a little bit farther.
What do you mean the same circle?
EA: I will try to explain. Nobody knows this but we cook all the time the same, for us. You understand? We want to make new things with new ideas and new techniques and new emotions. To go out from this circle, you have to take risks. We like very much to astonish people. Sometimes it is very difficult to find the frontier between something that looks very simple and something that doesn't. Some of the preparations for us we have been working on them a long time but when we present them on the plate but perhaps people won't understand how much farther we went.
What's an example?
JMA: Many. What was that one?
[Here occurs much unprintable scatological Spanish while Juan Mari tries to remember a specific example. It turns out Juan Mari is not only a culinary innovator but is as an irrepressible cusser. He is to Spanish epithets what Alfred Jarry was to French ones. Finally, it comes to him.]
EA: We recently made a fish with a powder of cucumber but at the end you have to admit when people don't like it. My father didn't like it, for example.
[We are interrupted by applause as Roxario Jatetxia emerges from the kitchen. She stops by the table to say hello to the Arzaks, with whom she is clearly good friends.]
EA: Sometimes we like to play (in a good way) with guests. Perhaps they get a plate where something happens, or melts, or a powder that becomes a liquid.
JMA: It's like a circus but with total respect given to the product and to the plate.
EA: It is impossible to make good food and good menu if the product isn't the best.
You talk about Michelin stars here in the Basque region. Are they very important to you? Do you think they are the best measure of quality?
First it is important that the inspectors understand what they are doing. That the people who are rating restaurants in France understand France, in Spain understand Spain, in Japan understand Japan. But there are people who are prepared to do it. That's one side of it. But one must always consider that it is the food critic's own taste. He is not God. It is only his opinion. Obviously, though, I prefer to have three than two stars.
Is there a negative side to having all this attention paid to this outside entity christening the cuisine in San Sebastian?
PFM: I think where your question is coming from is that in New York, the Michelin Guide feels more capricious. Whereas here, that's not the perception here and they're far less likely to strip stars here than they are in New York.
That's it exactly.
Here exists a tradition, a culture in Old Europe. For example how the Michelin, how can they for example give Momofuku a rating? Here they all work and it is easier but in New York it is difficult. How can they rate Momofuku?
Maite Montenegro: I'm not sure what he means here.
PFM: I think I do. If you go to a three star restaurant here you immediately see it. It's beautiful. It's formal. It is in the traditional European model of fine service as where in New York City, the places that are great are completely different. You can just wear t-shirts and serve the best food in town. The difference here is that there is an easy-to-understand tradition and is part of what the stars are.
JMA: In New York, it is much more cosmopolitan. Here we are more Old World. At Momofuku, the only person who can truly judge it is a Korean.
Do you think the only person that the only person who can really judge Arzak is Basque?
EA: No, no, no. He is getting confused.
JMA: You can go and do a review of Arzak and enjoy it. But a Basque gastronomist would understand the flavors and the ingredients that you don't. They would understand more deeply.
It goes back to when he began Arzak, his cuisine grew directly out of the culture. It had its roots in community to begin with so in a way I understand how only someone who is part of that community could fully understand it.
The best example is Tokyo. The Michelin guide goes to a sushi restaurant. It's on the subway. A French guy can not rate that. Only a Japanese person can understand why a sushi place on a subway can get three stars. The French, or us, can not appreciate it. Only a Japanese person can truly distinguish between a three Michelin star sushi place and a two star.
Because he is not steeped in the culture.