I spent an unprecedented amount of time touring Arzak, the 3 Michelin Star Basque Restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, Veuve Clicquot calls one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and interviewing Elena Arzak, which they call the 2012 World’s Best Female Chef, before I wrote an 1800 word article about it.
Vacations Magazine bought and published 900+ words of it, all the front of the house stuff, and the rest languished. Here’s the dope on how a world class restaurant is set up and run that I picked up during the 20 course meal and the 90 minute interview with the chef.
The misnamed wine cellar is on a floor above the restaurant. It is a massive zinc-walled repository for 2300 wines from around the world, with room for 100,000 bottles and her father’s cigar collection, kept at 80% humidity with a temperature of 16 degrees (centigrade) and cool, non-damaging LED lighting.
The test kitchen, located on the top floor, was created in 2000 and redesigned in 2015. It has three chefs, a nutritionist, a resident culinary student using their research library for his studies, a wall of 1000 described spices and flavors, a dehydrator & a freeze dryer (because both processes create different flavors), a futuristic looking rotating orb on a glass tube in a machine that captures the essence of a substance, a computerized database of flavors, plus all the high and low tech devices necessary to cook their creations.
The fact that the test kitchen works ahead of the seasons to be ready for seasonal menu changes means they have to start with hard-to-find ingredients that will be plentiful when they are on the menu . Then when the ingredients are in season, they have to deal with fluctuations of quality as the season waxes and wanes.
Of all their technical work Elena said “Machines can help you to get a result, but taste is not important to a machine. If we don’t like the taste we throw it away. What we keep, we design into a meal, then draw a schematic to let other chefs know how to cook each dish, and finally let our customers taste and comment, adjusting and correcting as they do until the recipe is finished.”
Elena describes their food as “signature cuisine, Basque, research-based, evolving to cutting edge. We cook for today.” Of women in Basque society she says, “The Basque people are matriarchal. I grew up with no concept of limits to women. I have opportunities here that men have elsewhere.”
Elena said that she likes to travel, and that “wherever she cooks she brings her ideas and Basque sensibility to the local ingredients.” Except for garlic and parsley, “I don’t know how to cook without them.”
Of her clientele, ”We serve people from all over the world. About 60% are locals (within 200 km), the rest are foreigners.”
About her employees, “We look for motivation and imagination in the kitchen staff – someone who likes food. Not all are young or culinary school graduates; we have all ages and backgrounds working here -90% are Basque. When someone leaves they usually recommend their replacement.”
“There is no budget for research and development, rather it is all part of the whole restaurant budget. R&D is an expense, but it is not expensive because without it you will not change.”
About specialty foods she said, “We do not have the room to bake our own bread here.” The test kitchen chefs “developed a bread recipe that a local bakery bakes and delivers each day 20 minutes before we serve dinner.” In that vein Elena also said, “We have our own wine label, Arzak, a white rioja, bottled especially for the restaurant.”
Now you can appreciate the level of detail and thought that goes into running Arzak. What was the most fun was eating there. From clever and wacky food presentations to incredible taste combinations, my meal was beautiful, delicious and probably the best I’ve ever eaten. Vacations Magazine ran that part of the story with my photographs. I hope you like it.
FUNNY STORY – a few year’s back I was in Madrid attending the Salon Del Gourmet, an international Food Show. My base at the show was a popup restaurant run by Elena’s father. Great food even there, and wonderful hospitality. We are pictured below.