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Antony Bennett Interviews Acclaimed Chefs Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak: Part Two

This was the beginning of modern cuisine in Spain; there was a round table in Madrid where they invited the most important chefs in Spain to get together with food journalists. They invited myself, Bocousse and Raymond Olivier from Paris.

To read Part 1 of this interview click here.

JM: This was the beginning of modern cuisine in Spain; there was a round table in Madrid where they invited the most important chefs in Spain to get together with food journalists. They invited myself, Bocousse and Raymond Olivier from Paris.

Juan Mari went on to explain that Raymond Olivier was elevated and philosophical and explained that he would say 'food is culture and it belongs to the culture of the people'.

With him, was a chef from San Sebastian called Pedro Arregui - they were so impressed from this meeting that they both came back and started the movement known as 'new Basque cooking' influenced from France's nouvelle cuisine with the help of 12 chefs.

JM explained more

We had 3 points to focus on

1. Bring back the old recipes - Recover the old plates and adjust them like they should, so to correct them.

2. Only cook the product in the season.

3. To make new plates with new concepts, with products that exist here but may have been forgotten and to cook with culture in mind.

Always fighting sustainability, once a month they made a meal for the press to transmit their values - they wanted to spread Basque cooking all over the world.

Nobody knew the food was so good here, today since two years ago the BCC was started.

AB: What's the BCC?

JM: Basque Culinary Centre - you can study a university degree the science of gastronomy

AB: Have you been involved in the conception of this?

JM: Yes, I have given advice from the start - I am a committee member and we sponsor eight chefs, we all give our time to the cause.

This is a very important thing, the revolution of the Basque cuisine.

Digressing slightly we quickly get back on track

JM: The next part of Spain to wake up was Cataluña, then the rest of Spain.

AB: Ahh Cataluña, Ferran Adria?

JM: Yes, he arrived. He was always there in my opinion, for the last 15 years he has been and is still the most imaginative chef alive in the world. He made a type of cooking that just left you astonished. With his influence, Spanish cuisine has became the most interesting in the world.

AB: You are my biggest influence with food without a doubt, using your way of conceptual thinking has helped me develop food in different ways, who is your biggest influence, is it your Mother?

JM: Really Antony... Don't ever think that I am so good...

We laugh out loud before Juan Mari says something that really touched my heart, I could seriously relate to ...

JM: My mother transmitted very important values to me.

Make the things you cook as good as possible.

Be passionate with everything you cook.

Be very humble.

Anyway, back to it... I went to France for work experience, to work with many chefs... They all became my friends and it was not a problem to call these guys, we shared ideas over the phone and if one of us couldn't make something we would call up another to find out how to do it! I became good friends with Ferran and I used to go to his restaurant as a guest to see what he did with the food. It opened my eyes even more.

Ferran said to me "Juan Mari if you visit me only twice a year the techniques that I use can easily be shared with you and although you have a different style than me you can still use the technique.

Juan Mari directs a knowledgeable statement specifically to me

Antony... What you can copy is the technique, not the concept. To copy is nonsense; the point of cooking you cannot transmit exactly. If I gave you the same recipes to follow the result will be different. But remember the technique and adapt it for yourself...

AB: Elena, how does your style then differ from your father?

EA: I came with my ideas and concepts and we started in tandem.

There is 20 years between us but my father has always been very modern, when I finished culinary school I went to Switzerland and spent years abroad.

There was not a shock of styles; I worked all over the world to gain experience. I was used to what he was doing; it was the same style as I was working. I came in the summer. So we never split the contact.

The first plate we did together; I was 19 years old. He helped me to finish, as the level was too high for me to do alone in this restaurant. However in 1995 when I came back, I began to make more and more plates. The difference was my father composed a plate of many elements and my style was less elements and more strong flavours.

He liked my concept and understood very well that the minimalist style I had was where he wanted to take our cuisine.

Juan Mari interrupts at this point

JM: You cannot now talk of a plate of just Juan Mari and plate of Elena, now it's a joint partnership, we make food in tandem, and little by little I didn't want to affect her type of cooking

EA: This is why I have never left this restaurant; my father has allowed me to create many things however, If he makes a plate and I don't like it doesn't go on and if I make one and he doesn't like it, it doesn't go on, we work together to make a plate of food that we are both 100% happy with.

What an inspirational interview, what a team... what a restaurant. I love Spain!

Coming soon: a tour and tasting at Arzak with Juan Mari and Elena.

Photographer: Antonia Pena /