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

10/10/2013 11:27 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT


The excitement level in me is at 100% - I'm about to burst as I pull up to a restaurant ranked number eight in the world with no fewer than three Michelin stars. Armed with my whites neatly folded into my bag and my note pad, I'm ready to lean straight into my next culinary learning curve. At 35 with almost all of my career based on food development I know that I have much more to learn and I'd like to think that my career as a development chef which started when I was 21 years old has always been based upon learning, sharing with no preconceptions and no holds barred!

Now head of food purchasing and menu development for a 50 strong restaurant group I am about to embark on the pinnacle of my four year Spanish Tapas Trail. My love for Spanish culture and food has so far seen me travel to many regions in Spain, and visit artisan menu suppliers who I now class as my friends! I've walked the streets to find the very best and traditional tapas restaurants in Spain but I am aware there are still loads more to uncover and lots of gems to discover. I reach fever pitch as I walk into a diamond and something I have dreamed about for such a long time.... I am at Arzak to spend a day with the god that is Juan Mari Arzak (JM) and his daughter the world's number one female Chef, Elena Arzak (EA).

The interview - Part 1


AB: Elena before we start can you set the record straight about the venture into London?


EA: We have been offered lots of restaurants but it's impossible for our type of cooking to be done anywhere abroad. We advised and designed a menu that can be repeated in London, but it is a completely different menu to what we serve here in San Sebastian. We do not operate the concept; we merely advise and then allow them to run it thereafter. There is only one Arzak, and I work here.


Before we start I give Juan Mari a nice card, hand written in true English style... to thank him and Elena for spending time with me and explain that 'mi casa es su casa' anytime they come to the UK I will look after them, my house is your goes down well!!


AB: My first question to Juan Mari - So how did you get into food and where did this all start?

JM: I was born here, I am the third generation of the family, I went to higher school here but also spent eight years in a school in Madrid, I had asthma so I needed to change the climate for a while, I came back to San Sebastian for the holidays. My father died when I was nine years old, I am the only child. My mother was a chef, during the holidays I would come here and help mother, as there was a lot of work to do!

Before I wanted to be a chef I went to Madrid to study technical architecture for one year - I got this wrong completely! I followed my friend, he did it and I thought I could do it too.


I liked the idea of food and another friend said, you can study Gastronomy - so I changed, it was a nice surprise I never knew it was available.

I went to Madrid to study food at a cooking school, in the summer I went to work wherever the school sent me! When I finished at the school I made the military service but I knew that Gastronomy was for me, my mother specialised in catering for wedding receptions and small banquets here in this restaurant.

AB: Can you explain the generations?


JM: My grandmother was a chef here at this Restaurant.

My Mother was a chef here at this Restaurant.

I am a chef at this Restaurant.

Back then I didn't really like the idea of the way my grandmother did the food here, or my mother - I wanted to see if I could change it and work in a different way.

I took part of the dining room - four to five tables and the rest stayed with my grandmother and mother. I designed the first few dishes for these tables. I deconstructed dishes based on traditional plates...but nobody came!

Luckily my Grandmother had a thriving business so it didn't affect the business too much.

I had another idea though, in San Sebastian between 1968 and 1970 I noticed that two restaurants with grills were very successful so on one side I had a heavy meat grill then with the main plates I still did my type of cooking.

In 1974 things started to take off, this was the first year that the Michelin guide gave stars in Spain, Juan Mari got a mention as the best chef in Spain.

JM: But the most and really important time started in 1976.

I jumped out of my chair, stopped Juan Mari right in his tracks and say "it's a sign of course, the year of my birth!!" "Buenos Buenos says Juan Mari"

Continued in Part 2...

Photographer: Antonia Pena /