It was an overcast morning in San Sebastián, Spain when I walked into the restaurant Arzak. I was excited to spend a few hours with the legendary culinary team of Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak. Elena is the daughter and heir apparent of Juan Mari. They are probably the most famous chefs in this foodie town.
It was a cold autumn morning. I was glad to experience their warmth and infectious liveliness. I was also thankful, of course, for the opportunity to explore their 100,000 bottle wine cellar and their world-famous culinary laboratory. The laboratory is on the third floor of Arzak. Here, two chefs work full-time experimenting on new dishes to boggle the foodie world.
ARZAK IN SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
If you ask local foodies to name the best restaurant in San Sebastián, you will get different answers. It is a city known for great dining, famous chefs and people who are passionate about eating. After all, there are Akelarre and Martin de Berasategui, to name just two other Michelin three star restaurants in San Sebastián.
And then there is Mugaritz, another famous restaurant with Michelin stars. Mugaritz has an ambitious young chef and it is in the San Pellegrino list of the best restaurants in the world.
A FAVORITE RESTAURANT IN SAN SEBASTIAN
Every foodie in San Sebastián has his or her favorite. But no one will deny that among these fine establishments, Arzak stands apart from the rest. Arzak is considered by many as the top restaurant simply because of its consistent good food and sheer longevity.
It was established in 1897 by Juan Mari’s grandparents, it has been a Michelin-starred restaurant for the last 25 years. This is pretty impressive in an intensely competitive arena.
ELENA ARZAK: GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
None of the pressures are apparent, however, when you meet the famous father-daughter team. Elena Arzak, maybe the world’s best female chef, was preparing the usual five-hour gastronomic lunch. Just like every other day, Arzak was full and diners were arriving soon, expecting to be blown over by a good meal. Yet at 11 AM, she was welcoming me with a big smile and with enough thoughtfulness to inquire after my summer holiday.
Meanwhile, Jose Mari very kindly took me around his beloved wine cellar and to the laboratory on the third floor. The laboratory is really the nerve center of Arzak’s operations. Experiments were in progress.
But the atmosphere was so serene compared to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen below that I was reminded of a seminary. This is not too far from the truth either, since this lab is the core of a temple of hallowed dining.
VISITING THE SOURCE OF COOKING IDEAS
What I remember most, however, was Juan Mari’s “idea room.” It was lined with shelves full of neatly-arranged plastic containers containing spices and herbs from different countries. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of these.
“From these spices, I get inspiration for my dishes,” he told me. Each container had the name of the ingredient and its provenance. In a quick glance, I saw so many exotic destinations. I even saw some names I had never heard of. This was the culinary equivalent of a Travelife around the world.
“This dish contains the spice my father showed you earlier,” she said with a smile, as her waitstaff set artfully-arranged plates containing ingredients of all shapes and colors.
After taking several forkfuls, I still could not make out the spice. But with each bite, I was transported to a land of mosques and palaces. I even imagined I saw veiled dancers in flowing robes and men with turbans gliding across the room.