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Secrets of the Basque Vanguard

Chefs Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak may be the most extraordinary father-daughter cooking duo in history. Here, four brilliant and delicious modern Basque recipes.

In san sebastián, gastronomic capital of Spain's Basque country, the father-daughter team of Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak run one of the most creative restaurants in the world. Restaurante Arzak has changed markedly since Elena's great-grandparents first opened its doors in 1897; the transformation first began when Juan Mari took over from his mother to become chef in 1967. In the ensuing years, inspired by pioneers of nouvelle cuisine such as the great chef Paul Bocuse, who were liberating French cuisine from heavy sauces and tired techniques, Juan Mari pursued his vision for la nueva cocina vasca, "the new Basque cuisine," employing the best materias primas—basic ingredients—along with extraordinarily inventive methods to dismantle and recast classic Basque dishes.

At first, Juan Mari discouraged Elena from becoming a chef, too. "Parents should discourage their kids from following their same path," he says. But from a young age, Elena didn't listen. When she was 11, she would head into the kitchen every afternoon after school to peel oranges or clean shrimp, calling her father not "chef" but aita, Basque for papá. At 18, she enrolled in culinary school in Switzerland. After passing through some of Europe's finest kitchens—including Bocuse—she returned to cook at Restaurante Arzak at age 26.

"In my first years back I trained at each station, having little interaction with my father," says Elena. "I was learning, like the others." After two years, she began running the kitchen alongside Juan Mari.

Today, father and daughter are both called "chef." The two invent dishes together, collaborating on the menus dreamed up in the restaurant's laboratorio, their smaller experimental kitchen with a literal library of ingredients. They share a profound respect for Basque traditions, showing true daring in their transformations. For the classic hake with salsa verde, the Arzaks turn the humble garlic clove into crisp, paper-thin wafers, placed like wings aside an ethereal fillet. To accompany a dish of milk-braised pork, they slice a strawberry into thin slivers that look like red peppers, then nestle the strips in a spinach salad. By altering their ingredients so playfully yet so completely, the two gently challenge diners to re-examine the ingredients themselves.

On any given day, you can find the Arzak family gathered in the kitchen for lunch. Elena's mother, Maite, contributes to the restaurant management. Elena, now a mother of two, refers to her mother as her consejera, or life advisor. The staff might stay to play with eight-month-old Mateo or two-year-old Nora. Dining at Arzak isn't just a Michelin three-star experience: It's a meal with the family.

Kevin Patricio divides his time between New York City and San Sebastián, Spain.

Restaurante Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Elósegui 273, San Sebastián; 011-34-943-278-465 or arzak.es.

Published August 2007
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