For 10 years now I've been returning to Arzak, where Elena's larger-than-life dad, Juan Mari Arzak, led Spain's nouvelle cuisine revolution more than two decades ago and gave the country one of its first Michelin three-star restaurants. Everything I've ever eaten there has been remarkable, but something magical has been happening lately. Like crisp smoked potatoes fashioned into Yamamoto-style pleats with sizzling prawns concealed in the folds. Like the Basque breakfast--spicy chistorra sausage and egg--deconstructed into a mesmerizing geometric abstraction. As I taste a smoked chocolate mousse, it occurs to me that Elena Arzak is the most exciting woman chef on the planet.
I announce as much to Elena. Big mistake. She shakes her head furiously (an anti-diva) and implores me not to publish such nonsense. And yet ... The two other female chefs presently cooking in Michelin three-star kitchens--Nadia Santini, of the hypertraditional Dal Pescatore, and Luisa Valazza, of the rather staid Al Sorriso, both in Italy--can hardly compete with Elena's futuristic techniques. Britain's restaurant scene remains testosterone-driven, and there are currently no women in America mentioned in the same breath as, say, Thomas Keller or Charlie Trotter (Alice Waters being a force rather than a chef). And France? Gilles Pudlowski, one of the country's most ubiquitous and influential food critics, insists that French female toques (like Reine Sammut, of La Fenière) would give Elena Arzak a run for her truffles; but even he concedes that "if in the past, Spanish chefs traveled to France for fresh ideas, now it's our turn to cross the Pyrenees."
Born into Spain's premier food family and raised in a city that enjoys mythical status in the haute cuisine world, Elena earned her first pocket money helping out in the kitchen. ("I was the one doing the dirty work, like cleaning squid," she says.) Though the succession issue looms large at Michelin three-star royal houses--and usually involves only fathers and sons--Juan Mari was tactful enough not to insist on Elena's becoming a chef. "But at 17 I couldn't think of anything better to do with my life," she says a little apologetically. Rather than keeping her by his side, Juan Mari dispatched her abroad, first for a diploma from a fancy Swiss hostelry school, then for stints with members of the Michelin all-star fraternity (Alain Ducasse's Louis XV, in Monte Carlo; Troisgros, in Roanne, France).