July 11, 2007

For the Master column in our August issue, Kevin Patricio writes about the incredibly creative father-daughter chef team of Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, of Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain. Kevin’s a writer and a professional chef with stints at Manhattan's Blue Hill and Red Cat under his belt, and he also did a stage at Restaurante Arzak in 2004. But he was still astonished when Juan Mari invited him to create a dish for his menu while Kevin wrote the piece. Kevin tells the story best:

“During our interview for the article, Juan Mari and Elena extended an open invitation to join them in their laboratorio, or test kitchen above their restaurant. Of course I accepted. The following morning the two test kitchen chefs, Igor and Xabi, welcomed me, and as they started showing me some savory papers and a flavored dust, the phone rang.

Xabi said, “Juan Mari would like a garnish for the new lobster dish.” It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. “You have 45 minutes."

Out of reflex I said, “Yes chef!”

The next 44 minutes and 59 seconds were a blur. I rummaged through the test kitchen pantry, finding emulsifiers of every sort, gelatins, white gallon containers of materials I could have used if my intermediate Spanish had sufficed. What exactly does one do with goma de xantan (xanthan gum) anyway? I rushed down to the restaurant kitchen and grabbed some grapefruit, blood oranges, shallots, fine herbs and micro greens. Back upstairs, I crisped some reconstituted algae that resembled pork cracklin’ then cut the crisps into a chiffonade. I found some soy sauce that tasted of tobacco to accent my vinaigrette. Xabi glanced at his watch and said, “Ready?”

There I was in the kitchen in front of Juan Mari and Elena, explaining my Citrus-Herb Soup with Indonesian Algae, Tapioca, and a Micro-Herb Salad spiked with a Tobacco-scented Soy Vinaigrette. The chefs tasted and offered polite smiles.

Xabi explained that it’s the idea that counts. “What a nice way to tell me my dish sucked,” I thought. But when a slightly tweaked version showed up on the menu the following week, I was surprised and honored. Turns out that the Arzaks look for inspiration in many places, including unsuspecting writers who happen to also cook professionally.

I spent a few more weeks in their test kitchen with none of my remaining ideas making it past the test phase. However, all are photographed and catalogued, and who knows, one day they may find their five, or 45, minutes of fame."

You May Like