“I’m thinking about pears…” is how I imagine their conversations beginning. Late at night, the phone rings in the home of Juan Mari Arzak or Ferran Adrià, and the two friends, two of the greatest and most influential chefs in the world, talk about food, about concepts, ideas they are working on. They call each other for inspiration, to bounce ideas off each other, to imagine how they might next push Spanish cuisine forward, and then forward again.
Adrià, of course, was the chef of the world-famous El Bulli in Catalonia, which was said to be the world’s best and most innovative restaurant until it closed in 2011. But Arzak, who runs his family’s eponymous restaurant in San Sebastian, was, in many ways, an even more important pioneer.
Arzak grew up on the second floor of the same restaurant he still runs today, the third generation of Arzaks to work in what was then a traditional Basque kitchen. But in the 1970s, heavily influenced by the “nouvelle cuisine” of next-door France, he returned to become a transformative figure of the culinary landscape, helping to create a “nueva cocina vasca” that in turn inspired and influenced future generations of Basque and Spanish chefs.
Ferran and Albert Adrià, Martin Berasetgui, Andoni Aduriz: these are just a few of the chefs who looked to Arzak as an example of the new possibilities.
His daughter, Elena Arzak, joined her father in the kitchen after training abroad with Alain Ducasse and Pierre Gagniare, and is now considered one of the great chefs in the world in her own right.
I met Juan Mari Arzak in 2001, when I first ate at his restaurant. It was magnificent: forward looking, wildly creative, but always delicious, and, most importantly, always, always Basque. A rock-solid principle, adhered to by both Juan Mari and Elena, is that no matter how seemingly modernist, what you eat at Arzak is reflective, representative, and respectful of Basque ingredients and traditions.
Both Arzaks became my friends that day, and have remained firm, true, and constant over the years. I talk with Juan Mari in a mix of my bad Spanish, slightly better French and broken English. With Elena in English. They have been my guides and mentors in all things Basque for nearly 16 years.
There is a wonderful photograph of the Arzaks in Melanie Dunea’s book My Last Supper. It’s a portrait of a father and daughter. The two chefs stand in their kitchen whites a few feet one another, facing the camera, together but apart. It’s a loving photo: a proud father, a doting daughter. Yet they stand separated from one another: two professionals, two leaders. Two very kind and loving people. It’s how I know them, too.
[Cover image by Melanie Dunea]