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"Good taste is infectious"

Elena Arzak is widely regarded as the best female chef in the world. A conversation about her training in Switzerland, the perfect rösti and her most recent failure.

Superlatives are rarely warranted, but there is ample reason to believe that she is the world's best female chef. Basque native Elena Arzak, 45, is one of only five women in the world to receive three Michelin stars; in 2012 she was named "Best Female Chef" and she ranks eighth on the list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants (which includes no other women).

When she enters the room, the energy level rises. She greets us in perfect German and lays out the parameters for our conversation, the photo shoot and lunch. She orders coffee and cheerfully announces that she's ready to talk with us.

Simon Brunner, David Schnapp:  Ms. Arzak, tell us…

Elena Arzak: [She looks at our notes] ...What, you have so many questions?

We've done our homework.

All right, but first I'll explain what we do here; that will take me 10 minutes. If you still have questions – fine. And then I want you to eat.

Whatever you say.

Well, the Arzak restaurant has been in this building since 1897. My father is part of the third generation, and I represent the fourth. Before that my grandmother was in charge. She was widowed in 1951 – my father was nine years old – and had to do everything herself. Originally Arzak was a tavern; my grandmother served banquets and small groups. Everything changed when my father took it over in 1966.

The revolutionary new Basque cuisine?

I'll get to that. Good food is very important to us in the Basque region. People save their money so that they can go to a top restaurant once a year. Do you see that man at the bar? He just bought a gift certificate. That's a popular thing to do here. Forty percent of our guests are tourists, the other sixty percent locals from every level of society, and they know a lot about food.

Academic studies have been done about Basque food culture.

Yes, anthropologists have come here, but they've left without any results. One thing is certain: Our location is great, thanks to excellent products from the ocean and the many farmers who have always sold their goods at the markets – goods produced using the traditional methods, what we today call "organic."

What were you saying about the culinary revolution and your…?

... before you ask: Yes, I talk about my father a lot. I can't help it – after all, he has made history. So about the revolution. A convention was held in Madrid in the 1970s, and prominent Nouvelle Cuisine chefs like Paul Bocuse and Raymond Oliver were invited. My father and Pedro Subijana, who also has a three-star restaurant, Akelare, in San Sebastian, were so impressed by what the French were doing that they decided to start something similar here. They called it the "nueva cocina basca."

What did that mean?

They started adapting traditional Basque dishes. An important result of their efforts is the Arzak Lab, with 1,600 flavors and scents from all over the world. We are constantly experimenting with new dishes, combinations and techniques.

The list of the top ten of the World's 50 Best Restaurants includes three Spanish restaurants – but none in France. Is Spain now the most important culinary destination in the world?

We Spaniards are currently "en vogue," as are the Scandinavians. But that can always change. Who knows what will be popular 10 years from now? We have accomplished a great deal, but France still has far more Michelin stars.

Many contend that French cuisine is in something of a rut.

I don't agree; France is France, but it too has a culinary avant-garde.

San Sebastian, with a population of 180,000, has three three-star restaurants, while the entire country of Switzerland has only two.

Switzerland is a small country, but it has many creative chefs. And the Swiss appreciate high-quality products. I was in the delicatessen section of Globus not long ago, and they carry outstanding products.

What's your favorite Swiss restaurant?

I'll never forget Frédy Girardet in Crissier; he's one of the best chefs ever – and has been a friend of our family for many years.

As you know, Girardet has retired. What about the young avant-garde?

Andreas Caminada, Stefan Wiesner and Dennis Martin – they, among others, are doing outstanding work. But we're digressing – may I continue?

Of course.

My father is now 72. He just went to Miami, where he received the Presidential Medal from Miami Dade College in recognition of his life's work and the "nueva cocina basca." Previous winners of this award include Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It's too bad that you can't meet my father; he's a very interesting man.

We'd rather talk about you and your career as a chef.

I grew up in the restaurant. When I was 11 years old, I would take the bus every day to Arzak during my summer vacation. I never wanted to leave; my parents practically had to kick me out. When I was 18 I graduated from the German high school in San Sebastian, and then I went abroad for six years.

You went to Switzerland.

On the advice of Frédy Girardet, I enrolled in the hotel management school in Lucerne. Then I completed a number of culinary internships, and I also spent six months working at the reception desk at the Swissôtel hotel in Oerlikon.

What did you like about Switzerland?

The mentality – the German-speaking Swiss are hardworking, just like the Basques, and they care about living a good life and first-class quality. And the people are friendly and open. I laughed a great deal in Switzerland.

A different question: Do you see yourself more as an artist or as an artisan?

We – my father and I – are artisans. But creativity has become more important in modern cooking. It is comparable to other art forms in that regard. But it's not up to us to evaluate what we do. I wanted to be a chef, not an artist.

And which is more important for a chef: the craft of cooking or creativity?

Both. The product and how you handle it provide the foundation, which is as important as breathing – without those things nothing is possible. Technique is essential for achieving the desired results. Creativity is important, of course. And taste! A chef without a good palate – that's impossible, of course. 

What kind of a boss are you?

I like to laugh. But I'm very focused when I'm working. Over time I've become a maniac, I want to control everything.

Do you inspect every plate that leaves your kitchen?

Almost every one. We have 30 people working in our kitchen, so there's always something to correct.

How would you describe your style of cooking?

First of all, our cuisine is unique. You won't find the dishes we serve anywhere else. The second aspect is a bit more complicated. We serve Basque cuisine. Since I was very young, I've eaten parsley, garlic, hake and other high-quality fish. That has shaped my sense of taste. Your palate is different. You've grown up with vegetables and high-quality meat, and your dairy products are five times better than ours. That means that when I'm in the kitchen I think like a Basque, even when I'm cooking with seaweed from the North Sea or a mole spice blend from Mexico. Third, we take an avant-garde approach – in other words, we experiment and develop new recipes. So now you know everything. Any more questions?

Yes – we'd like to know a few practical things. For example, how do you make the perfect rösti?

With good potatoes. I use potatoes from Álava [editor's note: part of the Basque region] in their raw state, then fry them in lard and olive oil. I don't use butter, but I do add saffron.

What is the best way to cook for children?

You don't cook for them – you cook with them. Some children haven't yet developed much curiosity, and they don't like to try new things. But that will happen. Parents have a great deal of influence. If they cultivate a good approach to eating, it will rub off on their children. Good taste is infectious.

Do you eat fast food?

We have pintxos bars in San Sebastian, and the tapas they serve are our fast food.

What was your most recent failure?

I was trying to make something in the shape of a globe, something crispy and very high – but it didn't turn out because of the high humidity. That was too bad. I've also tried my own method of roasting chestnuts. That didn't work out either – although I love roasted chestnuts.

When you eat something, can you tell whether it's been prepared by a man or a woman?

No. Guests often say, "I'm sure this was made by Juan Mari" or "Elena created this dish." They're usually wrong. I think women and men are equally good cooks, it's just a matter of training. But my father says that women are better, since they are more sensitive. My theory is that he's spent nearly his entire life surrounded by women, and he tends to idealize them.

But not many top restaurants are run by women.

That's left over from the past, and has more to do with tradition. Eighty percent of our team are women.

Your children would be the fifth generation to run the restaurant. Would you like them to take it over from you?

It's too early to say, they're only eight and ten years old. I'd be pleased, of course, but it's up to them. It's not something that can be forced. However, both of them love being in the kitchen.

At Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Paris, the fixed menu costs 380 euros. He says that the price is too low, and doesn't reflect the quality of the ingredients or the effort involved.

I interned with him in Monte Carlo, and I know that he has a very large staff and uses only the very best products. I understand what he's saying.

Your fixed menu costs 195 euros.

It's less expensive to live in San Sebastian than in London or Paris, and our personnel costs are somewhat lower. But of course, people pay a lot to come to our restaurant, too. However, restaurants aren't making enormous amounts of money. On the contrary, profit margins are small, and in many cases restaurants have sponsors to back them. A good seat at the opera or at a soccer game is just as expensive.

What distinguishes a good meal prepared by a top chef?

First of all, the food has to be outstanding and offer greater value than an ordinary meal. The atmosphere should be special; I expect a multisensory experience. Finally, I want to be treated well, and for people to be friendly.

And what is special about an Arzak dish?

It consists of seasonal products. It has a pronounced taste, but is also subtle.

And – I hope – it is original.