Why a Basque woman's place is in the kitchen

Cheffing may be a male domain – but not where Elena Arzak comes from. Named the World's Best Female Chef, she tells Sudi Pigott about the women who inspired her.

What would I cook Ferran Adrià for a kitchen supper at my home?" Elena Arzak laughs mischievously at my question, yet is totally unfazed as he's a regular at their table.

"New-season fresh anchovies, Basque-style, dipped in egg and flour and fried at low temperature in extra virgin olive oil. Despite being great friends for many, many years, my father, Juan Mari, and Ferran famously [there's a YouTube clip devoted to their differences over anchovies] still can't and won't agree on the best way to cook anchovies. I'd like to convince him Basque is best!"

It would be an extra triumph for Elena and her trailblazing vision of Basque tradition mixed with cutting-edge research and innovative techniques as she prepares – with "a mix of pride and incredulity" – to receive the Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef 2012 accolade, part of the ultra-prestigious World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards at the Guildhall next Monday.

As Elena is quick to point out, there's an exceptionally strong matriarchal tradition among the Basques, which makes her award all the more fitting: "Cheffing has traditionally been seen as a woman's world here in San Sebastian. We believe it dates back to the fact that so many men were away fishing and working the land, so it was the women who kept the culinary tradition going."

The four-generation Arzak culinary dynasty is no exception. Restaurant Arzak remains in the building where it was first opened back in 1897. Elena's grandmother Francisca ran the restaurant after she was widowed, and her aunt Serafina is a chef there, while her mother, Maite, has always been involved in running the restaurant, too. Restaurant Arzak is 80 per cent female, with six women chefs in the kitchen, Elena explains matter-of-factly.

"Here, it is not considered so unusual, yet I hope my award provides encourage to women chefs in other parts of the world." Elena is quick to add that she's been very impressed by the energy and creativity of the UK female chefs she's met recently, especially Clare Smyth of Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, Anna Hansen of The Modern Pantry and Angela Hartnett of Murano.

Ever since she spent six months at Le Gavroche, aged 19 in the early days of her training, Elena's taken a keen interest in British food, which she found was "so much more interesting and multicultural than I was led to believe before I arrived". Michel Roux Jnr, who was also in the early throes of his culinary career at Le Gavroche with his father in charge at the pass, remembers Elena's time working in London: "I remember her drive, commitment and focus. Regardless of her petite stature, she stood head and shoulders above the others."

Olive oil, hake and tuna, iberico ham and parsley are what Elena refers to as "the traditional backbone of flavour or memory bank, the ingredients we grew up with and have always liked and will always like". They remain the mainstay of Arzak's cuisine, as in her grandmother's day. Elena recalls: "Even when I was a child of 12, I insisted on coming into the kitchen after school. I was given the dirty jobs like cleaning squid for chipirones en su tinta, but I didn't mind; I just liked to watch, absorb and taste. I vividly remember the special, subtle way my grandmother had with fish. How delicately yet decisively she'd cut the hake for merluza en salsa verde [hake with clams and parsley and garlic sauce] and how she would insist on chopping the parsley only at the very last moment." Restaurant Arzak still has the same dishes on the menu, albeit with a modern vision, and in 1989 was the first Basque restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars, which it has retained ever since.

This combination of traditional and avant-garde defines her culinary style. "My understanding of avant-garde," Elena explains, "is a process of research and collaboration in tandem with my father, Juan Mari. It's about remembering and respecting tradition, incorporating all the familiar ingredients and flavours, transformed with new textures and overall lighter in taste. It's critically important to always ask, 'Why?' And only use something different if it truly enhances the taste and the plate.

"For example, we reworked merluza en salsa verde as hake steamed in clam broth with iberico ham powder [made by dehydrating the ham and blitzing it], wafers of garlic and 'stems' of parsley. My father and I [and other avant-garde chefs] like to call it 'techno-emotional cuisine': harnessing innovative techniques to re-conjure memories and stimulate the emotions of diners as well as their taste buds, taking it beyond a normal everyday eating experience."

At heart, what Elena really wants is to make people think about food, feel happy, even laugh. Hence, new dishes such as "steak with potatoes", which is really a fish: sea bass covered with "scales" of different-coloured potatoes, dark blue stained with squid ink and red stained with pimenton – two more traditional Basque ingredients used playfully. For the summer, bonito tuna, a favourite seasonal ingredient (traditionally served as marmitako, a Basque tuna-fish soup), will get a radical new treatment, too, served as a tartare marinated with olive oil, garlic, mustard and spices with African fufu balls (cassava).

Desserts, too, are conceived to make guests smile and trigger fond childhood memories. Elena has recently introduced two new chocolate creations: chocolate "marbles" filled with a mix of crème anglaise, liquid whey and oregano, and what she calls an "ugly" chocolate tortilla, which doesn't look so great, yet tastes amazingly fresh and different and has nostalgic references to childhood omelette suppers. Both desserts are served with a new recipe for a refreshing sorbet of basil and parsley (a must-use component of almost every Basque dish, though not usually dessert).

As to the future, Elena is busy enjoying seeing how her two young children, Nora, seven, and Mateo, five, are already so curious about food and encourages them to come to the kitchen to see her cook and taste, though it's far too early to tell whether either will want to be the fifth-generation Arzak to take on the restaurant. As to whether she will open a restaurant beyond Restaurant Arzak, Elena replies enigmatically: "Not for the moment, but I won't say never."

Arzak, Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273, 20015 Donostia, San Sebastian; 0034 943 278 465

arzak.info

theworlds50best.com

Elena Arzak's dessert dishes

Parsley and basil sorbet

Ingredients:

To serve 4

150g basil leaves
15g spinach leaves
25g parsley leaves
250g caster sugar
700g water
Lemon juice

Preparation

Make a sugar syrup by heating 700g water in a pan and dissolving the sugar.

Let it cool down.

Separately put 2.5l water in a pan with juice of half a lemon and bring to the boil.

Blanch the leaves in the water and leave for 1 minute, then immediately cool down water by adding ice cubes and drain.

Lastly, mix the syrup with the leaves.

Blitz in a food processor and strain.

Put ice cream in ice cream machine to churn.

Serve with "ugly" chocolate tortilla (below).

'Ugly' chocolate tortilla

Ingredients:

For each omelette:

1 egg
25g sugar
25g 70% chocolate, chopped
2g cocoa powder
Pulp of 2 passion fruit

For green lettuce sauce:

1 large lettuce
125g sugar
1 tablespoon honey (mild)
Also: pansy petals if you can find (Waitrose sell in summer months!)

Preparation

For omelette:

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Make a regular omelette ensuring it remains a little runny.

For green lettuce sauce:

Liquidise lettuce. Once liquid, add sugar and honey and wilt in a pan for a few minutes.

Final presentation

Place the tortilla in the middle of a flat plate. On the side, put lettuce sauce accompanied with pansy or other flower petals. Serve immediately.

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