Spanish Chef Elena Arzak On What Makes Basque Cuisine So Special

"We cannot understand life without food."

By Brittany Malooly

3 September 2019

When thinking of Basque cuisine, what comes to mind? For some, it might be a swirling, chaotic montage of traditional, no-frills dishes such as pintxos, bacalao and hearty stews. But how would a local describe it? Better yet, how would one of the most famous Basque chefs, Elena Arzak? With one word: “modern.”

The Spanish autonomous community located just southwest of France, aka Basque country, is known globally as a culinary mecca. The roughly Delaware-sized area is not only blessed with a diverse geographical landscape—which gifts the locals with high-quality fresh fish from the sea and delicious meats and produce from the inland valleys—but it's also home to some of the best chefs in the world. The coastal city of San Sebastián is particularly esteemed and has one of the highest numbers of Michelin stars per square meter.

With tourists flocking to the Basque country in droves, we wanted to find out why. What makes Basque food so unique and so special? Journy co-founder Leiti Hsu sat down with Arzak, co-head chef of the well-decorated San Sebastian-based restaurant (also named) Arzak, to find out.

Arzak Restaurant | arzak.es.en

“Basque cuisine is modern cuisine because the cuisine is in the people,” Arzak says. “We have been eating very good, because, geographically, we are located in a privileged space. Basque cuisine is, for us, one of the most important parts of life.”

Given that Basque cuisine is in the local culture and, therefore, evolving, we wanted to find out what exactly is new with the culinary scene. One of the biggest things? There’s a new generation of producers in town, and Arzak has been impressed.

“They want to share with you,” Arzak says. “They want to tell you what they do. ‘Elena come to my house, and let me show you what I do! I need to show you because, otherwise, you wouldn’t understand.’”

Since Basque cuisine relies so heavily upon fresh, local food, building relationships with local farmers is key—and Arzak is finding that this new crop of farmers is not only talented but also just as passionate as she is about keeping those relationships strong and intimate.

On a smaller scale, things are also changing for Arzak. The 2012 winner of the Best Female Chef award has a personal culinary mission going forward: keep it simple. Despite the fact that her eponymous restaurant is known for bringing avant-garde experimentation to Spain, Arzak loves the idea of a simple, delicious dish made of quality ingredients.

“I like the apparent simplicity in the plates. For me the tendency is [for] the chefs to rethink the product with sophistication, otherwise, you don’t come to us, but I [don’t] want too many things—[dishes] that look simple, but [there’s] a lot behind [them].”

She carries this attitude to what she eats as well. Her perennial favorite food? Tuna. Simple.

“In summer, every day, my dinner is tuna. Every day. This is why I can work so much, because of the tuna.”

And while some chefs might fear that the arrival of new chefs, restaurants and styles onto the culinary awards scene might rock the boat and damage tradition, Arzak, for one, couldn't be more thrilled.  

“There were chefs [on the list] that I didn’t know, and, thanks to the list, I [do],” Arzak says. “It’s very interesting because the list changes and [there’s] new people coming in.”

She’s also thrilled about what this diversity means for self-expression.

“30 years ago,” Arzak explains to Hsu, “all the restaurants in high cuisine were very similar, and, now, we are very different. This is fantastic because you have the freedom to choose [for] yourself.”

Regardless of how gastronomy changes on a large or small scale, Arzak knows that, to the locals in the Basque country, eating is always going to be a treasured part of the Basque experience.

“We cannot understand life without food.”

Thinking about a trip to Spain? Read up on the best times to visit, what to see and how to get around.

Elena Arzak | @arzakrestaurant