Chef Elena Arzak, the Culinary Genius

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Elena Arzak

Elena Arzak’s culinary prowess runs in her blood as she is the daughter of the legendary Spanish Chef and Basque avant-garde, Juan Maria. Through her successful journey as a culinary genius, Elena brought her father’s legacy to greater heights. Determined to make her mark in fine dining at the tender age of 11, she travelled all over the world honing her culinary skill set. Renowned for her innovative take on dishes, Elena stands tall with the titles of the best female chef in the world (2012), Joint-Chef at Arzark, the 3 Michelin star restaurant and one of the celebrated chefs of basque cuisine. This blog covers the life and journey of Elena Arzak, the culinary genius.

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Courtesy: Design Indaba

Early Journey as a Passionate Budding Chef

Elena Arzak

At merely 11 years, Elena had made up her mind that she would follow her father’s footsteps. Young Elena would go straight into her parent’s kitchen after school and peel oranges or clean squids even though only allowed for two hours. Her parents tried long and hard to dissuade her from being a chef but Elena didn’t seem to budge.

Once she accomplished her school education, Elena decided to set out on a journey across Europe to discover all it has to offer in terms of culinary arts and cooking. It was an 8-year long journey during which she learned about the cuisines, restaurants and culinary arts in Europe. Elena also pursued her professional training in Culinary Arts and Catering and she also worked at renowned places like Le Gavroche in London, Troisgros in Roanne, and Carré des Feuillants and Vivarois in Paris. From 1988 to 1991, she enrolled herself at the Schweizerische Hotelfachschule in Lucerne (Switzerland) whilst simultaneously working at the International Hotel in Zurich and the Grand National Hotel in Lucerne.

Courtesy: DW News

Working at Arzak 

After completing a decade-long education, Elena returned to Spain. Her next step was to take up the position as staff at Arzak. Despite being the daughter of Juan Maria, she chose the hard way. Without any favouritism, Elena chose to undergo the same path that was set for any other employee. Despite being adept at various intricate culinary techniques, she spent long hours cutting, cleaning and doing other menial tasks before her father let her cook for the guests. After a couple of years, Elena was finally allowed an equal footing in the kitchen with her father. The father-daughter duo worked together to create some of the iconic dishes of Basque cuisine. 

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Inside Arzak: The Experimenting Lab

Courtesy: Restaurant Arzak

Elena revealed that the kitchens of Arzak were less of a kitchen and more of an experimenting lab for Elena and her father Juan. A highly imaginative palette and an unstoppable curiosity, Elena and her father would spend endless hours devising new recipes, experimenting with various combinations of flavours and textures. Elena’s cooking philosophy is innovating while staying true to the Basque heritage at its core. In several interviews, Elena described the cuisines offered at her restaurant as “singular, Basque, evolving, research-based and avant-garde”.  

Elena who is a stickler for perfection maintains that her cooking is research based. Her styles are constantly evolving and in contact with the latest culinary technologies. Even though Arzak is a Spanish culinary Avant Garde, Elena works for it to remain a family restaurant at heart.

Elena’s Signature Dishes

Combining gastronomy with her basque legacy, Elena Arzak created flavours that would herald the modern era of cooking. Her culinary style is marked by simple dishes, fewer elements, bolder flavours and a very minimalist style. Creating as many as 40 new, innovative dishes every year, Elena’s cooking is weighted towards the ingredients found in the sea. The idea behind her cuisines is to create conversations between her dish and her diners. She recalls an anecdote wherein she had once created chocolate in the shape of a frog that was characteristic of San Sebastian. One of her customers failed to discern the animal and therefore enquired which led to them having wholesome conversations about the place, its culture and many more. Some of Elena’s signature dishes include Sea bass, Yellow crab Spider crab camouflages with sea bottom, Lobster with leek and banana Lobster with leek.

Courtesy: Staff Canteen

Awards and Accomplishments

Elena Arzak has bagged awards for her exceptional talent and skills. Some of the noteworthy accomplishments include being named the ‘World’s Best Chef 2012’ by World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. Under her aegis, Arzak was featured in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list and occupied the 21st slot.

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Elena Arzak is the fourth generation chef in the Arzak chain of restaurants. Her work has always symbolized perfection and creativity. Furthermore, she uses cooking as a medium to promote her native Basque culture. Elena’s story is truly inspiring for young girls who aspire to carve a niche for themselves in fine dining and culinary arts. We hope that it inspired you as well! Check out Leverage Edu‘s latest series on ‘Her Purpose‘ which brings the inspirational journeys of more such bosswomen saluting them for International Women’s Month 2021!

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