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At 32, younger than many of her kitchen crew, Elena Arzak displays a remarkable calmness and serenity, even while inspecting the finished dishes that are about to be served to her customers. She comes from an impressive culinary background: the Restaurante Arzak, started by her great-grandmother, has been in the family for more than a century, and was propelled to worldwide fame, not to mention three Michelin stars, by her father Juan Mari, a confounder of Basque nueva cocina. Today it is Elena who heads the 28-member and mostly-male kitchen brigade, which includes some of the best cooks in San Sebastian. She exhibits an impressive self-confidence. "I've always thought that I would see how it goes, that I would do my best, and that if I didn't like it I'd give it up." She chose to train for six years in Switzerland, London, Paris and Roanne before beginning work with her father and her mother Mayte, who helps run the restaurant. During intense daily sessions in a small kitchen resembling a laboratory, father and daughter work together on the creation of new dishes.
Elena describes the process: "We work just like my father and grandmother did. Broadly speaking, I present a dish and then we discuss it." Juan Mari explains it this way: "It's like musical generations: I'm an old rocker, and she's heavy metal." Nonetheless, their love of working together is obvious. Today, their menu's distinctive style comes from interweaving flavours from around the world - tamarind, hibiscus, rhubarb, mango skin, molasses, coconut, smoked chocolate - with top-quality local products such as hake and beef from the Pyrenees. Elena admits that, like her father, her basic values are Basque. "I am very influenced by my environment. What I love most is working with outstanding raw materials, always respecting one principle: Do not change the product too much. You can do a lot with spices, contrasting flavours and technique, but you have to retain the ingredient's own natural qualities."
"Summer squid caught with a fishing rod has wonderful taste and texture and makes a delicious broth. As for flavours, I love star anise and powdered licorice for both sweet and savoury dishes."
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