Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak, 70, is one of the grand old men of European gastronomy.
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He smiles as he recalls visiting London as a young man half a century ago, when he couldn’t afford to eat well.
“When I was 20, I didn’t have any money so I didn’t go to great restaurants,” he says in an interview at his first U.K. restaurant. Ametsa With Arzak Instruction opened at the Halkin hotel in London on March 8.
“I just went to places where you could get rid of your hunger pangs,” Arzak says. “I like pubs a lot and pub food. I like the meat pies in pubs.”
After those humble days, when British pies were more likely to contain beef than horse and the only place you found snails was in a garden, Arzak became a giant of Spanish gastronomy.
He still holds the three Michelin stars he won at Arzak, in San Sebastian, in 1989. If that weren’t cause enough for pride, his daughter Elena holds the title of world’s best female chef.
(Ametsa is based on the Basque word for “dream.” Arzak Instruction groups five chefs: Juan Mari and Mari Arzak; Mikel Sorazu, Igor Zalakain and Xabier Gutierrez. Bookings were made for 1,200 places on the first day the lines opened.)
Neither Elena nor her father plans to cook in London regularly. So how will the restaurant compare with Arzak?
“You always have to adapt to the place you are going to, so our idea of a very locally based cuisine is one thing in San Sebastian and may be something else in London,” Arzak says.
“For example, if we can’t find the sort of hake we want but we see some really good mackerel here, we’ll adapt it. And we’ll think this sauce works really well with this fish. So we’ll be doing things here that have evolved from what we’ve done at Arzak.
“This is important: We can’t do another Arzak. We are not in San Sebastian. It’s impossible. First, there’s a certain biodynamic there. We have our local products that we get daily.
“Also the people -- the people who work there and the people who go to it -- and the ways of looking at things. You can’t move what we have there to another place without it being altered.
“The Spaniards who come here will know they’re not coming to eat in Arzak. The concept is ours, the dishes are ours but we’ve thought about it for this place. We have different products. It’s a different arena and the tastes of people here are different.” (Arzak was speaking through an interpreter.)
In the U.K., when people think about pioneering restaurants in Spain, they may cite Ferran Adria at El Bulli. How does Arzak compare Adria’s cooking with his own New Basque Cuisine?
“We are really, really good friends,” Arzak says. “We’re together all the time. We go on vacation together and I go to Ferran’s house and he comes to mine and I adore Ferran. But Ferran’s food is Ferran’s food and my food is my food. They are completely different.
“You also have to also remember that I started in 1975 and I was doing the most evolved thing that had ever happened in Basque cuisine and in Spanish cuisine. It was like a revolution.
“Then in the ’90s, Ferran comes into his own and starts doing what he’s been doing. It’s like two eras. Ferran is the most imaginative guy in the kitchen that has ever existed, in the past, in the present and it will be in the future.”
Ametsa With Arzak Instruction is at the Halkin by Como, Halkin Street, London, SW1X 7DJ. Information: +44-20-7333 1234 or http://www.comohotels.com/thehalkin/dining/ametsa.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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