Elena Arzak is one of the world’s leading chefs. So why honor her just for being the best woman?
Arzak rejects criticism of the best female chef award she won in 2012 (in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking) and takes pride in her achievements at Arzak. That’s the three-Michelin-star restaurant she runs with her father, Juan Mari, 71, at San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain.
“My grandmother was a chef and my mother works in the restaurant and 80 percent of the staff in Arzak are women,” she says during a visit to London this week to check out Ametsa With Arzak Instruction, the restaurant at the Halkin hotel.
“There are six women chefs de partie in the kitchen. For me, it has always been normal to be a woman chef. I see it as an award to my profession. If at the same time it can help women who are not in a similar position to mine, even better.”
Arzak, 44, is dressed in her whites, with her London head chef, Sergio Sanz Blanco, 34, at her side. (The Arzaks are consultants to the restaurant and visit regularly.) She is petite and smiles a lot, yet she is confident. She’s feminine and formidable.
She trained at Le Gavroche in London in 1989. She now combines motherhood with her position as head chef at Arzak, which placed eighth in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013.
Those are the same awards -- for which I am a judge -- that named her Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef in 2012; Anne-Sophie Pic won in 2011 and Nadia Santini this year. Arzak says there will be more leading women chefs in years to come.
“It will change,” she says. “It’s a social question, because women, not only in cooking but in all the professions, stayed at home more. Little by little, women are working outside the home. Today, if you have a look in the hotels and cooking schools, where there used to be fewer women, it is equal.
“There are many women chefs working in the U.K. Angela Hartnett, Anna Hansen, Clare Smyth, Helene Darroze and many others are doing very well. The list is long.
“I have two children. The year my older child was born -- she is now eight years old -- five more children were born at Arzak. We stayed open and it didn’t affect the restaurant. We were happy.”
How does she get on with her father, known as one of the masters of contemporary Basque cuisine?
“I’ve been working with him for many years and he has taught me many things,” she says. “Since the beginning, he let me introduce a lot of ideas. The first plate I made with him -- I was 19 -- was a salad of vegetables and tuna and I remember he liked the salad very much but the sauce was awful. He changed the sauce, which was very thick, for a light vinaigrette.
“We work in tandem together. My father is still very active. He adores cooking. He says he will never stop. And he’s open to my criticism, too. It’s difficult to explain but we manage very well together. Of course, if he wouldn’t allow me to make so many things, perhaps I wouldn’t stay. But you cannot imagine how much he knows. For me, he will always be the boss.”
(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.)
Muse highlights include the New York and London weekend guides and Lewis Lapham on history.