SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — The waiter places a plate of clear, viscous liquid before me. From a small mug, he pours a red liquid into the clear one. I expect the mixture to turn pink; instead, the cardinal-colored liquid spreads, forming seemingly irregular shapes. It branches again and again, until a pattern emerges. In every new branch there is a copy of the larger form, as in a snow crystal or a coral; it is a miniature image of eternity.
In just a few seconds, a perfect geometric form has emerged — a fractal — with thousands of small details, more exacting than a human hand could draw. It is possibly the most beautiful dish I have ever seen, and it leaves me stunned and speechless, afraid to touch it. Then the waiter tucks a spoon into the liquid, fills the spoon and pours the liquid over a lemon tart, breaking the form. As I eat, I keep wondering what happened, amazed that something so beautiful can appear and disappear so fast. Then the meal at Restaurante Arzak continues.
In 1989, Arzak became the first place in Spain to achieve three Michelin stars. It was a turning point, heralding the start of the new Spanish gastronomy and the beginning of the end of French hegemony.
Chef Juan Mari Arzak challenged the French supremacy by using Spanish and Basque ingredients and new methods. By inventing new classics and reinterpreting old ones, he has playfully and quietly moved the boundaries of gastronomy. He didn’t get to the top by adhering to tradition — or even rebelling against it — but by being himself: proudly Basque, and more emotional than technical.
Unlike at Arzak, the aim of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s celebrated avant-garde restaurant outside Barcelona, has been not so much to please as to innovate. And when Adria closes his restaurant this year after more than a decade, it might be interpreted as a sign that his kind of cuisine has come to the end of the line. After spherification, foams, garlic-and-almond sorbet and “Kellogg’s Paella,” what would come next? What could come? Flying saucers? Is this the end of the new Spanish cuisine or, indeed, of modern cuisine, as its detractors claim? Did the revolution eat itself?
Meanwhile, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, have managed to keep their three stars, and the food is still playful and surprising. With the closing of El Bulli and the death in February of Adria’s fierce anti-modernist arch-rival, Santi Santamaria, Arzak will be considered arguably Spain’s finest restaurant, once again in the spotlight.
This restaurant, not married to the ideology of modernism, might nonetheless show what the future holds for modern cuisine.
When we look back on the Adria-dominated decade of modernist cooking, I am sure it will be seen as transformative, even revolutionary. I also think it will be seen as an anomaly, with its focus on technology over taste, method over result. You didn’t have to like the food as long as you knew that it was something the world had never seen before. (Although I enjoyed them tremendously when I had them at El Bulli, I am pretty sure people will not be eating artificial olives 50 years from now, if they can avoid it.)
Throughout this time of upheaval, the Arzaks have stuck to their own formula. That is made clear as Juan Mari shows me around the old building on the outskirts of San Sebastian that houses the restaurant. Here tradition and innovation, history and revolution can be found side by side. Or, to be more precise, in adjacent rooms.
“This is where I was born, in the restaurant,” Juan Mari says as he stops to catch his breath on the way up a flight of stairs. Then he leads me through the enormous wine cellar, where more than 100,000 bottles are aging and waiting for wealthy buyers. Some have been there as long as Juan Mari himself.
Up another flight of stairs, we enter an apartment that is fitted out like a laboratory, where Igor Zalacain finds solutions to Juan Mari and Elena’s wishes. When Juan Mari has tasted green rice from Vietnam and wants to create something similar with local ingredients, he sits down with Zalacain, and they find a way to infuse Spanish rice with parsley using extractor centrifuges and pressurized chambers. The rice is then dried and rolled. The result does not look much like the Vietnamese rice that gave birth to the idea; it is something new and original.
Arzak does not boast the most innovative cooking on the planet. But it is unique in that father and daughter have managed what most modernist cooks struggle to do: combine modern technology and classical cooking. At El Bulli, the kitchen did not just look like a lab, it was a lab, with no pots or ovens to be seen, and eating the food — though sublime — was less like dining than like being subjected to an experiment that pushed the boundaries of the possible.
At Arzak, the technology — whether it is a centrifuge, a siphon or Adria’s arsenal of culinary additives, such as the xanthan gum used to create the fractal — is there to make the food possible. The food is never served just to showcase the technology, to prove a point. After all, the fractal, which was inspired by the mathematics of Yale professor Benoit Mandelbrot, tastes of birch syrup and ends up being married to a quite recognizable and spectacularly delicious lemon tart.
Much research work is still being done downstairs, in the traditional kitchen, where there are flames and pots and fumes. Even in the most elaborate dish, such as the still life representing a beach, with edible starfish and shells, there is something simple to be learned. In this case, Juan Mari is particularly proud of the method used to marinate and cook a piece of monkfish, something that demands no special equipment or training (see recipe at right). And among Elena’s all-time favorites are the three-ingredient garlic wafers that can be used “for almost everything” (recipe, Page E6).
“Everything that is traditional has once been new,” Juan Mari says. “And everything that is new will one day be traditional. Or just old.”
The aim of their food, father and daughter explain after dinner, is the same as it has always been: to satisfy.
“We consider cooking to be much more of an emotional process than just technical,” Juan Mari says. He gets most of his inspiration from everyday things, such as the color of the garb worn by Peruvian musicians, the shape of ancient stone monuments dotting the landscape, a whiff of coffee when searing foie gras (and those last three come together in a strange and wonderful starter). He always has. What is different now is that the toolbox he uses to realize such ideas is vastly expanded.