Elena Arzak, 42, is joint head chef at Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain, where she works alongside her father. She will be awarded the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef title at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in London on Monday April 30.
Do you have a Proust’s madeleine – something you eat that brings back instant memories?
When I have txangurro, a Basque crab dish, I remember first going into the restaurant kitchen where I saw them boiling in pans. And arroz con leche, rice milk pudding, we used to have at home and I still eat today. Truffle, too, which I remember I ate for the first time when I was seven or eight; my father brought one home and it was an aroma I will never forget.
Were you ever a fussy eater?
In general I will eat everything, though I don’t like cucumber and celery. Since the most important thing in our family is food, it’s unconsciously contagious. My sister, Marta, works in the Guggenheim museum in education and she has an incredible palate.
What’s the first meal that was really memorable to you?
In the summer holidays my sister and I helped for a few hours a day at the restaurant, and so when I was 17 my family said: “Elena, it’s time for you to cook the Christmas dinner.” I was director of a meal of crustaceans, cardoons, artichokes, capon, duck in orange sauce, compote of fruits.
What do you think of British food?
In 1989, I spent six months working at Le Gavroche in London. It was unforgettable, and I admire British food. In Britain, there are many fantastic chefs as well as a multicultural focus, and I’m happy there are so many female chefs: Clare Smyth, Anna Hansen, Nigella Lawson.
Do you have an exercise regime?
Not at the moment, the restaurant and my two small children take up the whole day.
Where do your best food ideas come from?
When you are a chef, you learn to think about food all the time. I like to read reviews, cookbooks, even watching TV or listening to the radio, ideas are everywhere. I saw a washing-up liquid advert that inspired me to make something.
Where are your favourite restaurants?
The list is too long to mention, there must be more than 40 of them.
Who would work in your dream kitchen?
The team I have now – they are indispensable – and I would invite many chefs from all over the world to join us, and of course my father and my grandmother too.
What would you choose for your last meal?
Grilled hake, and grilled squid with poached onion and marmalade.