I’ve Never Stopped Flying Since

by: Michael Shields

The contributors for Across the Margin are an eclectic diverse group with varied interests. They contribute much more than can be housed in this web site alone. An example of one of those interest, by one of those authors, can be found below: some culinary musings that can be further delved into here.

“In my entire life, I haven’t eaten anything I haven’t had fun making”

Many a statue can be found throughout San Sebastian, Spain. These carefully carved and crafted works of art can be found in the squares, in medians on the main avenues, and along the promenades, specifically by Playa de la Concha. There is the well know ‘Day 7 Statue with Sword’ of Antonio de Oquendo standing high and mighty, flag clutched left arm to breast, his chest puffed out. There is, my favorite, a statue of Don Quixote setting out to revive chivalry with his trusted companion Sancha Panza following behind him on a donkey, simple farmer that he was. This statue is a smaller version of the famed original which is located in the Plaza de Espana Square in Madrid. It’s a gem. And, there is also a herculean statue of Christ located high upon Mount Urgull overlooking the city. You can hardly make a move in San Sebastian without being in his line of sight, within his realm of watching and judging.

However unlikely, it is possible that a statue could one day be erected to join these persons frozen in time that would be of a man whose craft isn’t usually associated with these type of dedications. By a man who simply….cooks. It may sound a little far-fetched I realize, the ranting of a crack pot. But the more you learn about Juan Mari Arzak, the candidate for canonization I am speaking of, and his contributions to the region, the more you will begin to see it might not be so crazy after all.

Juam Mari Arzak, and his restaurant Arzak, share an interesting history. One we should brush upon briefly as the opening statement to my case for enshrinement.

In the early 1980s Juan Mari Arzak took over his grandparents restaurant, a restaurant that was originally a home they built in 1897 which they turned into a wine inn and tavern. It was a humble restaurant, a place where both locals and travelers could wet their whistle, but due to the quality of wine served at Arzak it became to be known as Alto de “Vinagres” (the height of “Vinegars”). Juan’s parents refined the restaurant some in the mid 1900s, focusing on the use of local seafood, and during this time period Juan was learning to cook, first from his mother then at university. He began working at his then parent’s restaurant in 1966 and immediately started to explore and practice his passion for experimental gastronomy. In 1974, at the ripe old age of 32, Arzak, under the direction of Juan Mari Arzak, earned it’s first coveted Michelin star. It earned 3 Michelin stars in 1989, and has maintained that ranking to this very day.

“It’s important to think like a child, because that way we can be surprised.”

Today, with the help of his talented daughter Elena (the ‘World’s Best Female Chef’ 2012!), Arzak is a staple in the top ten of the best restaurants in the world (it currently sits in the 8 spot – currently as of 4/30/12’s award ceremony). Juan’s merger of simple native Basque cuisine with his flair for the avant-garde has been celebrated with far too many accolades to endeavor to mention here. He is consider by all the “Father of New Basque Cuisine” and has influenced brilliant celebrated chefs such as Ferran Adria and Joan Roca. San Sebastian is now the home to more Michelin-star restaurants per-capita than any other area in the world – and many, including myself, trace the roots to this phenomenon directly back to Juan Mari Arzak.

San Sebastian, thus, has become a culinary destination. One that naturally lured me in and an evening at Arzak would top the bill. The storefront I knew well, from pictures queued during countless internet searches. A stone facade with a simple black awning – a stoic trained poker face concealing it’s royal flush within. The curtain is drawn back upon entrance revealing a surprisingly post modern dining room feeling as new as my presence within it. Upon reservation confirmation you are led through a door which, in appearance and function, belongs on the bridge of the Enterprise. Also much like those pneumatic doors – the moment you enter a journey begins….

“Everyday we experiment and investigate with the flavors, textures, and elaboration’s processes.”

Although worthy, every detail of the experience that is the Arzak tasting menu I will spare you. It is too complex an experience to fully dissect and far more seasoned culinary raconteurs have made attempts I would describe aptly as feeble. But I must share some moments…moments like the opening starter sequence with a corn, fig, and black pudding that warned the senses what they were in for. Moments like a goat cheese with tumeric served with a sunflower coated crispy ham that had crunch yet finished smooth and soft. Or the “dusted egg and mussel” where a poached egg (with a layer of concentrated mussel gel upon it) was nestled between 2 layers of spinach kataifi and enclosed on the plate by powders of prawn and oregano. And moments such as the “Hemp’s mustard and lobster” or the “lamb with red-hot chili peppers” (pictured above). Or the onslaught of dessert dishes that started with “playing marbles with chocolates” where thin soft bubbles of liquid chocolate are paired with strawberry sauce and basil ice cream and storm the senses like a castle gate the moment the faux skin of the “marble” releases it’s grip, and ends with the playful design and the palatable execution of the “Pistachio and beetroot stone” (pictured far below). Moments like the pouring of the “Mead and fractal fluid” (pictured far atop) or even simple moments like the addition to an herbaceous side salad of a perfectly crisp and full-flavored red wine crouton.

Allow me to try to attempt a task which may just sit outside the boundaries of the possible – to explain the certain je ne sais qua that makes Arzak impossibly outstanding and indisputably unforgettable. What is so special here is the subtleties present at every step of the journey. Many ingredients, in each and every dish, appear likely used for aesthetic reasons (a naive thought at such an establishment) as almost every plate served is so beautiful it deserves to be placed beneath glass in the wing of a museum (for instance, the art that is the foie gras pictured directly below) when rather these ingredients have such high multipurpose function. So many subtleties, layers of flavors, are found in each bite created by these unique and clever ingredients which often contain an instantaneously recognizable flavor (many times from childhood) that you must take the time to concentrate and rush to decipher it’s origin before the moment fades away. Each bite stratified and complex. Each taste a moment. The entire experience such a dizzying ride. An irreplaceable adventure.

A truly distinguished evening, made possible by a chef who has pushed the envelope and changed the game, creating thousands of unforgettable evenings for countless people. A man who has conceived such accomplished delicious edible art that he has made San Sebastian famous far beyond it’s exquisite beauty. A man, a chef, well worthy of immortalization cast from carved marble, granite, limestone, or even cast metal.

“I inherited my restaurant. It was successful but I didn’t like it. I was inquisitive. I needed to do something else. By 1975, I saw that cuisine was starting to be a big part of a culture. Cuisine is in the roots. It is the spirit of the roots. Using those ideas, I wanted to fly. Based on the spirit and the Basque tradition, I wanted to go much further. I’ve never stopped flying since.”

-Juan Mari Arzak

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