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World Chefs: Arzaks humble about haute cuisine

TORONTO (Reuters Life!) - Spanish chefs Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena are local celebrities at their 110-year-old restaurant in San Sebastian, but neither craves the spotlight.

Dubbed the father of modern Basque cuisine, Juan Mari, 65, and Elena, 38, are renowned for their investigative cooking, which they concoct with a team of chefs, chemists and physicists in the restaurant's kitchen and laboratory.

Foodies flock to their Arzak restaurant, ranked among the best in the world, for foods such as oysters wrapped in cellophane, fiber-optic potatoes, champagne ravioli and bubbling pineapple.

The pair spoke to Reuters in a telephone interview about fame, inspiration and their distinctive style of cooking.

Q: You once prepared a meal for Queen Elizabeth. Who do you most like to cook for?

JM: "In this community, there is no class distinction. This is a restaurant of three Michelin stars but it is a restaurant where all types of people come. Those of upper class could come once a month, and those of middle or lower class will still come, but maybe only once a year."

Q: Can you describe what investigative cuisine means?

JM: "The cuisine is of Basque roots, not of traditional Basque roots. We distinguish between traditional Basque cuisine and cuisine with Basque roots. Roots is the way of being of a people, a genetic heritage, a cultural heritage, a heritage of taste that we carry in our blood ... The cuisine of Basque roots is cuisine of investigation, it's a cuisine of evolution, ours in Arzak, it's a cuisine in the vanguard."

Q: Can you describe a typical dish from the restaurant that exemplifies that philosophy?

E: "Hake with white clay: It's a favorite local fish and we serve it with a white clay, that you can eat, that is with no sand."

JM: "The idea came to us because we were working with the land to make a sauce from the earth. After we started to do a type of compost of different types of earth, we collected the earth from parts where there is no deteriorating substances like that of the forest, and then we cooked this and what we ended up with was an extract that tastes of minerals and of truffles, and depending on what forest we take the earth from, the leaves that have fallen to the ground could be of cherries, could be of apples, and it gives the flavor a special touch."

Q: How do you stay inspired?

JM: "You always have to have the capacity to be surprised. And ideally, to have the capacity to be surprised, you need to think like a child. If you think like a child your imagination will never run out."

E: "Inspiration comes from many different ways, from what you see every day. Perhaps if I go to the street, I go to an ice cream shop and I see granita of horchata (a beverage made from tigernuts, water and sugar), so I can come to the restaurant and say I'm going to make a dessert with horchata."

Q: What is your favorite thing to eat?

JM: "I like caviar, I like foie gras, I like white truffles, but for me, what I like best to eat, for my taste, is a couple of fried eggs with a few piquillo peppers on the side."

E: "I like truffles a lot, I like cheese, but especially a local cheese called idiazabal."
Atlantic bonito in a bonfire of scales (serves 4)

For the bonito skin puree:

30 grams bread

1 tomato

2 green onions

60 grams bonito skin, scales intact (black)

200 grams extra virgin olive oil

70 grams almonds, slightly fried in olive oil until golden

20 grams balsamic vinegar
Salt and sugar

For the bonito filets:

600 grams Atlantic bonito (4x150 gram fillets)

Salt, powdered ginger

For the red peppercorn oil:

10 grams red peppercorns

60 grams extra virgin olive oil

1. For the bonito skin puree, chop the tomato and lightly saute in olive oil. In a separate saute pan, heat half the olive oil and fry the bonito skins until crispy. Drain well.

2. Combine the tomato and fried bonito skins with the rest of the ingredients. Mash together and pass the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Season to taste with salt and sugar

3. For the bonito filets, slice each piece into two rectangles. One should be slightly bigger than the other.

4. In a smoker, lightly smoke the bonito rectangles for four minutes. Then sprinkle the bonito with powdered ginger and spread each fillet with the finished puree of bonito skin. Sear the bonito on all sides, leaving the center rare.

5. For the red peppercorn oil, rub the red peppercorns together and pick out the skins. Combine the skins with the olive oil. Reserve.

6. Place the two bonito rectangles standing up vertically in the center of the dish. Using a piping bag, draw circles of the bonito skin puree alongside the bonito filets and dress the bonito with a liberal drizzle of the red peppercorn oil.

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