In The Lab at Arzak

There comes a time in your life where you find yourself struggling with your calendar. How to fit everything, how to make it all work. And you sit down, and you think the thought, 'Do I really have to go to Arzak?'

And then you slap yourself and you think about how crazy life is when that's a thought that could possibly cross your mind.  So, last week I grabbed my notebook and headed up the street to the restaurant, currently #17 in the world on that list .

On this journey, I was focused on getting a bit behind-the-scenes, although we started in the dining room, of course. The 2005 renovation of the restaurant remains relevant enough design wise to be featured in global press (more on that later).  It consisted of a prettying up of the front-of-the house, which is two floors done in a low-lit modernist cave style and, much like the menu, has playful if a bit literal allusions to gastronomy.

In 2005, they also revamped the bodega, whose 98,000 bottles from 2,900 different bodegas would get much more attention in a restaurant with less-celebrated food. The zinc-plated walls enclose hundreds of metal crates, each with a paper tag hanging from a bit of cord.

And then my eyes were drawn to a couple of bottles in the corner.

Sloe berries, gathered from nearby bushes, macerating to make the traditional Basque digestif, patxaran. Patxaran is a part of big meals and celebrations, and many restaurants, liquor shops, and farmers still make their own.  The Arzaks, apparently, are no exception. 

We then walked upstairs to the lab, which you should know is open to the public. All you have to do is ask, and they’ll take you, perhaps between the bogavante con polen de abeja (lobster with bee pollen) and the kokotxas en bambú (that ever appetizing fish jowl with bamboo), through the labrynth of wine bottles and up to the control room, which has just opened this summer. 

 The impressive and oh-so-instagrammable stacks of spices and dried ingredients from across the world remains, now serving as a partition along with a gigantic photo of the famous fractal fluid, a spectacular performance art of a dessert that occasionally makes a reappearance on the menu.  The room used to be part of a house, and the original rough-hewn wooden floor remains. Elena Arzak’s husband along with architect Borja Azcarate oversaw the changes—if there’s one rule at Arzak, it's keep it in the family.

The R+D team meets on a banker’s schedule, but their activities are anything but boring. On our visit, we spotted some crazy crunchy creations with curcuma and seaweed laid out on some paper towels on the island in the center of the room. 

Apart from two desks and a circular table, which is slightly separated by the edible partition, the studio has little more to it.  The real magic lies in tupperwares and in the books and hard drives that line the shelves.  Cotton candy with a flavor none of us could discern. Something unidentifiable that resembled a dehydrated balloon.  With household appliances, a Pacojet, and something that I conjectured was a type of distiller, they work the wizardry that later appears on the restaurant’s menu and on the blogs of the food cognoscenti.

Why does Arzak continue to capture the imagination of the world’s food critics and globe-hopping gourmets? I think more than the food, it’s the story. Arzak is not formulaic.  This is no guy out of culinary school, with the perfect resume of one-month stages in Northern Europe, and a group of investors and a press team behind him. This is over 100 years of history, a family thing, and someone who grew up behind the stoves, in arguably one of the best moments in the best spots with the best raw materials.

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