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Molecular magic in Arzak, one of the world's best restaurants

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Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, just took the title of the best restaurant in the world. Meanwhile, Mugaritz and Arzak, situated in San Sebastian, are celebrating their long-standing positions in the top ten, making three of the world's top ten restaurants situated in Spain. Juan Mari Arzak, owner of the eponymously named Arzak restaurant, has held the hugely coveted three Michelin stars for an incredible 24 years, won the World's 50 Best restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 and is one of the founding masters of New Basque cuisine. HELLO! Online steps into the kitchen of Arzak to find out about molecular gastronomy and the secret to creating some of the best culinary delights in the world.  

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Arzak doesn't conjure up delicately-elaborated recipes in the kitchen, but a laboratory. His daughter Elena, 2012's World's Best Female Chef, explains that the process takes "from three to six months".The restaurant concocts an astonishing 40 new dishes each year, constantly researching, investigating, testing and innovating in molecular gastronomy – where science meets food in the lab. 'Chorizo with tonic', 'light ovalacto' – a poached egg in a semi crunchy shell and baobab accompanied by 'lactic leaves' and 'kobe’s beer' – the incredible delicacy Wagyu beef, known for its distinguished flavour and texture, are just a taste of the culinary wonders offered on Arzak's menu. 

The multi-award winning chef and Elena work in tandem to create world-renowned New Basque Cuisine. The laboratory, also called 'the playroom', is above the restaurant. Beside it is a flavour bank containing 140 flavours and spices at room-controlled temperature, along with machines that belong in tripple science classes – including a freeze-dryer with mussels in test tubes. Powder from the frozen mussle will then be used to hugely intenstify the flavour in a dish, leaving you wonder how on earth they did it. Juan Mari explains the magic behind the science, and how they come up with their creative ideas for food.

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'Monkfish green witch' playfully recreates the Earth and the light is positioned as the sun

"Everything is on the street," he says, his eyes sparkling. "We see the world with the eyes of a chef. A traffic light is a sweet with three colours, a crushed Coca Cola can – another sweet." He goes on to describe how seeing a group of youths graffiti on the street inspired the duo team to experiment with spraying colours on dishes. "The most important thing is to think like a child." Despite the fine and formal décor, camera flashes and perfect, slick service, Juan Mari's attitude shines through – eating his food is really fun. This is no coincidence – plays on words, fish served on a transparent plate above an iPad offering swishing waves, 'monkfish green witch' – monkfish served with a crispy green balloon, playing marbles with chocolate as a dessert, or a smoking volcano… "It's a game," says Elena. "We want to evoke the emotion of our clientele and make them participate in the experience."

Mult-award winning chef Juan Mari with his daughter Elena in the flavour bank, with140 flavours and spices

Restaurant kitchens are usually male environments, but not this one. "The Basque society is matriarchal. 80% of staff at the restaurant are women," she smiles. In fact, on some days you'll find her children eating lunch while the chefs prepare to serve the 65 covers that the restaurant offers. "My family", gestures Juan Mari proudly.

Built in 1897, the restaurant's exterior gives the impression of an old, traditional building. Inside though, expect guests at this famed establishment, set a few streets back from Zurriola beach, to photograph every one of the spectacular multiple courses of the tasting menu, because they are picture perfect and quite simply something out of this world. The first chef to receive three Michelin stars in Spain back in 1989, with all three still intact 24 years on, I ask Juan Mari what's the key to his success? "Doing the best you can," he answers simply, "doing that, you can't ask more." And what about future projects? "I'd like to carry on doing what I'm doing and what I love." Maybe that is the real secret to the Arzak success.

Report by Miriam Foley

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