Juan Mari Arzak - The original Basque master

by Neil Morris - 25 January 2013

Juan Mari ArzakThere are few chefs in the world who command as much respect as Juan Mari Arzak. He is a leader, a mentor and a legend. A relentless innovator who has pioneered modern Spanish cuisine for the last 45 years.

Arzak was an original member of the collaborative group who pioneered the Basque nouvelle cuisine movement in the late 1970s. These Basque Masters revolutionized Spanish cooking and established The Basque Country as one of the worlds leading gastronomic regions.


To this day, Juan Mari remains one of the most influential figures in world cuisine and an ambassador for the Basque Country. He was the first chef in Spain to achieve three Michelin stars and his restaurant 'Arzak' in San Sebastian, has held a place in the top 10 of Restaurant magazine's 'World's 50 best restaurants' for the last 8 years. He never stops researching new techniques and developing new recipes, ensuring that the restaurant remains in a perpetual state of evolution.

The restaurant was built in 1897 by Juan Mari's grandparents and it began life as a popular bar renowned for serving wine of dubious quality to the locals. When his parents took over the humble establishment, it was transformed into a restaurant serving traditional recipes from San Sebastian and a reputation for refinement and quality was soon forged. It was in this environment that Juan Mari was born on the 31 July 1942, and the inevitable path to culinary greatness began.


When he was just nine years old, Juan Mari's father passed away and his mother was left with the responsibility of running of the business. The name of the restaurant was changed to 'Viuda de Arzak' and it soon became one of the most popular venues in the area for family celebrations such as weddings and birthdays. His mother had a natural "affection for produce and people" that would inspire her son throughout his career.

After studying hotel and restaurant management in Madrid, Juan Mari returned home in 1966 and began to work in the restaurant alongside his Mother. It was at this time that he began experimenting with modern gastronomy and the next evolutionary stage of the restaurant began. A year later, his wife Maite Espina also joined the restaurant and began transforming the front-of-house operations. By 1974, they had had two children, Marta and Elena, and the restaurant had been awarded its first Michelin star.


Despite being regarded as the best chef in Spain, Juan Mari was determined to keep evolving his style and so in 1976, along with his friend Pedro Subijana and inspired by the work of Paul Bocuse, they set off to Lyon to learn the secrets of Nouvelle cuisine. The trip proved invaluable and they soon set up the collaborative group that would form the foundations of the Basque nouvelle cuisine movement. The group also comprised of Ricardo Idiáquez, María Jesús Fombellida, Pedro Gómez, Manuel Iza, Jesús Mangas, Patxi Kintana, José Juan Castillo, Karlos Arguiñano, Ramón Roteta, Xabier Zapirain and Luis Irizar.

The chefs soon began transforming their local cuisine by resurrecting and improving traditional recipes using modern methods and innovative techniques. The idea was to retain regional identity and use the best quality local ingredients available, but to keep evolving. They met once a month and exchanged ideas - despite being competitive they shared everything for the greater benefit of the group - and eventually they spread their innovative ideas to other cities and other regions.arzak-comedor

By 1989 Arzak restaurant had been awarded three Michelin stars and the influence of the Basque movement had spread worldwide. Spanish cuisine was entering its most important era and the door was open for the next wave of great chefs to emerge. When considering the talent that has emerged from Spain in recent years, the influence and inspiration of Juan Mari Arzak and his peers must be acknowledged.

For Arzak restaurant, the family tradition is set to continue as daughter Elena now stands proudly alongside her father as joint head chef.

Note: A new restaurant, 'Ametsa with Arzak Instruction', will be opening at The Halkin Hotel London in February 2013.

Websites: Arzak | Ametsa

Books by Juan Mari Arzak:

Buy books (UK) | Buy books (US)

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