Design Indaba 2016
Elena Arzak And Why Food Matters

Elena Arzak has a different view of food than most of us. Partially that’s because she’s one of the world’s most renowned chefs. But it’s also because where she comes from, food means more. Arzak told her story and the impact of cuisine on culture and society in an engaging talk at Design Indaba on Thursday, leaving the crowd hungry for more.

She began by telling the story of a few revolutionaries, one of whom was her father.

Juan Mari Arzak came from a place steeped in rich culinary tradition. By the mid 1970s, the Arzak restaurant had already been operating for over 70 years. Still, “Juan M” sought new ideas. He wanted to reinvigorate Basque cuisine. So him and fellow chef and friend Pedro Subijana traveled to France, to learn from culinary master Paul Bocuse. They returned with a fresh outlook, one that manifested in the Basque culinary revolution that helped turn San Sebastian into one of the world’s most desired locations for lovers of great food.


Juan M and Subijana didn’t just return with a new outlook on what to cook and how to cook it. They came back with a deeper appreciation for food and what it meant, and could mean, to the overall culture of San Sebastian. The city hasn’t looked back. San Sebastian is one of the world’s most-desirable locations for culinary excellence, and Juan M’s creativity and boundary-pushing helped make it so.

Elena has helped carry on her father’s legacy while carving a path of her own in being recognized as one of the world’s top modern chefs. And while the food remains incredibly important, Arzak focused her talk on her view of food as a social tool, a driver of economy, and a source of knowledge, among other things.

In San Sebastian, Arzak said, chefs are looked up to as social role models, as much as footballers are in other parts of the country. Cooking and eating as a group or family is an important part of Basque culture, and it fills people with conversations, experiences, and thoughts. Since the culinary revolution spurred on by her father, there has been a new concentration and appreciation of locally-sourced ingredients. San Sebastian has the benefit of being near the sea and having robust farming, and with the culinary reputation of the city means it’s a large market for both ingredient providers and restaurants, not to mention the many benefiting from tourism. And Arzak also spoke to the importance of kitchens as collaborative environments; perhaps as much research, development, and knowledge sharing happens there than anywhere else.

Arzak’s view on the cultural importance of food is being shared by many influential modern chefs. Jamie Oliver may have a bit more mainstream recognizability than Arzak, but the UK-born chef also believes in the power of food to change society and culture. A speaker at last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Oliver spoke about the dangers of junk food and how corporations and governments have a responsibility to address global obesity and health crises. Oliver is working towards getting young people around the world interested not only in more healthy food, but in learning how to cook it early in their lives.

One might wonder why Arzak’s speech came at a design conference. Quite simply, the Arzak story is one of the benefits of looking at things from a different perspective. Not only did her father look at how to revolutionize traditional Basque, but Elena herself is showing how food can be vital to a people’s culture and understanding of their world.

If rethinking how we view food could positively affect society, it’s worth wondering what else could we achieve by looking at our other leisure activities in a more critical, open-mided way.

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