Spanish chef Arzak has no plans to leave the cutting edge

MADRID (Reuters) - Chef Juan Mari Arzak has done much to put Spain's culinary heritage on the map and aims to keep it there despite an economic crisis by researching new ideas and giving free rein to the imagination.

Arzak's restaurant ranked eighth at the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna World's 50 Best Restaurants awards on Monday night. His joint Head Chef and daughter Elena Arzak was given the Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef award.

Arzak senior has won praise for taking Basque cuisine's ancient traditions in new directions without going to quite the same innovative lengths as renowned compatriot Ferran Adria.

Perhaps his most famous dish is pate made from the unsightly but tasty scorpion fish, which he created more than 40 years ago and has since become a feature in restaurants and delicatessens across Spain.

Rather than culinary foam or paella made from rice crispies, the Michelin three-starred Arzak restaurant draws from mainly local ingredients to dish up combinations like monkfish with bronzed onion, or lamb injected with freeze-dried beer.

"Research is the way forward. We didn't become avant-garde with traditional cooking, the baby squid my mother made, gazpacho or tripe," Arzak told Reuters in an interview.

"We are at the cutting edge due to modern cuisine, evolution and the avant-garde. I keep saying you need to build on what you have, on factories, workshops. It's tough, but you have to carry on, bank on imagination," he added during a visit to Madrid.

Arzak, 69, fulfilled a long-held dream this year by opening the Basque Culinary Centre near his 19th century tavern in the well-heeled northern resort of San Sebastian.

He has also branched out by designing menus for restaurants such as Sando in Madrid, which now carries the tag "with Arzak Instructions".

Located in the capital's edgy Santo Domingo district, from which it draws its name, Sando offers a tasting menu for 49 euros ($64.72), which compares with around 200 for a full meal at Arzak itself.

"We've just started, it's early days yet. What we're going to do is take a look at the cooking, traditional dishes or whatever they have, see if they can be improved or leave them be, and then add some new dishes and think it through," Arzak said.

FOURTH GENERATION

Arzak's grandparents founded the family tavern in 1897 in what was then a village but has now been engulfed by San Sebastian.

Now 69, Arzak can safely pass the restaurant on to his daughter Elena.

"I don't want to retire, but do what I like doing and come the day I no longer wish to turn up, then I won't, and she'll be there," he said. "It's soothing for patrons to know someone is there who is as good as or better than you."

For now, Arzak will continue to work with his team to invent 40 new dishes a year.

"It gets harder and harder to break new ground, so you have to think like a child and move on. You need the capacity for wonderment, where anything can inspire you," he said. ($1 = 0.7571 euros)

(Writing By Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato)

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