Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit with Carme Ruscalleda, the renowned Catalan chef. Enjoy!
A Conversation with Carme Ruscalleda
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner Clay Oven Irvine
In a male-dominated culture and society, Carme Ruscalleda challenged the traditional place of women in the professional kitchen. A brilliant woman with the extreme confidence to stand tall (despite her diminutive stature). She is a woman who rose to become the first female chef to be awarded seven Michelin stars in a culture and profession where few women in her country other than Elena Arzak and she have risen to gastronomic prominence. Her cuisine is sensorial and delicate, with attention to every minute detail.
This petite, vivacious woman with the most beautiful smile won my heart the first time I met her. She is a self-taught Catalan chef, the first woman in Spain to get 3 Michelin stars, paving the way for other female chefs. I was hooked after my first conversation with her many years ago. For me, she became a role model of how to participate in this profession with courage and confidence, despite never having benefited from training in a culinary school. She is self-taught like me, inspired by the produce and culture of her region to make wonderful food. This is true for all of you interested in food and cooking as a medium of self-expression. Good produce + good intentions = good food. Simple.
Sant Pau is her restaurant in Sant Pol de Mar, located midway between Barcelona and Girona. It is a small town by the sea, with winding streets that seem deserted at times with hardly anyone out and about. The first time I visited, I was convinced I had taken a wrong turn until the façade of the restaurant (part of the Relais & Châteaux collection) with the bright yellow facade and cobalt blue door appeared on the narrow main street.
She was born in 1952 in the same town in a family of farmers and shop owners. She had a desire to study art but was convinced by her teachers and family to study commerce. Her desire was to create jewelry! After graduation she worked in the family business and learned the art of charcuterie. She says she learnt to work with the pig from head to tail and became very good at it, still making her signature sausage the Butifarra, studded with pistachios. After her marriage in 1975, Ruscalleda (along with her husband Antonio Balam) started working across the street from the present restaurant, at the small deli owned by her father, where they took over a section of the store to sell charcuterie and then thought of opening a catering business.
In 1988 an old villa across the street came up for sale and they were able to purchase it and start a dining operation which initially served charcuterie, salads, and simple stews and that gradually morphed into a fine dining establishment That is how Sant Pau came to be, setting her on a career path to becoming an exceptional chef. She has two sons, Raul and Mercedes. Raul is the chef at her Barcelona restaurant, and previously worked with his mother at the Tokyo operation as well as at Sant Pau before the opening of the Barcelona venture. Her husband Toni Balam, her partner in life and business, helps her run her various operations.
The restaurant is in a beautiful location, with the front dining room open to views of the sea. I love to visit Sant Pau in the daytime when you can finish your meal in the lovely garden downstairs by having your coffee or tea along with the petit fours served there. The kitchen is on the same level and Chef Ruscalleda is at the helm in the kitchen, each plate passing inspection by her. She works at an intense pace giving rapid fire instructions to her team. There are usually a lot of Japanese interns or stagiaires in the kitchen whenever I have visited her in the kitchen, probably because of her Sant Pau restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.
The last time we met was at the Gastronomika, where like any two mothers we asked each other about our kids and family. She went on the stage moments later to present a comical viewpoint of gastronomy where she compared a diner's experience to reading a comic strip or a theatrical performance while simultaneously putting forth elaborate techniques developed by her to transform products. She speaks rapidly using her drawing skills to put her points across. Her demonstrations are interesting and informative without the usual slick video presentations of her compatriots. An extremely engaging speaker who puts her ideas out there with authority, the feminist in me is smitten by that. Extremely skilled and creative, she can take a simple ingredient on a flight of imagination that can leave you amazed.
I think of her as a poet who can cook. She appeals to your intellect as well as your palate with her food. She says she likes to play a little with her diners and make them smile. Her dishes have names that point to her ability to infuse humor into her dishes like "New Pajamas" or art, like a savory dish that represents a Miró painting or even an edible Mondrian display on a plate.
The desert and cheese selections are accompanied by drawings to describe the offerings, which makes it an interactive process engaging the diners. She is a master at blending textures, forms, and flavors. With over a dozen cookbooks to her credit she is force in the world of Spanish cuisine.
Chef Ruscalleda is very proud of her Maresme region of Catalunya and tends to prepare a more complex and innovative form of her regions dishes with Japanese and French influences, but always preferring to work with local produce. Over her career (apart from the Michelin stars) she has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Creu de Sant Jordi in 2008 awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya.
The questions I asked Chef Carme Ruscalleda:
Are you inspired by your travels or more by nature?
Undoubtedly more inspired by nature. (Her fondness for nature is visible in her plates. One plate I will never forget was her Spring Ikebana dessert that literally brought Spring to life inside of a glass bowl)
You are very artistic and are the illustrations that accompany your menus your work?
Ok I have to admit as you know I live to draw. Now, my drawings have become a gastronomic dialogue with my clients in Sant Pol de Mar, in Tokyo, and in Barcelona. (She spent time making a drawing for my son when he was quite young to personalize a book that she gifted to him, and won a fuzzy spot in my heart)
You are interested in food and health and how do you participate culinarily on this front? (Anti-Aging specifically)
Since I totally understand the preventative nature of healthy food in regard to ailments I try to utilize these principles. My practical gastronomic philosophy is one that values the benefits of anti aging. Products that are fresh, of high quality and in close proximity (local) which are cooked with great respect truly inspire me. (Dr. Manuel Sanchez of the Anti-Aging Unit Clinic Planas has collaborated with her to provide an anti-aging menu at her Barcelona restaurant Moments at the Mandarin Oriental)
So how would you define your philosophy of food?
For me, food and dining is a source of purpose to develop a profession that deserves inspiration, good products, a well-trained and talented team to create interesting work internationally.
What is the most interesting food symposium that you have attended in recent years?
That would be the Mistura in Lima, Peru and the gastronomic Forum in Girona.
Do you think chefs have a social responsibility in how they impact diner's views on food?
I think primarily that chefs who love their profession have firstly a social responsibility to share their culinary techniques with fellow culinaires and society in general.
Is the present fiscal crisis impacting the operation of restaurants? How can fine restaurants make adjustments to their operations to enable diners to keep on frequenting restaurants?
The restaurants should make adjustments to offer menus that are in equilibrium with the economy. We should defend and follow a trade policy in which price is well balanced with quality.
Why do you think it is important to highlight food products from local farmers, cheese and wine makers, etc.?
It is important to defend the quality of products in your area and support the artisanal products. Eventually this will be interesting and beneficial for the cuisine of your area. It adds originality and dimension.
Does R& D form an important component of your work at all your restaurants (Sant Pol de Mar, Tokyo, and Barcelona)?
Of course, since our work progresses through the investigation and development aspects.
Your son heads your latest venture Moments in Barcelona. What is your opinion about family members joining the team? Was it a conscious choice on his part to follow you into this profession and does it make you glad to see him follow in your footsteps? (You must be so proud to see his success)
You cannot force or pressure someone to become a cook; it was his own decision make by his free will. Of course it made me very happy and I am very satisfied with the success of Moments. (It got its second star this year).
We have discussed on another occasion how cooking has suddenly become a glamorous field whereas at one time it was not something parents wanted their children to make a career in.
If you were to collaborate with chefs from other cuisines who would you choose to work with?
I would love to collaborate with Japanese chefs such as Seiichi Honda of the restaurant Zurriola in Tokyo. (It is a Spanish/Japanese restaurant and chef Honda worked in San Sebastian before opening his restaurant in Tokyo)
Is there any other cuisine that you would like to master? And what are your thoughts on fusion for the sake of novelty?
I am very fortunate that since I opened my restaurant San Pau in Tokyo I got to work with Japanese professionals. I am very moved by Japanese gastronomy as it has so many technical values and interesting products that go very well with our Mediterranean inspirations.
In regard to fusion, I am in favor of fusion when it is coming through the quality of the products and technical values of other cultures.
What is the most adventurous cuisine that you have come across?
I love to taste new and daring cuisine (with a twinkle in her eye). I find the cuisine of Diverxo restaurant in Madrid. (I concur, as Diverxo and La Terraza del Casino or two of my favorites in Madrid).
What is the one thing you dislike about restaurant menus?
Just if they are too long.
Which one of your peers do you respect and admire the most?
I know and admire a lot of my peers for their work and their human qualities, such as Joan Roca. In fact I respect and admire all three brothers. (Joan Roca feels the same about her as we always talk about her and our mutual admiration for this amazing woman)
Which chef do you think is the most innovative and why?
I like to follow the innovative trends and I like very much the work of the latest three-starred chef Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi, in Larrabetzu, Vizcaya.
What is your favorite city in the US?
Gastronomically, I only know New York and Chicago and I think they are very interesting and I would like to go back!
What is your dream vacation?
I tend to take care of professional matters during my vacations. Due to this my dream vacation would be one without gastronomic compromise. (She did not become hugely successful for no reason)
What is your comfort food? And which chef would you like to invite to your home to share a family meal?
My comfort food is more simple than my restaurant food but it is marked by the seasonal and local products. Well, I am sure all the chefs I know would like to come and enjoy my food.
Last question: if you had to choose a last meal on earth, what would you choose?
If you mean my last meal, I think I will not be hungry.
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Personally, I wouldn't mind if my own last meal was at Sant Pau. I am grateful to Chef Ruscalleda for her encouragement and inspiration not only to myself, but to all women in this profession.