Carme Ruscalleda: A Candid Conversation with the Seven-Starred Chef

With Chef Ruscalleda
With Chef Ruscalleda

Carme Ruscalleda is a role model not only for women in the professional kitchen but also for all others working to realize their dreams regardless of their gender. I was contemplating going to a women’s forum in the next few weeks when I remembered my recent conversation with Ruscalleda in Spain. All the indignation women, especially those with feminist leanings display at issues like why only men were featured on the now infamous Time magazine cover of the god’s of cuisine seems unnecessary when you look at the world through her eyes. I agree that with the notion that separating men and women in any field creates further discrimination instead of developing a harmonious industry. If anything I admire her even more for putting forth her opinions and making others look at these situations with a fresh perspective.

Carme Ruscalleda: A Seven Star Perspective

By Geeta Bansal

This petite super confident powerhouse of a chef from Spain can hold her own on any culinary platform in the world. Chef Carme Ruscalleda of Spain holds seven Michelin stars between her three restaurants in Spain and Japan, no easy feat in a male dominated culture and society. It is amazing that for all of her achievements, the world does not hear more about her.

The flagship Relais & Châteaux listed Sant Pau restaurant of this Catalan chef in Sant Pol de Mar, a small seaside town between Barcelona and Girona, holds three stars since 2006 along with three Campsa suns. Well-known to food enthusiasts, Sant Pau is situated in a 1880’s villa with its sun dappled gardens on the seashore in a sleepy town with winding streets marked with the cobalt blue plaque by the entrance offers one of the most unforgettable dining experiences in Spain.

Sant Pau
Sant Pau

Her food is sensorial and delicate, akin to poetry on a plate, and never fails to amaze diners with her mastery of flavors and textures. Her avant-garde Mediterranean cuisine is reflective of her Catalan traditions, with influences from Japanese and French cuisines. Ruscalleda’s love of literature, art, music and theatre are also referenced in her dishes by works of artists such as Miro or her plates which may at times be styled in Mondrian fashion. A spectacular spring Ikebana dessert served in the cheery yellow washed dining room at Sant Pau I enjoyed on one of my visits is imprinted in my memories forever.

This energetic, articulate, self-taught chef is a role model for other women as one of the most innovative and progressive chefs to have risen to gastronomic prominence in the world. Her food is inspired by the products of her beloved Catalan countryside enhanced by her ability to link her self-expression to nature’s gifts resulting in an extraordinary experience for her guests. There may even be olive oil from her father’s olive groves along with other local produce from the Maresme area of Catalunya on her seasonal menus.

View from the dining room
View from the dining room

This chef’s story began in the small town of Sant Pau where she was born in 1952 and where she learned the art of charcuterie at her family’s business. Her amazing journey literally took her across the street from her father’s store to her present Sant Pau restaurant while furthermore launching her into the highest realms of the world of haute gastronomy. There was a time when she wanted to be a jewelry designer and work in the field of art. Now her menus are illustrated by her art allowing her to keep her love of painting alive while running her empire.Behind every successful woman is a man! Antonio Balaam her husband and her two sons Raul, who is the head chef at Moments, and her son Mercedes help her run her various operations. Listening to Ruscalleda speak at conferences or conversing with her in her kitchen I am always struck by her keen sense of humor as well as her unique perspective on various issues. Very forthright and honest, she speaks with candor about issues that other chefs diplomatically shy away from.

Petit fours in the garden
Petit fours in the garden

An established author with several books to her credit including “Carme Ruscalleda’s Mediterranean cuisine in English she recently also worked on compiling a foodie guide to Barcelona for Mandarin Oriental. Her career has been honored with a multitude of awards including having a ‘Sardana’ a traditional Catalan dance written about her by Pere Vila. Fittingly it was played for her first in the garden of the villa that houses her restaurant as she happily recounts.

In a recent conversation she spoke about the cooking for health, the controversy regarding women chefs and their prominence or lack of in the present food culture. Her novel perspective regarding these issues made me rethink the categorization of chefs based on their gender and if this distinction should even be considered. As she said all chefs male or female should be judged by their skills and expertise and as someone who has proved this in her own career her opinion carries a lot of weight. We spoke about the pressure of maintaining the stars and she says she tends to look at it as an appreciation of her work and keeping up the standard more for herself than the stars.

My conversation with Carme Ruscalleda:

Are you interested in relating food to health since you even offer the anti-aging menu at Moments?
Yes I am because I think that food gives energy and courage. And what is really beautiful is that the emotion behind food is itself healthy. I am working to help people especially kids suffering from cancer by creating like menus with no acid so they can tolerate it better during their treatments.

While watching you on stage at the Gastronomika 2014 I saw that you are delving deeper into art. So has your passion for art crossed over even more into your food?
I think I have always offered what I think of as artistic food and I try to invoke my passion for art while creating. My passion for art in music, painting, theatre and cinema shows in my food. For me a plate is similar to a nice song, a piece of good music, a performance on stage or a good film. All these things make you grow inside. So you as a chef are always nervous before every service wondering if the guests will or will not appreciate what you made or understand the reference. There is anxiety about how it will be perceived in the same manner as any artist or musician feels before a performance, a chef feels the same emotion.

Do you still experience that anxiety now despite being one of the most celebrated chefs in Spain and the world?
Yes I do experience it every day. The work is magic for me as well as the realization that every day it is a different scenario and no two days are the same. Just like in theatre or an opera where no two performances are similar. The representation or the menu might be the same every day but the dialogue with the guest is different every time.

Since you are a role model for other women in the industry including myself and since our last conversation about this subject, has the perception of women in our industry changed?
Women can be great chefs if they want and there can be any number of female chefs as the women desire. It is a very difficult job as you and I know. Woman can have the same mentality as men and the key is to organize yourself well and work to display your passion.

Are women supportive of each other in this field?
(Her arched eyebrows lifted up even more) Yes, I feel that they do support each other. I get asked all the time if it is more difficult for a woman to be successful in this field as opposed to men and I always say no according to me as according to me it is the same. Don’t think of yourself as being any different just be the best you can. We have the same products to work with and the same public to cook for so there should be no difference.

You are the first female chef in the world with a total of seven Michelin stars and the first chef in Spain to earn those. Why is this subject not brought up in the press as opposed to male chefs with similar achievements? Is that equality?
No it’s not, but it doesn’t bother me. I just carry on with my work.

This is why I feel that if women support each other our place will be different. What do you think?
What I don’t want to do is make groups with only women because then we will create what will be perceived of as an opposition to men. That will not be good. Socially it is not healthy to create this difference and then we can be said to be discriminating towards men.

For example what is discriminatory according to me in the 50 Best List is when they single out a woman as the best chef apart from the general category. Then next will be a best chef with certain skin color or other such criteria. (The 50 Best Restaurants List has a Best Female chef award every year sponsored by Veuve Clicquot. Nadia Santini, Elena Arzak, Anne- Sophie Pic, and Helen Rizzo have been previous recipients)

When we talk about lists other than the Michelin that use specific criteria to rate restaurants, there are restaurants that are ranked #1 or #5 and so on. Is it fair to name a restaurant as the Best in the World?
Every restaurant has a certain concept that makes it interesting. This is another way of interpreting gastronomy; the positive is that in all of that there is talk of gastronomy and for me that is fantastic. The television shows that not really reality still talk about gastronomy and generate interest in it.

So you approve of such food based reality shows?
Evidently these reality shows are not great when the contestants are made to suffer during the shows. What I like is that even in their way they still talk about food and focus attention on it. The young children watch these; they learn and become curious about this subject. They realize the importance of the kitchen in our lives.

These young people then perceive it as a glamorous profession. What do you think?
They do think that but at the same time they begin to realize that there are many options in cuisine. That glamour is not a reality and that they need to know. Sometimes I have trainees in my kitchen who want to do all these creative things. The reality is that before that they don’t realize the importance of knowing and learning the basics that are necessary to get to that stage. The most important things according to me are the basics and then you earn the right to be creative. Potatoes still have to be peeled!

 

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