Chef Carme Ruscalleda: Interpreting Gastronomy Her Way

Carme Ruscalleda the accomplished chef whose restaurants have been awarded seven Michelin stars is also one of the most well liked public figures in Spain. A few weeks ago she was settling into her added responsibilities as the gastronomic consultant at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel in Barcelona, Spain. With three restaurants in Spain and a fourth in Tokyo she credits the support of her spouse Tony Balam and her sons for her success.

At a late night soirée with fellow Spanish Chefs Albert Adria, Joan Roca , Ruscalleda and Peruvian chefs Gaston Acurio, Virgilio Martinez and Mitsuharu Tsumura who had all hosted the evening for guests in town for the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List events her easy camaraderie with her peers was very apparent.

A strong woman who stands by her own beliefs with the courage to turn down gender based awards she is a role model for woman in the industry.

The following conversation was published on The Daily Meal:
Seven Michelin Starred Spanish Chef Carme Ruscalleda

by Geeta Bansal

Chef Carme Ruscalleda is a petite, vivacious powerhouse of a woman with a keen sense of humor and an infectious laugh. The self-taught Catalan chef bestowed with three Michelin stars for her Sant Pau restaurant in the scenic town of Sant Pol de Mar also holds two Michelin stars each for her MOments restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona as well as her Sant Pau de Toquio in Japan. In her new role as a gastronomic consultant at the Barcelona hotel she is overseeing the food operations on the property with the exception of the roof top restaurant. Her Blanca showcases seasonal produce in a more casual setting featuring some of her classic dishes over the years.

The avant-garde chef and art aficionado, well-respected by her peers has spent most of her life in the small seaside town an hour away from Barcelona. Years before the subject of female representation in the kitchen became trendy Ruscalleda challenged the norm, no easy feat in the macho Spanish culture rising to the heights of her profession. Her cuisine reflects her love of Catalunya and while utilizing the products of local farms and artisanal producers. She led the way for her male counterparts by taking her cuisine overseas and creating a business model emulated by by other Spanish chefs branching out overseas. In her opinion gender based awards in the culinary world create further discrimination instead of developing a harmonious industry and she has preferred to stay away from them.

Raised in the small town of Sant Pol de Mar in a family of farmers and shop owners she wanted to pursue a career in art but was directed to study commerce instead. The enterprising chef has however brought art into her work, not only on the walls of her dining rooms but onto plates as well. Her artistic presentation of her delicate cuisine  is no doubt influenced by Japanese artistry and culture making this destination restaurant a real star in Barcelona’s food scape. Tasting menu might include dishes like Mystical Mexican Realistic with the red color of prawns, a verdant green Mole dressed with flowers served in a cobalt blue bowl, a dish that brings Mexico to life not only on the palate but also visually. The sweet ending could be a cubist inspired chocolate collage titled Horta De Sant Joan that looks almost too perfect to consume. Her drawing talent comes to play in her playful illustrations that are printed on her menus and in her opinion they initiate a gastronomic dialogue with her guests.

The service at her elegant restaurants is a reflection of her attention to detail and keen sense of hospitality. Ruscalleda is supported by her partner in life, her husband Antonio Balam and sons Raul and Mercedes in all her ventures. Raul who trained with her at the Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar and Japan is head chef at her two Michelin-starred MOments restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona. Needless to say, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree as he is rapidly gaining acclaim and Michelin stars for his cuisine.

The story of Sant Pau is an inspiration of how a dream can be realized with determination and exceptional talent. Ruscalleda and her husband Antonio started life together in 1975 by working at her father’s deli across the street from the present restaurant. It was sheer coincidence that the sea facing run down villa across the street came up for sale. The couple purchased it to start a simple dining room that quickly gained repute in the region for its food enabling the metamorphosis into the fine dining restaurant of today.

Sant Pau, is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateau group and Ruscalleda has won many accolades for her exemplary cuisine including the National Gastronomy prize for 2016 and the highest honor for a Catalunyan, the Jordi Cross. The only woman in the world to hold seven Michelin stars, she has also authored several cookbooks. Invited to lecture at the Harvard University’s Science at Cooking series she shared her knowledge of the Maillard reaction on stage. Impressive for a self taught chef who despite all of her achievements tends to fly under the radar in the international world of food.

While her other skills were acquired on the job her charcuterie skills were learned while she was working in her family store. Lucky guests experience her delicious pistachio studded Butifarra sausage when it occasionally appears on her menu.

In the day time the sunlit serene dining room overlooks the sea facing garden and the meals may begin with an aperitif and small bites under the trees towering over the flower and herb laden beds. The main kitchen on the garden level looks out into the green oasis and the occasional train from Barcelona whizzing by along the seashore.

What is Modern Spanish cuisine?

Spanish cuisine is a very interesting cultural melting pot of several cuisines. Nowadays both in the domestic and professional worlds, a new way of understanding this kitchen is practiced, with a very modern mentality. The modern Spanish cuisine has a revised and renewed cooking time, stressing a cooler texture, that is less dense, with less fat, and is lighter.

What is your process for developing a dish from inspiration to a dish on the menu?

Generally we start with a concrete idea, “an inspiration.” The next  step is to imagine and combine the product with other flavors in a kind of gastronomic game. This continuing process helps decide which culinary technique will best suit each product, and that leads us to the steps best suited to cook with that product. After that we proceed to the first tasting, and continue repeating and fine tuning as many times as that dish requires until we achieve our objective. There is no set time frame for this process and there are some inspirations that resolve quickly while others require more time and testing. We put unresolved ideas on hold saving it in our kitchen dossier where we maintain records of all our work. We might go back and revisit such ideas at a later date.

What is your opinion on the place of women in the food industry?

I feel the history of the world has really discriminated against women and now women need to get together and stand against it. Cooking is not a sport competition or an Olympics that is based on physical strength. If women cannot  compete on the same level in sports then in the culinary world we can certainly compete with ideas and creativity.

I was once asked how Catalan men treated women and I said with respect because Catalan women demand it and show themselves worthy of it. There is a popular Catalan fairytale about a prince saving a  princess from a dragon. These days there is a funny commercial on TV for a breakfast cereal that is based on this fable. In this version when the prince says he will save her the princess turns around and says don’t bother I can do it myself.

The subject of sustainability is trending in the food world these days. Is it significant in Spanish Gastronomy?

I feel that that it is in fact really a recovery of healthy foods and techniques. It is nothing new but something that always existed in our culture. I would refer to it as a rebirth since health and gastronomy are not on opposing sides but actually go together.

There is great respect for responsibly produced ingredients and products in our culture. The food system is calibrated to protect and respect nature including the mountains, the sea, and the farmlands.

Farmers market are part of daily life in Spain and its culture. Are people more intimately connected to the food chain?

It is true because we have always had these markets before the supermarkets like the Boqueria, or San Antonio in Barcelona and it’s a tradition here to shop at these markets. They exist together with supermarkets and in fact the latter now have a line of ecologically produced products. It’s in our cultural roots to go shopping for food daily at such markets. Now co ops and even farms put together baskets of their produce which goes straight to the consumers.

Food waste is the other subject that is getting attention. How do you as a chef deal with this issue in your own kitchen?

I believe imperfections in looks or appearance of products do not impact the taste in any way and in Spain people understand that the size or looks of an apple for example does not change the taste or flavor. A good looking tomato will not look the same after a few days but it’s a cultural thing to look for the perfect. Science has evolved to sell beauty and perfection overlooking taste and flavor in the process. These days agriculture is for quantity over quality. The big producers with huge production and the small farmers cater to two different type of customers. There are those that search for the taste and flavor overlooking imperfection while others look at cost and convenience.

Educating future consumers is important in changing cultures, so are Spanish chefs participating in programs in schools?

Yes, we Spanish chefs are very involved in this aspect and are working on a book that teaches basic cooking techniques like frying or baking to open their minds to the different options that are there to prepare food. It will help young people understand the process of transforming ingredients into great tasting food. They will also learn at this impressionable age what options are available and how they can make good choices. I feel the food and the kitchen are important and interesting aspects of life and should be in the curriculum just like music, theatre, sports, academics, and even movies are part of it.

Do you think there is over-manipulation of food products these days?

The direction in the world is towards manipulation in food production. It’s not just about transformation but also about freedom to create. When you transform something you are creating something new to share with your guests. I do respect these trends but I don’t practice them myself.

Food production in the world includes both large scale producers as well as the small farmers and they coexist together in the system. We need to take care of these small farmers and artisanal producers so that they continue to carry on traditional production. There are still people who don’t know the difference in taste and flavor between a fresh banana and one that comes from storage. The seasonality of products definitely affects the taste. Where once only one variety of a single fruit was available there are now six choices with six different tastes. To understand the flavor profile you need to be familiar with the whole range. The difference in products is very important in understanding flavor and to understand what is real and what is manipulated or what tastes the best.

Do chefs have the ability to influence food culture and society by exposing guests to new ideas?

Chefs are like prescribers of taste, ideas, and health as well as ambassadors of cooking and of modernization in kitchens. They are a defense against big companies and corporations who to make money veer  people away from healthy foods by making large marketing campaigns to influence food culture. Nowadays just using good products is not enough the looks have become very important.

When I meet with schools or other professionals in the food industry these are the topics we are all interested in discussing. These days schools stress everything else besides studies and sports except for education about food and health.

Should this education be provided to culinary school students as part of their training?

That is very important to encourage them to develop respect for the products they work with. The tragedy is that the food production and the food industry is all about making money. Now if someone creates a ham that looks and tastes like ham it is more important than the real thing. All these experiments are being conducted around the world for monetary benefit. Recently at a congress in Sevilla, Spain they presented the results of this experiment – a ham without the ham. Though it was made with natural products it tasted and smelt like the real thing.

What was the technique used?

The technique used the collagen in the skin of a pig, they cooked and blended it and spread it in a thin layer on Silpat and it solidified like gelatin, and then it was painted with layers of beetroot juice so the color  looked like a cooked ham. The finishing layer was painted with fat from the pig mixed with soya sauce and beetroot juice to end up with a realistic looking cured ham. It was then presented as a crisp of ham and tasted and smelt like the real thing.

Are such products the future of food, because of our diminishing resources?

Ideas like this will be important going forward since we already do not have enough food and the problem of hunger will intensify in the future. It will not be possible to have adequate supply of animal proteins. Proteins along with other food supplies will be in short supply. There have to be ingenious ways of solving the problem of hunger.

So alternate proteins will become more important in the future and appear on plates in fine dining restaurants?

I read a very interesting scientific book by a chef on the kitchen of the future and he talks about such foods as being the future. Alternate proteins will become more important as they already are in many cultures. In order to have insects etc in the food supply we will have to farm them. We ourselves are working with a scientist who believes that if we change our food culture at this point and start eating such things like our ancestors without adequate research it could be dangerous. It’s a cultural thing anyway for it to be acceptable to eat certain things.

These days chefs are bringing in nuances and flavors from other cultures. Is this changing their food culture?

It’s interesting that now cooks have liberty to incorporate all these different products and influences. The important thing is that even if you use a spice or flavor from another part of the world you still must be able to show where you are. If you travel and find something interesting and bring it into your own kitchen there is a very thin line that is easy to cross over and lose your own identity.

What has been your own experience since you have a restaurant in Japan?

I have worked for over twelve years with the Japanese culture and when I started I thought I will put up a barrier so as not to cross from my cuisine into Japanese. Then I discovered their way of working, cleaning, cutting, cooking with products like making dashi with Kombu, using Yuzu for acidity, the hot and cold cooking styles and learnt all these things over time from the oriental culture. I did learn that less is more and sometimes guests will comment that “see you were always Japanese and you didn’t even know that.”

In Japan the cuisine does not include, bread, wine, or olive oil, yet in our kitchen in Tokyo we have brought all these things conceptually into their culture. Over time things have progressed as our work there has opened our minds to many elements.

In our cuisine we serve a very traditional chicken stew with peaches but in order to give it a new vision I went deep into the Thai cuisine to make a cold soup in which the chicken was prepared in traditional Catalan style but the presentation was Thai inspired. It was still a Catalan dish though with Thai influence. Experimentation I believe is necessary for evolution.

Will this cultural mix in food lead to a more accepting culture?

The gourmands in the world are always keen to discover the new and have fun. The chef tries to divert, to engage, to provide emotion  as food is emotional for people in every culture. The chef does it by helping diners discover new food experiences and with those feelings to engage and play with their guests. It is also opening their minds to new possibilities and cultures.

The subject of burnout is becoming a popular topic in the food industry. What is your opinion about this?

I have been working for almost 50 years in this industry. I come from a family of producers engaged in commercial sector where we have worked nonstop since I first started. I grew up watching family members work nonstop as I did too with no vacations. We worked  in a multi disciplinary manner doing everything ourselves. These days everything is organized, with defined  working hours, there are vacations and yet there is stress!

We used to work seven days a week in Sant Pau and even now I myself work that way and will probably be working even more now having taken on more responsibilities (her position as gastronomic consultant to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona). At Sant Pau the team members now work only four days a week. When they graduate from culinary school young cooks are used to working on a time table however in the real world you also have to clean the kitchen at the end of the day. The work in the kitchen is hard but that is why people get paid to do it and I feel it’s a generational difference in how young people perceive work and stress. This is the reality of the hospitality industry and culinary programs should apprise students about these realities.

Why do chefs write cook books? Is it is a way of influencing people?

They try to keep the traditions of their kitchens and cooking styles alive and share them with others since over time we acquire more experience and knowledge.

I wrote my first book ten years after opening my restaurant as by that time we had a lot of experience and a following and we wanted to share our journey with others. In subsequent books I shared my own evolution from the traditional Catalan kitchen. My second book in fact is about cooking to be happy and it’s not about products but about seasons and sans pictures. This was written sixteen years ago and is still used as a reference because it is a fresher, lighter version of Spanish food and is still up to date.

Your menus have always been about seasonality and products of your region. Are other Spanish chefs following this style?

The base is always the product and we work from that base and create. We look at the best way to use and enhance it to get the most out of it. To have the luxury of cooking with great seasonal products is a boon to any cook. Commercialization has taken some of the fun of seasonal products away by providing everything all year round in markets. For example strawberries in my village were only available in spring or summer but now there are growing different varieties so they are available all year. It’s the mentality in society to have access to products that drives such production.

Do you have strict rules in your kitchen and what is unacceptable for you?

I believe that nothing interesting can come out of from a disorganized and dirty kitchen. In my kitchen I need professionals who feel complicity with the philosophy of the house, who are respectful with the products, impeccable in the elaborations and feel the commitment to offer the diners  an exciting gastronomic experience.

What is your first food memory?

Diving into my memory, I think a soup of bread and oil.

Any favorite city to travel  to eat or shop?

For professional reasons I travel with my husband every year to Tokyo, it is a city that seduces us with every trip, for the food and for the exotic products that you can only find there. In our list of preferences is also our city of Barcelona which love and recommend our La Ciudad Condal (the historical name for Barcelona) because of its attractive potential to eat and to buy.

What are your hobbies and your favorite contemporary artist?

The same hobbies as when I was a child, to draw, to write, to read, to walk and to travel continue to make me happy. I am excited about the work of the artist, poet, and singer Joaquin Sabina.

Are you happy with what you have accomplished in your career and are there more dreams to fulfill?

Hugely happy! I am blessed with good health, an entrepreneurial and positive spirit, and a family and a team that joins me in the professional projects.

What message would you like to share with food lovers?

Put the kitchen on the list of interesting things in your life.

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