Q&A With Seven-Michelin-Starred Catalan Chef Carme Ruscalleda
Chef Carme Ruscalleda is a petite, vivacious powerhouse with a keen sense of humor and an infectious laugh. The self-taught Catalan chef was bestowed with three Michelin stars for her Restaurant Sant Pau in the scenic coastal Spanish town of Sant Pol de Mar and also holds two Michelin stars each for her Sant Pau de Toquio in Tokyo and Moments at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona. In her new role as a gastronomic consultant at the Barcelona hotel, she is overseeing all food operations on the property (with the exception of the rooftop restaurant). The hotel’s more casual Blanc showcases seasonal produce in some of the classic dishes Ruscalleda has featured over the years.
The avant-garde chef and art aficionado, well-respected by her peers, has spent most of her life in Sant Pol de Mar, a 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 Catalonia and utilizes 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 other Spanish chefs. 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 by a family of farmers and shop owners, Ruscalleda wanted to pursue a career in art but was directed to study commerce instead. However, the enterprising chef has brought art into her work, not only on the walls of her dining rooms but onto plates as well. Her artistic presentation in the delicate cuisine at Moments is no doubt influenced by Japanese artistry and culture, making this destination restaurant a real star in Barcelona's foodscape. The tasting menu might include dishes like Mystical Mexican Realistic with the red color of prawns and a verdant mole, dressed with flowers and served in a cobalt blue bowl. The dish brings Mexico to life not only on the palate but also visually. The sweet ending could be a cubist-inspired chocolate collage named Horta De Sant Joan that looks almost too perfect to consume. Her drawing talents are highlighted in her playful illustrations printed on the menus, and in her opinion, these 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 husband, Antonio Balam, and sons, Raul and Mercedes, in all her ventures. Raul, who trained at both locations of Sant Pau, is head chef at Moments. Needless to say, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree, as he is rapidly gaining acclaim and Michelin stars for his cuisine.
Sant Pau is an inspiration, an illustration of how a dream can be realized with determination and exceptional talent. In 1975, Ruscalleda and her husband began working at her father’s deli across the street from the present-day restaurant. It was sheer coincidence that the run-down sea-facing villa across the street came up for sale. The couple purchased it to start a simple dining room, which 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 & Châteaux group, and Ruscalleda has won many accolades for her exemplary cuisine, including the National Gastronomy prize for 2016 and the highest honor for a Catalan, the Jordi Cross. The only woman in the world to hold seven Michelin stars, she has also authored several cookbooks. Lecturing during the Harvard University’s Science and Cooking series, she shared her knowledge of the Maillard reaction on stage. Despite all of her achievements, this self-taught chef tends to fly under the radar in the international world of food.
While many of her other skills have been acquired during her restaurant career, she learned her charcuterie skills while working in her family store. Lucky guests experience her delicious pistachio-studded botifarra sausage when it occasionally appears on her menu.