Carme Ruscalleda
Courtesy of the chef

Q&A With Seven-Michelin-Starred Catalan Chef Carme Ruscalleda

Contributor
In conversation with the lauded Catalan chef

In the daytime, 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 garden-level main kitchen looks out onto 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 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?

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 competition or an Olympics 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 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 markets are part of daily life in Spain and its culture. Are people more intimately connected to the food chain?

We have always had these markets before the supermarkets. It's a tradition here to shop at these markets like the Boqueria or San Antonio in Barcelona. 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 types 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.

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