The world's only five-Michelin-starred female chef, Carme Ruscalleda mixes her native Catalan cuisine with other styles, with an emphasis on Asian food. Sudi Piggott reports.
Carme Ruscalleda radiates confidence. There's something about her clarity of vision, the lightness of her interpretation of traditional Catalan cuisine and her vivacity that is infectious.
Who present could forget her at full velocity at Madrid Fusion back in January 2007? The energy she put into her impassioned demonstration was phenomenal.
Ruscalleda is calm now, yet as determined and driven as ever and brimming with both ideas and pride. Pride in her new restaurant, Moments, housed within the recently opened Mandarin Oriental hotel in Barcelona, and maternal satisfaction that Raül Balam, her 30-year-old son (who worked with her on the opening of her Sant Pau restaurant in Tokyo), is running the day-to-day operation while she keeps a close eye on her three-Michelin-star flagship restaurant, Sant Pau, in her home town of Sant Pol de Mar.
Perhaps her poise also betrays an inner confidence that this latest opening will give the world's only five-Michelin-starred female chef (she also has two stars in Tokyo), greater global recognition.
Though Ruscalleda has had offers from around the world, it was the Mandarin Oriental's Asian sensibilities and aesthetics that appealed to her. It is also close to Sant Pol de Mar, which means she regularly spends a service at both restaurants.
"The city location means I have to think differently," she explains. "For example, lunch in Sant Pau is far more leisurely - customers come without looking at the time. For Barcelona I have designed an executive speedy lunch with three courses, based on the land and sea, which will change each week."
Home values matter greatly to Ruscalleda, who, like her French three-star counterpart Anne-Sophie Pic, has only ever worked in her own kitchen and has had no formal training. Her family was involved in food as a small-scale producer of fruit and vegetables, and pork charcuterie, and also ran a shop.
"Talk around the kitchen table was always of food, and what tasted good and authentic," she recalls.
Initially, Ruscalleda had aspirations to study design, especially jewellery, but her parents refused her request.
"Instead I channelled all my creativity into using every part of the pig, and I became a really expert butcher and traiteur for our shop, which gradually became the embryo of the restaurant," she explains. Significantly, her black and white butifarra (a Catalan sausage) with pistachio remains a constant on her menu.
Ruscalleda opened Sant Pau in 1988 with her husband Toni and a kitchen team of eight. The restaurant grew slowly, explains Ruscalleda.
"We had the courage to offer very simple food rooted in my beloved Catalan produce and of the best quality, to more creative dishes," she recalls.
"It's all about playing with balance," she says of her culinary style. "I like my dishes to be a bit playful, and to make the diners smile."
The perfect example of this is her "aperitif micro-menu", now Ruscalleda's hallmark, with which each lunch or dinner starts. Four dishes are served, the equivalent of a starter, first course, main course and a dessert - all savoury. Endearingly, they are presented with a card of pictures hand-drawn by Ruscalleda herself and change monthly, reflecting seasonal produce and a different theme.
"They form an entertaining dialogue," Ruscalleda explains.
Typical dishes include Maresme prawns with winter tomato petals, vegetable bouquet and prawn corals; cod confit/tripe/brandade with butifarra served as a mushroom-shaped croqueta; scallops with artichokes in three textures and spicy oil; and red mullet stuffed with baby vegetables, saffron and salmis sauce.
Rather than offer a cheese trolley, Ruscalleda serves a monthly changing selection of five cheeses, similarly illustrated on a card given to each diner. The cheeses contrast in taste, look and maturity, and Ruscalleda invents a special accompaniment for each. During the course of a year, she offers 60 different cheeses and accompaniments, always including one Catalan and one Spanish cheese. Examples may include Serrat Gros, a soft-textured raw goat's milk Catalonian cheese served with caramelised pear and almonds; or Ibar, a Basque soft raw sheep's milk cheese accompanied by a financier drunk on Pacharan wine.
"Now expectations are high when diners come to my restaurants, so we need to work even harder to live up to it," Ruscalleda says.
"I may sometimes appear like a whirlwind, but in reality I am very strong with schedules and precision, which really matters when working at such an intense pace."
Ruscalleda confesses she is bemused by how much the status of the cooking profession has changed.
"I remember people felt sorry for me when I started out; now having a restaurant is considered a beautiful career, and nothing else would give me so much pleasure," she concludes.
This dish pays homage to the Maresme spring, with the contrast of sweet and delicate aromas, which mix with the juice of the exceptionally tasty conger eel. It is a seafarer's dish, full of expertise in the combination of sea and garden produce.
CARME RUSCALLEDA AND FERRAN ADRIA REINVENT HAUTE CUISINE IN SAN SEBASTIAN, JAPANESE-STYLE
By Carol Godsmark
Carme Ruscalleda and Ferran Adrià took to the stage at the 11th Gastronomika Conference held in San Sebastian last November, to highlight Japanese influences in their cooking.
Held in the Basque city devoted to gastronomy, with no fewer than 16 Michelin stars in the area, the conference attracted many innovative chefs including Heston Blumenthal, Wylie Dufresne and home-grown Basque talent including Juan Mari and Elena Arzak and Pedro Subijana.
Ruscalleda's definition of Japanese cooking is that it's based on water: everything is in perfect condition, focusing on tradition. She used mineral water (hard water contains minerals such as phosphates, sulphates and aluminium, and alters cooking), a method also practised by other innovative chefs, as she cooked small Mediterranean-Japanese dishes such as Taco (little in Japanese) in the laboratory-like kitchen on the auditorium's stage.
Ruscalleda also cooked squid, using wine corks as a tenderiser - an ancient Mediterranean practice. She put the tender squid in gelatine, pressed it in a terrine and cut it, each tentacle cut open in a cross section. It looked magnificent, vibrant and futuristic.
This was complex layering with many components, all needing many different techniques and stages to make the whole dish. It was very labour-intensive, and everything was timed to the nth degree with precise temperatures and no margin for error. There was much liquidising and sieving alongside the use of nitrogen and freezing, while beetroot juice was used in an octopus dish for added depth of colour.
Ruscalleda created a further dish with courgettes, tomatoes and aubergines, using the same methods and incorporating agar-agar, a gelatinous substance. This seaweed derivative, first used by the Japanese, is favoured by many avant-garde chefs, particularly in desserts.
First she skinned the aubergines, then froze the skins, steamed them at 180˚C, then ground them with olives and added vegetable jelly and cooked them in a bath at 82˚C. She made them into quenelles and placed them next to the courgette and tomato terrine. Ruscalleda then added flowers and basil plus pil-pil (parsley, garlic and olive oil), a Basque staple.
"These dishes convey the value of simplicity from Japan," she said. Eventually, perhaps. They are an illusion of simplicity when viewed but the steps taken to get to this point are highly complex.
"Cooking is all about art, communication and culture," she explained. In her hands it's also playfulness, architectural precision with an ethereal quality, the latter based on the Japanese culinary art form of presentation and lightness, the use of vivid colours also part of her strengths.
"I used to watch little birds splashing in tin plates at my grandparents' home as a child, which attracted me to the exotic and then the innovative," she recalled. She demonstrated this by preparing an original ham tapa, a dish with asparagus, cod brandade and olive, which she called Miró Bird after the Catalan artist, Joan Miro.
The menu at Ruscalleda's Japanese restaurant includes her own style of tapas: autumn aspic with prawn, pistachio sausage and mushroom escabeche. Her desserts include Landscape of Sant Pol del Mar, in reality sculptures on a plate denoting the Catalan mountains and Barcelona architecture of her homeland. Desserts like liquorice and sherbet stick, liquid absinthe candy and coffee marzipan soar skywards like those hills and Barcelona's Gaudi-twisted architecture.
Adrià came bounding on the stage when Ruscalleda finished her last dish.
"Haute cuisine owes a lot to Japan and I wouldn't be allowed to express myself without this influence, the most avant-garde of cuisines" he announced to the 1,000-strong audience. Adrià, like Ruscalleda, has incorporated Japanese influences into his highly innovative type of cooking.
"Cooking is a language through which harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture can be expressed," he said. Ruscalleda and Adrià amply demonstrated these Japanese characteristics.
CONGER EEL WITH PEAS
INGREDIENTS (Serves four)
- 400g conger eel head
- 500g of conger eel tail
- 30ml oil or clarified butter
- 70g spring onion, chopped
For the stock
- 1 bulb of garlic
- Parsley to taste
- 2 ripe tomatoes
- 100ml sweet sherry
- 100ml dry sherry
- 1.5litres mineral water
For the chopped peas
- 600g shelled peas
- 1/4 garlic clove
- 3 parsley leaves
- A pinch of flour and salt
- 4 sweet pea flowers
- Low-gluten cornflour
- Extra-virgin olive oil (for frying)
- 8 slices of conger eel, from the top part, without skin or bones (use tweezers to remove the bones that penetrate the flesh)
Salt and white pepper
Preparing the stock
Fry the sliced head and tail of the conger eel, and season. When it is golden and cooked, add the spring onion and continue cooking.
Cover the fried mixture with the finely chopped garlic, parsley, tomato concasse and both sherries. Cook for four minutes and add the boiling mineral water. Continue cooking on a medium heat for 15 minutes.
Mince the conger eel lightly with a hand-held electric blender and cook for five minutes more. Strain and reserve the stock.
Cooking the peas
Heat 1/2 litre of the stock in a pan. When it is at boiling point, add the peas, cover and cook on a medium heat for two minutes. Add the pea base, finely chopped and crushed in a mortar. Cook for three minutes. Adjust the salt and pepper and remove from the heat for five minutes.
Dust the conger slices with seasoned cornflour (having removed the bones) and fry until they are just cooked.
Serve the pea juice in deep plates and place the fried conger on top along with a sweet pea flower.