Geeta Bansal Interviews Legendary Catalan Chef Carme Ruscalleda of Restaurant Sant Pau!

Categories: On the Line
With Carme Ruscalleda at Sant Pau

Every Monday, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of European cooking. Today, she regales us with a visit with Carme Ruscalleda, the renowned Catalan chef. Enjoy!

A Conversation with Carme Ruscalleda
By Geeta Bansal, Executive Chef-Owner Clay Oven Irvine

In a male-dominated culture and society, Carme Ruscalleda challenged the traditional place of women in the professional kitchen. A brilliant woman with the extreme confidence to stand tall (despite her diminutive stature). She is a woman who rose to become the first female chef to be awarded seven Michelin stars in a culture and profession where few women in her country other than Elena Arzak and she have risen to gastronomic prominence. Her cuisine is sensorial and delicate, with attention to every minute detail.

This petite, vivacious woman with the most beautiful smile won my heart the first time I met her. She is a self-taught Catalan chef, the first woman in Spain to get 3 Michelin stars, paving the way for other female chefs. I was hooked after my first conversation with her many years ago. For me, she became a role model of how to participate in this profession with courage and confidence, despite never having benefited from training in a culinary school. She is self-taught like me, inspired by the produce and culture of her region to make wonderful food. This is true for all of you interested in food and cooking as a medium of self-expression. Good produce + good intentions = good food. Simple.

A memorable note from Chef Ruscalleda

Sant Pau is her restaurant in Sant Pol de Mar, located midway between Barcelona and Girona. It is a small town by the sea, with winding streets that seem deserted at times with hardly anyone out and about. The first time I visited, I was convinced I had taken a wrong turn until the façade of the restaurant (part of the Relais & Châteaux collection) with the bright yellow facade and cobalt blue door appeared on the narrow main street.

She was born in 1952 in the same town in a family of farmers and shop owners. She had a desire to study art but was convinced by her teachers and family to study commerce. Her desire was to create jewelry! After graduation she worked in the family business and learned the art of charcuterie. She says she learnt to work with the pig from head to tail and became very good at it, still making her signature sausage the Butifarra, studded with pistachios. After her marriage in 1975, Ruscalleda (along with her husband Antonio Balam) started working across the street from the present restaurant, at the small deli owned by her father, where they took over a section of the store to sell charcuterie and then thought of opening a catering business.

In 1988 an old villa across the street came up for sale and they were able to purchase it and start a dining operation which initially served charcuterie, salads, and simple stews and that gradually morphed into a fine dining establishment That is how Sant Pau came to be, setting her on a career path to becoming an exceptional chef. She has two sons, Raul and Mercedes. Raul is the chef at her Barcelona restaurant, and previously worked with his mother at the Tokyo operation as well as at Sant Pau before the opening of the Barcelona venture. Her husband Toni Balam, her partner in life and business, helps her run her various operations.

Garden at Sant Pau

The restaurant is in a beautiful location, with the front dining room open to views of the sea. I love to visit Sant Pau in the daytime when you can finish your meal in the lovely garden downstairs by having your coffee or tea along with the petit fours served there. The kitchen is on the same level and Chef Ruscalleda is at the helm in the kitchen, each plate passing inspection by her. She works at an intense pace giving rapid fire instructions to her team. There are usually a lot of Japanese interns or stagiaires in the kitchen whenever I have visited her in the kitchen, probably because of her Sant Pau restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.

Petit fours in the garden

The last time we met was at the Gastronomika, where like any two mothers we asked each other about our kids and family. She went on the stage moments later to present a comical viewpoint of gastronomy where she compared a diner's experience to reading a comic strip or a theatrical performance while simultaneously putting forth elaborate techniques developed by her to transform products. She speaks rapidly using her drawing skills to put her points across. Her demonstrations are interesting and informative without the usual slick video presentations of her compatriots. An extremely engaging speaker who puts her ideas out there with authority, the feminist in me is smitten by that. Extremely skilled and creative, she can take a simple ingredient on a flight of imagination that can leave you amazed.

Backstage at the Gastronomika

I think of her as a poet who can cook. She appeals to your intellect as well as your palate with her food. She says she likes to play a little with her diners and make them smile. Her dishes have names that point to her ability to infuse humor into her dishes like "New Pajamas" or art, like a savory dish that represents a Miró painting or even an edible Mondrian display on a plate.

The desert and cheese selections are accompanied by drawings to describe the offerings, which makes it an interactive process engaging the diners. She is a master at blending textures, forms, and flavors. With over a dozen cookbooks to her credit she is force in the world of Spanish cuisine.

Cheese Selection at Sant Pau

Chef Ruscalleda is very proud of her Maresme region of Catalunya and tends to prepare a more complex and innovative form of her regions dishes with Japanese and French influences, but always preferring to work with local produce. Over her career (apart from the Michelin stars) she has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Creu de Sant Jordi in 2008 awarded by the Generalitat de Catalunya.

The questions I asked Chef Carme Ruscalleda:

Are you inspired by your travels or more by nature?

Undoubtedly more inspired by nature. (Her fondness for nature is visible in her plates. One plate I will never forget was her Spring Ikebana dessert that literally brought Spring to life inside of a glass bowl)

Fall Ikebana Dessert

You are very artistic and are the illustrations that accompany your menus your work?

Ok I have to admit as you know I live to draw. Now, my drawings have become a gastronomic dialogue with my clients in Sant Pol de Mar, in Tokyo, and in Barcelona. (She spent time making a drawing for my son when he was quite young to personalize a book that she gifted to him, and won a fuzzy spot in my heart)

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