Carme Ruscalleda (Sant Pol de Mar, 1952) is synonymous with cooking, passion, vitality. We had the chance to speak with her in the garden of Barcelona’s Hotel Mandarin Oriental, about her life after closing Sant Pau, the elements shared by both Catalonia and Japan, and the luck of finding the right “travel companions” to achieve professional success. This and much more, below:
Tell us how it all began…
Cooking and I have gone hand in hand ever since I was really little. I’m the daughter of a farmer and a storekeeper, so there are family circles where you need to help out sometimes. It’s normal for a little girl to be given chores to do, and even when I was really little my mother and I agreed that I would do cooking chores, and that way I wouldn’t have to do the sweeping. That’s where a friendship with cooking began where I feel good, it pleases me and keeps me entertained. I have to say that a moment of personal growth came where I decided to take charge of the kitchen and do my own thing.
When did you realize that you had to make that change?
My friends from Sant Pol de Mar were always telling us. At that time, I was thinking that I’d never do it, no way. I saw it as a very complicated world, and I can tell you that it is, but in the end life itself led us there. When I got married to Toni, he came into the family store and both of us transformed it and really took it in a new direction. We went from having a store that was a grocery and also sold salted meats, to being a store that was more of a deli. Our customers were from the local area. We noticed that what they wanted was proximity and we were offering them more elegant cuisine with more details. At that time, we considered the option of putting tables in the store and offering late breakfasts or snacks/dinners because we had business hours; we weren’t a restaurant.
And at that time, the option appeared to buy the premises opposite the store…
Exactly, fate gave us the option to buy an inn that was across the street from the store, with a sea-facing garden, and that was worth the same amount of money as the cost of the work we were going to do on the store. We thought about it sensibly and, in the end, we decided to set up shop across the street…
So, this was a decision that would lead you down one path or another…
Absolutely. It came from 15 days. Sometimes fate intervenes and that’s how it was. It was a really exciting project. We were 36 years old and had all the support from the family behind us.
A project that couldn’t move forward without sacrifices… Absolutely. We were coming from a culture of effort and we’ve applied this culture to our children. And when they were young, our children also played and worked like we did. You don’t have to feel bad about getting into a family dynamic like this. It’s like an athlete who has a foundation of stamina and that foundation means the work doesn’t scare him. Instead, you’re looking for work that motivates you to dedicate your life to it and that doesn’t wear you out. As Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Where does the creativity of your dishes come from?
It comes from non-conformism. From going back over traditional recipes. From taking inspiration from the local cuisine that you love and to which you attach great importance. There are fishermen’s or farmers’ recipes that already generate magical results, but with your reinvention, they come close to gastronomic excellence. We’ve always taken inspiration from traditional recipes, but now you look at them again in a much more scientific, healthier, more gourmet, more aesthetic, and even more glamorous way.
Do you think that creativity is innate or is it something you can work on?
I think it has to go with the person’s spirit. You have to be a curious person, creative with the way of playing, and have a non-conformist spirit.
How do you reach the pinnacle of gastronomy?
You get there by convincing lots of people to go there with you. One person alone can’t do anything. You get there by connecting with people that have the same sense of service. Those of us who devote ourselves to the hospitality industry have to please our customers because they have chosen us. They have to find the establishment clean, polished, freshly groomed. Spotless tablecloths, the glasses should not smell, they must be transparent. And what’s more, the way of presenting your gastronomy has to match the story told by the dish. This entire human team you have behind you so that everything works moves you forward in this professional career.
So, the key is choosing the best travel companions…
Exactly. I’ve always looked to work with people who are better than I am. If you work with people who are better than you, they will be able to compete with you and compare your ideas to reach a higher level.
Why are there chefs who decide to stop once they reach the top?
Yes, not too long ago there was a very young chef who was fighting to reach the top, which would be the third Michelin star, and when they give it – which I think would be the best time to spread your wings and show off your talent – he decides to take three steps back. I respect it but I don’t understand it, mainly because he’s very young.
Does this case serve to show that the world of gourmet cuisine is very demanding?
They often ask me how you can live with the pressure of three Michelin stars. And I say it’s really easy if you feel the pressure from day one. When you don’t have any stars. When the pressure goes along with you and it’s your way of approaching the work, you go to sleep searching for the solution for the next day. It’s a pressure that goes with you and without it, you don’t move forward. By contrast, if it’s a strategy and a work plan so that you get a great rating, you can’t stand the pressure because you don’t approach the work that way. In my case, I feel the pressure just like I did on day one.
How do you live without Sant Pau?
I live in a very dedicated way. When we closed, I explained that I’d done a lot of mileage, 30 years with Sant Pau and 20 in the store. I’m only human and I knew I would have a dip, and I didn’t want that to happen with Sant Pau open. Now I’m living on a permanent vacation. In other words, with Sant Pau closed, Barcelona and Tokyo open, and many other collaborations we do with schools and companies. There are weeks where I have something every day. I live happily, I learn lots of things, and the work I continue to do really entertains me.
What do you take from all those years at the helm of Sant Pau?
I take a path full of commitments, work, suffering, and sacrifice, but with successes and a connection with society that I would never have found. It’s been constant learning and I get really excited seeing young people who started out with us and who remember their time at Sant Pau. I don’t feel it with a sense of loss, or sadness, or tiredness, but totally the opposite. It’s been hard but worth it.
Has your life changed a lot?
It changed the day I decided to cross the street and I went from the store to the inn. There, I changed hours, friends, we no longer had the same free time, I slimmed down a lot. I couldn’t sleep, I stopped drinking coffee. We were very daring and we wanted to do everything our way and we didn’t hire anyone from the industry. A self-taught person is someone who knows what they want to do but they don’t know how they have to do it, and they achieve it by always asking questions and making corrections every day. That has been our path.
How does a female chef live in such a masculinized world?
She lives by feeling like a first-class citizen, just like they are. Ever since I was very little, I’ve felt like a female individual in a world where there are men and women, and that’s really positive. We women sometimes put up a barrier that society itself doesn’t put up for us. The first person who has to believe in you is you yourself. Society demands the same thing from men and women, so you have to be as competitive as they are.
How did you feel when the Michelin stars came along?
The Michelin stars really matter. When the first one came (1991), it helped because the people who were criticizing us without having gotten to know us saw that we had a serious culinary offering. With one star they see you differently, and then when the first one arrives, you have to work for the second and when that arrives, you have to look for the third, and when you have it, you have to tell your team that even though there isn’t a fourth, they have to imagine it and keep working the same way. We can never relax. If you do, you go down in quality and interest.
What appeals to you most about Japan?
We’ve been there for 15 years and when they suggested it to us, we didn’t have a very clear idea. It really was a reward for perseverance. The person who suggested it to us knew that if we set foot in Japan, we’d be captivated by everything quickly: How they work, the products, the way of setting up a space, the respect there is for everything. We discovered that they wanted us to offer local cuisine like at Sant Pau, which was really exotic for the Japanese, with three main focal points: bread, oil, and wine, three elements that are basic for us and exotic for them, but in the fundamental concept we were very much like them. The Japanese expect to find seasonal produce in the dish, and so do we. They expect value to be given to raw food. They also expect there to be contrast, that it isn’t flat food. That there is cold, savory, spicy, and that you find this in the dish in a balanced and measured way.
Do you think Japanese and Catalan cultures have aspects in common?
There are lots of common aspects in terms of concept, but at the table there are differences. If we had to define our culture with a color and a texture, ours would be brown and thick, and theirs would be light and transparent. We like theirs and they like ours because we’re similar in the values we expect to find in food. Moreover, Catalonia and Japan are two blue points in the world in health and with longevity of life related to diet. There are many aspects that connect us.
How has gastronomy evolved in the past 15 years?
It’s evolved so much and it will still evolve even more. Society now looks at chefs in a new light. When I went across the street, from the store to Sant Pau, the people who loved me were saddened because they didn’t understand that I would close myself in a kitchen and what I was seeing was a world of freedom and creativity. These same people now stop me in the street and they’re happy because in their families there’s a child training in the world of hospitality. Society knows that eating well means looking after yourself. The future is heading towards pre-prepared and pre-cooked foods. So, if society knows the value of foods, it will be able to demand quality from those who make processed food. Education is key. There are confused consumers who settle for anything.
How do you see the future of gastronomy in our country?
The most amazing pages are yet to be written. There are very well-qualified young people who have been trained here and in the rest of the world. The farmers and fishermen, too. Think about it: Gastronomy is the nice postcard that shows us off to the world.
Young chefs that have the luck of the path that you all have started…
Yes, there was a revolution without anyone having arranged it. In many cases, we’ve dedicated our lives to being original and appealing and offering high-quality produce, the media has kept analyzing it and we’ve been lucky that the audience has been receptive and has given us encouragement. These three points continue building on themselves and young people look at us and will improve on everything we’ve done.
What are your plans for the short and long term?
We always get lots of interesting proposals, but I’ll never join any project that doesn’t feel the same respect that we feel for our industry. I don’t know what will happen in the future. Think about it: Our plans didn’t include going to Japan or coming to Barcelona, and that’s what happened in the end. Life is full of surprises.
How would you define your professional career in just one word?
A little taste
The best time for savoring a good wine?
With good company, at any time.
A song to accompany a wine.
Anything by Joaquin Sabina.
Somewhere you’d get lost.
The Mimosa garden where we are right now.
What do you do in your spare time?
Write and draw.
One flaw and one virtue.
A flaw that is at the same time a virtue: perseverance.
What did you want to be when you were little?
To have an artistic career.
And now that you’re grown up?
To enjoy the career I’ve had.