Rakel Cernicharo (Valencia, 1984) is a young chef who hasn’t had it easy, but her tenacity, determination, and hard work have enabled her to soar to culinary heights. Winner of the Antena3 TV competition Top Chef 4, she currently puts makes use of her talents at the brand-new Karak restaurant at Valencia’s Hotel One Shot Mercat 09. Rakel is an incredibly daring, creative, and gifted chef, a whirlwind of pure nerve and vibrancy, who, as you’ll see, has no qualms about giving her opinion and saying exactly what’s on her mind as well.
Your childhood and young adulthood weren’t all that happy, were they?
That’s right. When I was six, my mother ended up bedridden due to a reaction to anesthesia and she passed away when I was 15.
¿What was that like for you?
It was really awful. My world turned upside down. I became really rebellious and that was when I decided to change my name from Raquel to Rakel, which is the way I still have it now. My interest in cooking is what saved me. I decided to sign up for a course at the Escuela Altaviana school in Valencia, which is where I discovered that cooking could be my thing.
But when everything seemed to be going well, things took another tragic turn.
Yes, when I was 21 my father – who was everything to me – died as a result of being a victim of Juan Maeso, the Valencian anesthetist who injected himself with his patients’ medication and infected hundreds of people with the hepatitis C virus.
Now that some time has passed, how do you remember that stage of your life?
It was terrible because I had a very special relationship with my father and I sank so low that I even stopped speaking to my siblings. I made the decision to leave Valencia and go to London. I lived as a squatter and worked a lot in different restaurants in Camden Town.
What do you think you got out of that experience?
Maturity, open-mindedness, and above all it helped me discover what cuisines from other parts of the world were like. When I got back, when I was 22, I mortgaged a property I’d inherited and I went for a place on Carrer Baix in the heart of Valencia’s El Carme neighborhood. I named it Karak (Karak stands for “Ka Rakel,” or “casa Rakel” – Rakel’s house). I spent over 10 years cooking there.
Until, as they say, “you were discovered.”
Yep! For a while, I’d noticed that someone had been coming regularly to eat at my restaurant, until one day she introduced herself as the manager of the One Shot Hotels chain in Valencia, and she offered to set up my Karak restaurant in the city’s new Hotel One Shot Mercat 09. That was in 2017, just a few months before I entered the castings for the Top Chef TV competition and they picked me.
What made you think of competing in that show?
Well, I really like new experiences in life. But at the same time, I knew it could be bad for my professional career in the sense that maybe my colleagues wouldn’t be OK with it.
What do you mean?
There are people who think that we chefs all get along with each other well, but it’s not true because there are lots of rivalries and jealousy, there’s lots of comparing, lots of copying disguised as new creation. I really believe that chefs are great professional fakers.
On Top Chef it seemed like you didn’t get along with your castmates at all… Was that a real situation or part of the TV drama?
It was totally true. I didn’t like most of them, I felt like they didn’t respect me, and I hate unfair situations, too. I can’t keep my mouth shut if I see an injustice and I don’t think I ever will. I’m always on the alert because when you’re 34 years old, look 22, and are on the short side, lots of people think they have the right to say anything to you.
Was winning Top Chef a turning point for you in your life?
Definitely. Of course, I paid very dearly for it because the TV network made use of my image. But without Top Chef, I wouldn’t have been able to design my new restaurant in the way that I have.
What do you think is the best thing about your profession?
It’s definitely a passion, hands down. Without that essential component, I wouldn’t be able to continue.
And the worst thing?
The endless hours; the fact that workers aren’t really looked after; that you’re sold the idea that the high-end restaurant industry is really glamorous, but it’s not like that; that you’re told the products on offer are local just because a truck brings them to the door of the restaurant. But there’s also hope because I see people, especially younger people, who really want to do things well, who have their own garden and really look after the produce, who put the customer first and respect them completely. There’s definitely hope.
How would you define your cuisine at Karak?
Barrier-free. I go on a journey through world cuisine. Going on a culinary trip from one place to another without stopping; discovering, learning, investigating. Now, for example, I’ve gone back to looking at French cuisine again: I don’t know whether it’s to refresh my memory or what. In reality, I meld the gastronomic cultures of lots of places, like Morocco, India, Mexico, Southeast Asia, etc. One example is my new dish, orange-cured duck tartare, which is a synopsis of many influences and techniques.
Finally, tell me: What would you recommend to young chefs who want to set up their own restaurants?
I’d tell them not to be scared, and if they are, to feel it and question it. And the more scared they feel, the less doubt they should have about going ahead with their project. They should always be savvy and plan. Because what may seem impossible today, will seem crazy tomorrow. And above all, they should be very patient because even though the road is long and hard, it will be rewarding.
A little taste
Best time for having a glass of wine.
Any time is a good time, as long as it’s shared with the right person. Always good wine. I also like having a glass of wine when I write and I’m alone.
A song to enjoy wine to.
“Lucha de Gigantes” by Ara Malikian.
Somewhere you’d get lost.
Lots of places. I’d love to discover all the interesting places in the world, to travel for months. It will happen someday. At the moment, I get lost in my cooking and I manage to fly to other countries.
What do you do in your free time?
I really like reading, writing, watching movies, getting hooked on a good series and binge watching, eating, doing nothing, being at home with my partner Javi and with my animals, wood-working, painting…
A flaw and a virtue.
I think my main flaw is also my main virtue: the strength and intensity of my personality. Ha ha… Sometimes I think I’m too much!
What did you want to be when you were little? And now that you’re grown up?
As a child I wanted to be an artist, to make a living with my hands. I hadn’t noticed until now, but the other day I realized that right at that moment I had my life just how I wanted it. I think I’ve achieved my dream, although I never would have imagined that it would be from a kitchen.
José Manuel Torres Morán