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Carme Ruscalleda: “I’ve never found a cod pintxo in San Sebastian with a rotten taste, and that’s wonderful”

Despite having closed down his three Michelin stars, Sant Pau restaurant, almost a year ago, Carme Ruscalleda is still on the ball. Either with the menus of Moments restaurant in Barcelona and Sant Pau in Tokyo (both of them owning two Michelin stars), sharing their knowledge wherever they request it, or doing research with Cuina estudi, her gastronomic laboratory. In just over a month, “San Sebastian Gastronomika” gastronomic fair will award her with the “Tribute” prize, in recognition of her career, the only female chef to own seven Michelin stars. A perfect excuse to speak to her about her vision of gastronomy and the universe of pintxos.

Carme, do you sleep better without the burden of having a 3 star Michelin restaurant?
In my everyday life, I continue to work with commitment, dedication and creativity. When the media asked me about the closure, I told them that I was going to live on continue vacation from now on, because when I closed the Sant Pau for vacation, I closed that restaurant, but everything else remained running: opened in Tokyo, opened in Barcelona, contacts with companies, schools… Therefore, now I live on constant holidays, because the Sant Pau was the piece that required more commitment and hours devoted by myself, since I felt that my presence in every service was needed. Given that the whole staff working there around me was totally committed, I was a kind of dynamo who was catalyzing all that work, and mainly for my commitment with our customers, who were making the trip and the monetary effort to meet me there.
Therefore, you have mainly freed yourself from the regular schedule routine.
That’s right. Now I have more free time, which I have quickly occupied with social commitments related to gastronomy. Now, more than ever, I am involved in adult training sessions, in colleges, in primary schools…There are weeks that I have daily commitments.
Given your keen response, I sense you have never regretted your previous decision.
No. In fact, I’m going to tell you that was a well considered decision. Me and my husband were very clear that we never would close tired and exhausted. It had to be shut down with the same utmost enthusiasm we use to open every day. Entering a restaurant venue and meet their leaders tired is really sad: that mood spreads quickly to everyone, both staff and customers. We were been open for 30 years, and we thought that was the right time to do it. In addition, we had been working for 20 years before we opened the Sant Pau, so we had a 50-year career behind us, and eager to go on!
The Sant Pau has been transformed in both a bar and also the Cuina Estudi, a venue where research and go for culinary innovation.
In fact, we started Cuina Estudi in 2004, when we opened Sant Pau in Tokyo. There, we fashioned the menus for the Tokyo venue. For instance, right now we are completing a theme menu labeled “the trees of life”: the pine, the almond tree, the apple tree… are trees of life. We made a list of 20 trees, and each one is the main character in one of the menu dishes. Here we have also developed new products and recipe books for the food industry. Now it’s our main project.
Do you enjoy cuisine more by researching, without the pressure of reviews both from customers and from Michelin Guide inspectors?
I still fell like the sword of Damocles hanging over me, both by the public review as for the scoring of gastronomic guides. I am operational, working for the Sant Pau in Tokyo and both Moments and Blanc in Barcelona. Indeed, we are responsible for all the menus served at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel: breakfast or room service, beyond its restaurants.I keep going to bed beaten and angry, searching for solutions to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. And then, next day, something else happens! Life is a learning curve that gives you energy to overcome those limitations you had.
Carme, you have pioneered the commitment to the local product, something that’s also very much present in San Sebastian pintxos taverns.
No doubt. For me, nature is the ultimate source of inspiration. The product shows you different ways to prepare it. It tells you if your ideas are or not on track. We ourselves are part or that living nature, active and fruitful, we feed on it because obviously it’s health, energy and strength, but also it is culinary pleasure, and we are devoted to pleasure!
This year, San Sebastián Gastronomika will award you the “Tribute” Prize: How did you receive the news?
That was: yikes! I am reaching retirement actively! I am a very a very activist retired woman, so I received it with that strength.
You’re the only female chef who has reached 7 Michelin stars, but you rejected the Best Woman Chef in the World appellation: Why?
There, they obviously are laughing at women. We have to claim respect always, working at the very highest level, but when some guys make a list of restaurants, and they are unable to properly understand that when there’s a leader at the restaurant, whether male or female, there is always a team made up of lots of men and women behind. Why do they get the presence of women out of perspective? So, are we doing second class work? This is not a sport were you have to measure male and female strength separately. A restaurant is the idea of a leader, either man or woman, where she or he gives ideas, builds a team, challenges them to keep working every day in their philosophy, loving the product, loving customers…Why do they do such discrimination? I wrote them a lot when the award was established, even tried to open their eyes by telling them if they were planning a chefs of color list for the next year…To make matters worse, at least at the beginning the sponsor of that award was champagne Veuve Clicquot, and I told them that if The Clicquot widow were to see that, she would be delighted to win a prize for making good champagne, but not for being a woman making champagne! Hence, respect for females, nobody is going to give us anything for free; neither the goverment, nor the staff, the market of our customers forgive errors. We contend with the same strength, please respect us.
We have Elena Arzak among us, but there are not many women leading top level restaurants. How can this gap be bridged?
Clearly, training young women very well. Making them feel that if they want, they can. The crucial thing is to have this strength to be a leader and take charge of the team. In the Basque Country there is a lot of tradition with cook women, a lot! All these cook women have to feel that power, and feel themselves first-class citizens like them. There will be as many as they decide.
Do you like to enjoy going out for pintxos when you come to San Sebastian?
Of course! Whet the appetite with those cod and crab pintxos. I Was in San Sebastián when I discovered one thing that I have always practiced afterwards: we were at Ganbara, and they just brought a basket with mushrooms and placed it in a corner, from which it spread an outstanding smell all over the place. We asked them to cook us some mushrooms, and they cooked them rolled, quickly on both sides, and bareback with a raw egg yolk. To burst that egg yolk, which is the most perfect cream sauce that nature has given us, and mix it with the particular umami taste of mushroom, that was something to weep for very joy. I now do it: I prepare a bed of sautéed spinach and a raw egg yolk, covered with rolled mushrooms. What a fantastic dish, discovered in a pintxos tavern counter in San Sebastián! On top of that, it was something they came up with, not one of those well ordered and created pintxos, like that wonderful Gildas.

Do you remember any of our pintxos in a special way?
The cod. I’ve never found a cod pintxo in San Sebastian with a rotten taste, and that’s wonderful. I contend that those who say don’t like cod is not but a bad experience, because they have been served a corpse-flavored cop. Cod is the most delicious fish available, and also the most delicate! So, there has to be a great respect from professionals, to bring it to you with its saline as fresh fragrance, ensuring that, when salting it, they return on a salted mummy to life. In San Sebastian, I never had a corpse on my plate.
The Pintxos App collects the 99 best pintxos in San Sebastian, selected by the 11 Michelin-starred chefs in Gipuzkoa: What do you think of this initiative?
It would be suspicious if a chef didn’t enjoy eating. One of the questions we ask in staff selection processes is where he’s been for dinner lately. This approach helps us to measure their degree of enthusiasm about food, and that will be the degree of excitement the put for attend, in the living room, or in the kitchen. Therefore, do no trust in people involved in gastronomy not enjoying food.
Is the work done in the kitchens of the big restaurants very different from that done in the kitchens of these bars?
Not at all. Whether in a 3 starred restaurant or in a pintxos tavern, when you open the door, everything has to be cooked and introduced seamlessly, fresh and attractive. That respect for the product, for your pintxos offer, and for the customers that will taste them. Therefore, philosophy has to be the same.
The Basque Culinary Centre is located in San Sebastián. It’s a benchmark in gastronomic training, but you are self-taught: What does that bring, that doesn’t an academic training give?
A well trained professional coming out from the Basque Culinary Centre can write the best pages in the history of gastronomy. A well-trained professional who can pass through the Basque Culinary Centre, could write the best pages in the history of gastronomy. I always say that we have achieved a culinary leap, relying on respect for cooking, but best things are yet to come. Kitchens are now full of young men and women who have freely chosen this career and have an academic background. They have even traveled and staged outside our borders. So, the best is yet to come.

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