Charismatic and charming, Carme Ruscalleda is a woman who talks about many of life’s vital aspects using food as a metaphor. What’s more, she is a firm believer in the legendary Roman saying, ‘Adage a tavola si sta sempre in allegria’ (‘At the table, one is always happy’). She should know what she’s talking about: she is Spain’s only female chef and restaurateur with three Michelin stars. First published in July 2008
Far from the bustle and bright lights of the big city, Ruscalleda works and creates in Sant Pol de Mar, where she was born in 1952; it’s a picturesque, upscale seaside town with an unusual mix of the quaint and the innovative. Ruscalleda and her husband Toni Balam have made their distinctive Relais Chateaux-affiliated dining venue, Restaurant Sant Pau, come alive. Surrounded by the sounds, smells and sights of the Mediterranean Sea, and with her own superb art collection on the walls, Restaurant Sant Pau has become a world-class establishment.
Dining at this 36-table restaurant, which is situated on the seafront in an 1881 townhouse with a lovely herbal and floral garden, is an event suitable for a truly special celebration. This is an extraordinary place, and starting with Ruscalleda’s hand-drawn, water-colour menus and moving through her amazing meals from beginning to end, one senses the breadth of her creativity.
Tell me about your Michelin Star status.
In 1989, my husband Toni and I had a humble seaside bar specialising in organically-grown vegetables and fruits and local gastronomic fare, long before it had become fashionable in Spain. People raved. The first Michelin inspectors came in 1991, and Restaurant Sant Pau received its first Michelin. In 2000, we renovated the restaurant, expanded the wine cellar and hired more staff. That was followed by the second Michelin star. Little by little, we climbed the ladder and made the necessary improvements for an ever-growing business. In November 2005, we received the phone call while on holiday—Restaurant Sant Pau was awarded its third Michelin star. To date, we have 36 tables and 35 employees.
You have said that you present your dishes as if they were contemporary paintings.
I love to draw and paint in watercolours, and am an enthusiast of Catalan painters like Reira Arago, Miró and Tàpies to name a few; they are very inspirational for culinary artists. The yellow and Mediterranean blue exterior of my restaurant resembles Frida Kahlo’s indigenous Mexican flowers. I draw and paint a total of over 60 lunch and 60 dinner menus a year and 12 monthly cheese menus.
Do you have any other restaurants?
I have a two-Michelin-star venue: Restaurant Sant Pau in Tokyo, Japan. I am enchanted by the Japanese aesthetic, their culinary presentations and their raw materials. The visual is first, then the taste, followed by the post-bite and the textures.
What are some of the quintessential Japanese ingredients you utilise?
Many. However, off the top of my head: fresh wasabi (‘Japanese horseradish’), the best quality soy sauce, kombu (kelp), Japanese grain rice and katsu (tuna) for a Japanese stock called daishi.
What languages do you speak?
Catalan, Spanish, unfortunately not-so-good English and Japanese, and forgotten secondary school French.
Where do you and Toni go on holiday?
The whole world.
What are your hobbies besides drawing and watercolour painting?
To take the stress off, my husband Toni and I go to Josep Sitja’s Bar, La Quadra, which is in Calella on Carrer Raval. I dance everything from cha cha cha to boleros to rock ‘n’ roll. Toni plays trumpet. We enjoy the acorn-fed Iberian ham, regional cheeses and freshly made tapas, plus there is a wonderful wine list. The music is fabulous and the selections include 20th-century ‘oldies but goodies’ live with their house band.
Last, but not least, I know you have earned many awards. Is there an event that you found just a little more special?
In Toledo in 2007, three Italian female chefs—Annie Féolde of Enoteca Pinchiorre in Florence, Nada Santini of Ristorante Dal Pescatore in Mantua, Luisa Vallazza of Ristorante Al Sorriso in Piamonte—and I were acknowledged for earning three Michelin stars by the Castilla La Mancha Government. Also, Madrid Fusion 2008.
To read more of the interview and see photos of Sant Pau, click on the Slideshow