Pots, Pans and Pizzazz
Isabel Juncá is a self-taught chef who works at her parents
Author: Raquel Castillo/©ICEX
Some are the doyennes of their profession, some are at their personal and creative peaks, and some are applying their top-notch training in restaurants in hopes of becoming the great chefs of the future. As a group of professionals, they are playing an important role in the evolution of cuisine in Spain on the Mediterranean side of the country. Though their culinary philosophies are similar because of their devotion to local recipes and ingredients, each has her own personal style.
Though not under the media spotlight like their male counterparts, their work cannot be passed over in a study of culinary affairs in Spain today. In addition to important chefs on the Atlantic side of Spain, there are other women of equal importance in the eastern, or Mediterranean, part of Spain. Let's start in.
One of the veterans is Pepa Romans of Casa Pepa in Ondara (Alicante). Hers is an unusual story: she began her career at the age of 42, after bringing up her five children. Her dishes now are based on her culinary memories. In 2001 the Michelin Guide granted her one star, and described her cooking as "extremely varied, very traditional but also modern". Her rice dishes are renowned -both the traditional versions which she is loath to adapt, and the new ones she creates. She shows that there is still scope for invention, for example, with her rice with rocket, red mullet, razor clams, and monkfish.
Susi Díaz and her husband set up La Finca in 1983 in Elche (Alicante). She started out as maître, but gradually became more and more involved in the restaurant. In 2007 they were awarded the much-coveted star. Her approach is simple and based on good local products although, as she explains, "I also use items from other places because what matters in cuisine is coherence, not frontiers." Her inspiration comes from the past and from ideas passed on by her grandmother, but she likes to take what interests her and adapt it to her own style.
María José San Román of Monastrell in Alicante is the queen of saffron. A full-page article in The New York Times in May 2007 described her as an authentic expert, which couldn't be more accurate. In 1990 she went to work with Jean Louis Neichel in Barcelona (whose restaurant, Neichel, had two Michelin stars at the time), where she learned classic French cuisine. She then did the same with the Roca brothers (El Celler de Can Roca, Gerona, two Michelin stars) and with three-star Martín Berasategui (Lasarte, Guipúzcoa) and Arzak (San Sebastián). A technical, sensible chef whose cuisine is easy to understand and is based on what is close at hand, her dishes are simple and balanced.
Catalonia: Women's Territory
Mey Hofmann, who runs Barcelona restaurant Hofmann and the city's first catering school, thinks that "Men and women work equally well; however, as students, girls tend to be more hard-working and persevering. In the end, however, the results are the same." She is aware that women chefs have not received the same recognition as men, adding "Still, all the world's great chefs learned from their mothers." She was trained in Paris where she was awarded the Cordon Bleu Grand Diplôme before returning to Barcelona to open her school.
After 56 years at Barcelona's Hispania the Rexach sisters, Paquita and Lolita, serve a menu featuring chicken soup with meatballs, fricassee of meat and eggplant, suquet (fish stew) and cuttlefish with potatoes. Their cuisine is simple, straightforward and takes us back in time. It is 100 percent Catalonian, with a focus on the ingredients and on their mother's teachings. They admire today's avant-garde cuisine but are clear that their path is a different one. They were pioneers before people knew what gastronomy meant, and complain that traditional cuisine is not afforded the respect it deserves.
Fina Puigdevall received her Michelin star in 2005 and runs Les Cols in Girona, located in a beautiful 13th-century Catalonian farmhouse. The cuisine is full of sensitivity, flavor, and respect for the products of the La Garrotxa region (north of Catalonia in inland Gerona), with its potatoes, beans, poultry and ducks, pigs, pork products, mushrooms, game, herbs, etc. With such a well-stocked pantry, inspiration and know-how, she delights her guests by serving them country cooking with well-known local flavors.
In Sort, a village in the Lleida Pyrenees, Zoraida Cotronat and her husband run Fogony. As a self-taught cook she started to serve traditional dishes, salads and char-grilled meat at their tapas bar. As she gained experience, read and traveled, her cuisine gradually grew. Although she likes modern techniques, she restrains her creativity because she feels customers are a bit tired of innovation. Zoraida, who won her first star two years ago, used to prepare more modern dishes, more deconstructions and the like, but now she keeps more to classic, home-style cooking; she likes to play with flavors, especially those stemming from traditional Catalonian cuisine.
The best example
She is an example to be followed–for women and for men–having achieved what seemed impossible. Of the four woman in the world with three stars, Carme Ruscalleda is in a class of her own, featuring in the Michelin Guide with no less than five: three for her restaurant Sant Pau in San Pol de Mar in Barcelona (the third was granted in 2006), and two for Sant Pau in Tokyo (the second this year, 2008), which she has been running from a distance since it opened in 2005.
Sant Pau has become an unrivalled culinary shrine, the prototype of the avant-garde in Spanish gastronomy. Her dishes are very creative and imaginative, taking cuisine to extremes of sensuality. “Women understand that they need the same as men do: a team providing support, clear ideas and a family that can breast the tide. Ferran Adrià expressed it perfectly when he said: ‘If women want to reach the top, first they have to get down to work’. That’s how I see it. I’ve always been in this ‘man’s world’ but I’ve never felt inferior. I do the same work as they do, I buy my products at the same prices as they do and I pay the same wages to my team as they do. My customers are not going to excuse me if I make a mistake because I’m a woman. So where’s the difference?”
Names for Today and Tomorrow
Isabel Juncá is another self-taught Catalonian chef with a Michelin star. She works at her parents' restaurant Ca L'Enric in Vall de Bianya (at the foot of the Catalonian Pyrenees), where she started out making tapas, which gradually became more and more creative. Some of her creations are updated versions of classics, while others are more innovative, but she always takes care to offer a balanced menu. The result is a combination of classic and auteur dishes, but nothing avant-garde.
Celia Jiménez from Córdoba has spent most of her career in Málaga (Andalusia). She studied at the La Cónsula catering school, training ground for many top chefs. Then, after gaining experience in a number of Málaga restaurants, she landed in El Lago in 2002. In 2004 she took charge of the kitchen and two years later was awarded her first Michelin star. In April 2008, she returned to her home town of Córdoba (also in Andalusia) where she has taken on the renovation and updating of the gastronomy offered by the Cordoban catering group, Bodegas Campos.
Anna María Santoyo knew how to slaughter and cook a rabbit at age 8. At 11, she made the family's Christmas dinners, and at 15 she began her professional culinary training at Mey Hoffman's school. By 20, she was chef in a restaurant in a village in Alicante and two years later set up her own restaurant, El Misteri d'Anna in Elche. Now 25 years old, she favors classic dishes which she likes to interpret in a modern way. She likes "old school" cooking, rice dishes, and seasonal vegetables. She is especially proud of her egg in an extra virgin olive oil confit with truffle, Ibérico pork cheek stuffed with mushrooms, and her semi-liquid of almonds.
Montse Estruch had little alternative but to take up cooking. Her parents ran a village hostel and she had to help out, largely against her will. But then she decided she had better learn, so off she went to study with Ferran Adrià, Alain Ducasse... and soon, to her surprise, she fell in love with her profession. She now offers her skills and sensitivity at Barcelona's El Cingle. Her cuisine is modern, original and different; she was one of the first in Spain to use flowers in her cooking.
Mari Carmen Vélez was meant to become a lawyer, but eventually fell in love with cooking at her mother’s fish restaurant. La Sirena, in the Alicante town of Petrer, has undergone a thorough transformation since it first opened up in 1984. It is still a family-run establishment (her husband is maître d', and her sister Lola is pastry chef), but Mari Carmen is responsible for the contemporary atmosphere. One of her newest contributions is a lighter version of alioli, the Mediterranean sauce based on garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Her aliolis are made not only from the usual raw garlic but also from cloves slowly cooked in oil, roasted, boiled, and toasted; she also uses a variety of oils. Sometimes she includes fruit, or truffle, foie gras, or cheese, and also uses alioli to thicken broth. One of her latest creations is a chocolate alioli that accompanies scallops with red berries.
Raquel Castillo is a food and wine writer. She heads the gastronomy section of the financial paper Cinco Días, and writes regularly for specialist journals.