Women Chefs (I)
They came late to the professional culinary world, but on the domestic front women have been heirs to and conveyors of gastronomic knowledge and culture for generations. Until fairly recently, that was their main contribution to cuisine. But today a number of Spanish women chefs are showing what they can do at the helm of their own restaurants. Whether traditional, classic or decidedly modern, they are receiving recognition, good reviews and even the much sought-after Michelin stars
The kitchen has always been female territory, at least on a domestic level. Cooking in Spain cannot be imagined without the quiet, profound influence of women. The teachings of grandmothers, mothers and aunts represent an invaluable heritage stemming from traditions passed on over a hot stove. Women are the backbone of cooking. It is impossible to conceive of modern gastronomy without the essential contribution made in the background by hundreds of women who, over the centuries, have kept culinary traditions and methods alive that would otherwise have fallen into oblivion.
Spanish literature is full of references to fresh-faced waitresses and buxom innkeepers enveloped in homely flavors and aromas, and to stews and soups that bear witness to a tradition carefully preserved and tended by female hands. Home cooking has always given rise to irrefutable chefs, tied to the land and to tradition who, often, out of pure necessity, found themselves cooking outside the home.
One outstanding case is Marisa Sánchez who, at the age of 74, was awarded the top-level Labor Award by the Spanish Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Her restaurant Echaurren has seen four generations of women chefs and has reached its position today as one of the best-known establishments in Spain largely thanks to Marisa's efforts.
At the beginning of the last century, Echaurren was a stopover for travelers. Marisa's predecessors gradually built it up, but it was Marisa that eventually turned it into a hotel and restaurant with outstanding cuisine. Today, however, the reins are held by her son, Francis Paniego, who won a Michelin star for Portal de Echaurren, so it now ranks amongst the best. But he owes a lot to his mother, to her way of cooking with only top Riojan raw materials, fish from the nearby Bay of Biscay, locally-reared meat and vegetables from the valley of the river Ebro (which flows from Cantabria via La Rioja to the Mediterranean Sea).
Again tradition and know-how, passed down from mother to son, come together at Echaurren. This knowledge has been taken up by Paniego but with a different vision, a different aesthetic and a different concept of cuisine.
The list of groundbreaking women chefs must necessarily mention the nine Guerendiain sisters, nicknamed the Pocholas, who became a real institution in Pamplona (Navarre, northern Spain). The prestige they built up on the basis of culinary tradition is still remembered today. They were working until just 17 years ago, but only two of them are still alive, and in their nineties.
Atxen Jiménez, responsible for the restaurant Túbal in Tafalla (Navarre), has been offering for more than three decades product-based, traditional cuisine, although with certaon concessions to modernity; still, her cuisine is always light, uses short cooking periods and is rich in textures.
In another region and another province, in the Castilian town of Aranda de Duero (Burgos, Castile-León) is El Mesón de la Villa and a woman, Seri Bermejo, who has been cooking for over 50 years. A welcoming, voluble person, she worked with her partner and husband Eugenio until his in 2006. She continues to head her restaurant but "with the help of a great team." At 77, her vitality belies her age, as she is certainly one of the oldest of the Spanish women chefs.
In Spanish cuisine today there are a number of women chefs who, at the peak of their careers, are renowned for having developed their own style, and their efforts have been acknowledged with a Michelin star. There are cases all over Spain, but the majority are located along the Mediterranean coast. But a characteristic they all share, which is of no little significance, is that they own and run their own restaurants.
Pilar Idoate believes that women chefs are more sensitive and thoughtful, "and that is very important in cooking." She bases this opinion on her 30-some odd years in the kitchen of Europa, a hotel-restaurant in Pamplona, on which she has gradually imprinted her personality and methods. She learned her trade reading, travelling round Spain, testing and tasting. She also had the help of a top-class gastronomic advisor, Xabier Gutiérrez , Juanmari Arzak's righthand man. As a result, Europa has built up a great reputation and has been awarded a Michelin star.
Toñi Vicente was a pioneer in new Galician cuisine. She was the first to step outside the box, because this part of Spain is one of the most orthodox in its eating habits. Galicia produces a wealth of top-class products, which have been traditionally prepared simply, without disguise. Paradoxically, Toñi feels that the wonderful ingredients were holding back Galician cuisine, restricting it to "grilling or stewing." She was a trendsetter, introducing signature cuisine against the grain, to the extent that at times even she considered she may have gone too far. But that was not the case. She learned to cook in her family's restaurant in Tomiño (in the Galician province of Pontevedra), where her mother, an excellent, old-style chef, carefully produced traditional dishes.
Traditional Galician cuisine is present on the menu presented by Ana Gago in Casa Pardo. The sea contributes ingredients to 90% of the dishes, and Ana still uses some old recipes that she was taught by her mother-in-law, although she updates them as she sees fit. Simplicity is the key, with light preparations, exactly the right amount of cooking, and total respect for the raw materials used. She is a great admirer of chefs such as Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran Adrià, and is fascinated by what they are doing. "They are real geniuses, and have made tremendous culinary breakthroughs. The rest of us try to follow in their footsteps, at a different level, adapting things to our respective locations, our restaurants and what our customers want."
A Tribute to the Sea
The last in this quartet of great Galician women chefs is Manicha Bermúdez who, like Ana Gago, obtained her first Michelin star in 1996. Her restaurant La Taberna de Rotilio is a real tribute to the sea. The restaurant looks over the fishing harbor at Sanxenxo (on the ría in Pontevedra) and the very personal menu reflects the aromas and flavors of the sea. The duality between tradition and modernity, between everyday tastes and more creative dishes appears throughout.
This intelligent approach has marked her career and her life. Like many of her colleagues, Manicha started cooking as a matter of course, and helping her mother who, in 1950, opened up a small guesthouse offering meals. "When I was small, my mother used to sit me on a bench in the kitchen so that I could stir the butter," she recollects. "That way, I could watch her making the puff pastry for the meat pies." Manicha continues to make pastry the old-fashioned way-one reason why people come from far away for her meat pies-which forms part of the culinary heritage passed on from mother to daughter.
So far, her children do not seem interested in carrying on in the family business and La Taberna de Rotilio, the gastronomic restaurant in a hotel which forms part of the family business, is run by Manicha, now aged 58, and her brother Rotilio.
However, their grandmother, now over 80 years old, still keeps a watchful eye on what's going on. Almost completely self-taught, although she has attended the odd course and never misses a gastronomy congress, Manicha takes her inspiration from tradition and works with Galician recipes and products. She cannot conceive of cooking with different roots, because she likes to think of herself as typically Galician. "I always use local fish and shellfish, cheese, and meat. They're our brand; they help us stand out. Otherwise, all the different cuisines would be the same," she says.
The Future Ahead
It is too early to talk about a group of young women chefs that are attracting the interest of the national and international food writers. For the time being, the best-known case is Elena Arzak in Donostia - San Sebastián. With the exception of Elena in this part of northern Spain, which has always been a matriarchy, there are few women chefs who are really on an equal standing with men. Nor are there any relevant cases of women chefs owning their own restaurants, which seems all the more surprising considering that this region has always been at the forefront in the Spanish culinary business. It was the cradle of the new Basque cuisine-the spearhead of the Spanish culinary revolution-and is home to some of Spain's, and the world's, top restaurants.
Nor do there seem to be many young women chefs prepared to change the status quo in the north or in the whole of this Atlantic side of Spain. It may be just a matter of time, of opportunity, of waiting until the moment is ripe for sharing the reins. Reconciliation of professional and family life is always a problem for women, and even more so in a profession that is so demanding. But the hospitality schools, especially those specializing in cuisine, are producing growing numbers of women chefs who are brimming with enthusiasm. The future of Spanish cuisine will undoubtedly be marked by them.
The kitchen has always been female territory, at least on a domestic level. Cooking in Spain cannot be imagined without the quiet, profound influence of women. The teachings of grandmothers, mothers and aunts represent an invaluable heritage stemming from traditions passed on over a hot stove. Women are the backbone of cooking