How Catalan gastronomy took over the world
Top chefs reflect on the gastronomical revolution that, coupled with a rich culinary tradition, catapulted Catalan restaurants to stardom
For decades —or centuries, some will argue—, France was seen as the standard-bearer of top-notch cuisine, and French chefs lauded as the epitome of creativity and sophistication when it came to food.
But at some point at the turn of the 21st century, the focus shifted south: to Spain and, more specifically, to Catalonia.
Chef Ferran Adrià and his culinary innovations were largely responsible for this shift. "To say, as people everywhere have been doing for quite a while, that Ferran Adrià is the world's greatest chef, is to miss the point. Or to fall short of it, at any rate," wrote John Carlin in The Observer.
Ten years after Adrià closed El Bulli, the restaurant located in the Costa Brava from where he took over the gastronomical world, his colleagues recall the influence his work continues to have internationally.
"He created new concepts, which spilled over to the rest of the world," says chef Carme Ruscalleda, who formerly stood as the female chef with most Michelin stars. "You can travel to the US, or to Tokyo, and you’ll find adrianades," she says, referring to dishes conspicuously inspired by Adrià’s techniques.
Speaking to Catalan News, Ruscalleda explains that while Adrià and El Bulli were instrumental in attracting international attention to Catalan cuisine, the gastronomical revolution had long been in the making.
"The same people who once felt pity for me now stop me and say: ‘Did I tell you that my grandchild is studying to become a chef?’"
Carme Ruscalleda · Chef
"In the 1970s and 80s, gourmet restaurants [in Catalonia] drew inspiration from France, but we eventually realized that we had our own way of seeing things, which was indeed very seductive—and our distinctiveness made us more appealing," she said.
Ruscalleda herself was part of the new wave of Catalan chefs that rose to fame in the 1990s. Having worked as a butcher at the family business in Sant Pol de Mar, a seaside town north of Barcelona, in 1988 she decided to quit and open a restaurant, named Sant Pau, which focused on Catalan gastronomy.
"I remember people feeling sorry for me," says Ruscalleda, recalling how being a chef was seen as a poor career choice. By the time the Sant Pau closed in 2018, Ruscalleda and fellow superstar chefs like Jordi Cruz or Joan Roca —whose restaurant El Celler de Can Roca has repeatedly been recognized as the world’s best— had become popular icons inspiring new generations of would-be cooks. Ruscalleda adds: "The same people who once felt pity for me now stop me and say: ‘Did I tell you that my grandchild is studying to become a chef?’"
Catalan gastronomy: past and future
Another chef who has thoroughly explored Catalonia’s rich culinary tradition is Jordi Vilà, from Barcelona’s Alkímia, which has one Michelin star. "Few territories as small as Catalonia have such a rich and diverse cuisine, whether it’s because of its geography, from the Pyrenees to the sea, as well as the Ebre delta, or the cultures that lived here, like Arabs, Jews, and Romans," he told Catalan News.
Vilà, who was awarded Catalonia’s National Prize for Gastronomy a few weeks ago, also believes that gastronomy must evolve. "Cuisine must keep up with the times, stay relevant. Customs change, so our goal is the pursuit of the future Catalan cuisine, which can go beyond ‘sofregit’ sautées, ‘mar i muntanya’ meat and seafood dishes, and ‘picada’ seasoning. With the same elements we can make lighter dishes," he said.
As of today, Catalan restaurants boast a combined tally of 70 Michelin stars—a recognition widely regarded as the gold standard of the sector—with three eateries boasting the prestigious three-stars: El Celler de Can Roca, Lasarte, and ABaC.
Catalan News has created an interactive map, allowing you to explore and discover all the best eateries in the region, including its average prices and types of food on offer according to the Michelin Guide.