Maria Nicolau

“You can’t cook well without liking food”

“We don’t focus so much on what the chef does inside the kitchen, which is where most of their time is spent”

Maria Nicolau, a cook by training and profession, has sneaked not only into our kitchens but also into our libraries with Cuina! O barbàrie, a book published by Ara Llibres in which she displays all her passion for the stove, and also for writing. Defending the argument that it is always possible to find time to cook at home, Nicolau sums up her practical attitude in a single sentence: “If wild boars are pests, I’m in favour of eating up the problem.”

We’ve just taken photos in Girona’s Lleó market. After the kitchen, the market must be the most important place for a cook.
Without markets, cooks can’t exist. Without fresh ingredients, there’s no cooking. The market is where the fresh produce from fishermen, farmers and shepherds arrives, allowing us to fill our baskets with what we need to cook.
In your book you clearly show support for markets, as opposed to supermarkets, because of the fresh produce you get there instead of packaged and frozen food.
Markets completely remove plastic from the equation. The supermarket is a relatively recent establishment; the first ones appeared in the 1950s, born of the concept that everything must always be available everywhere around the world. But this dream of perpetual and affordable abundance comes with a high cost that we end up paying either directly or indirectly. Yet avoiding this trap is as simple as buying what it makes sense to buy and what the earth and the season have to offer here and now.
Your book has been very well received, not only for what you say about food, but also for the quality of the writing. You not only know how to cook but also how to write.
First of all, many thanks for the kind praise; I tried as hard as I could. In the same way that I think you can’t cook well without liking food, I don’t think you can write well without reading a lot. And I’ve done a lot of reading, because I’m so curious. In both cooking and writing, you pick up things here and there and then bring them all together into a discipline.
Let me point out one thing. To cook well you have to eat, you say, and yet for a cook you’re very thin.
That’s because I never stop running around [she laughs]. It depends more on your metabolism and how your body works than on whether you eat a little or a lot. I spend the day tasting and eating food.
Your stance is one of grassroots militancy. You speak from the experience of the employee, not as an entrepreneur, which is what we usually find on television and in food books. We hear little from the people manning the stoves.
And yet it’s the great mass of workers who keep the kitchens going. I’m privileged to have the freedom I get from putting myself at the service of someone who owns the business and who has trust in me. At the same time, I also feel a bit entrepreneurial because deep down I consider that I’m working for myself. The ability to respond to the needs of a company that really belongs to everyone, because we all contribute to it, is what drives our team spirit. We’re all a part of it, employees and entrepreneurs, working for our joint reputation.
It is also a book that has been well received by the profession itself. Yet you’re also critical of the glamorous image of the craft projected by celebrity chefs because it can be misleading when the aspiring chef discovers that cooking is also about getting your hands dirty.
Half the time we spend in the kitchen is spent cleaning. We take great care with the final photo showing off the finished dish and the chef in his pristine white overalls greeting diners, but we don’t focus so much on what the chef does inside the kitchen, which is where most of their time is spent. What I was trying to do was to open the whole thing up and show the entire spectrum rather than just certain aspects.
In the book, you also point out that kitchens can be rough and ready places and not for the fainthearted.
Oh, yes [she laughs]. Human beings are the same everywhere we find them. Kitchens are no exception to that and the same things happen there as they do in a factory or among office workers, for example. We work in a small space, within a set timetable, surrounded by heat and smells, serving people who want their meals as soon as possible, and usually doing two things at once. You have to be aware of this dynamic if you choose this profession.
It’s good to be imaginative when cooking, but you insist it’s important to keep your feet on the ground. The first test you would give an aspirant would be to make an omelette.
These are the necessary values. The more physical part is learned by repetition. The chef is at the service of the team for whatever it needs to get the job done. What will determine whether we function as a team or not is human quality. If the omelette doesn’t come out well the first time, you’ll have to practise it all afternoon if necessary. The simple act of making an omelette will reveal what a person is like.
However, you argue that it is the most basic things that have been lost: “Why is it so hard to find good fries in a restaurant?” you write.
It’s very serious. We’ve taken things too far. We see it as normal that there is a place called a restaurant where the so-called cooks have decided they don’t have time to cook, and so they buy precooked products from an industry supplier, heat them up and put them on a plate. That makes me wonder whether you want to work in a kitchen or whether you’ve decided you don’t have time for that because you want to do other things? You don’t have to have 30 items on the menu, you can put just 10 or 15, all of which say something about you, all made by your hand. Also that way you won’t have to spend money on marketing to differentiate yourself from the competition.
Something else you argue is that cookery is culture if it is within the reach of all pockets, because if not it is elitism.
It is necessary to differentiate the world of restaurants from cooking at home. Cooking at home is going to the butcher’s and picking up whatever they have that day that is well priced. However, in a restaurant, what you offer is a commitment to the customer, you generate an expectation and commit to it being good and reasonably priced. It should be normal to find Catalan cuisine that is related to what the country can provide. The powerful mid-range restaurants we can all go to are the ones that really mark a country’s gastronomic musculature.
Restaurants, which had such a bad time during the pandemic, have had to raise prices, but they are finding it hard to get waiters because they feel poorly paid. How do we solve this?
The era of working for hours and hours is over, and the moment of truth has come: those who had restaurants but were not real chefs may not make it. Things cannot work as they did before, and less so without paying decent wages or allowing more time off. If your business is not viable without paying the workers properly, better you close it.
You also argue that certain limitations must be accepted: “It has to be said: homemade cakes aren’t good enough.”
[She laughs] We can all be good cooks, but not all of us can be Picasso. Feeding ourselves is as necessary as breathing or walking, we are all prepared to be able to feed ourselves. That our grandmothers knew how to do it better than us is simply a matter of practice. As for cakes, they no longer excite us as they used to, among other things because we eat them much more often than our grandparents. In a year, we eat more sugar than they did in a lifetime. Let’s start at the beginning, let’s understand that pastry making works differently. Let’s go to the well-made recipes instead of changing them. Some humility is required here.
But you’re also not against breaking taboos. For example, even a cook may hate a certain dish, as happens to you with sardines, and that has to do with bicycles. Avoid sardines followed by cycling.
You know what it is? That if we don’t cook we lose a big part of our personality. The same recipe made in the house next door, in the next county, will be different. This is part of what makes us unique, each household has its own taste and olfactory imprint.
And in your case, with sardines as far away as possible...
Over time I’m getting a little closer, although the smell of sardines and charcoal still make me feel sick. We all have something like this etched in our brains.
You dedicate the book to those who, like you, put the oven on forgetting that they use it as a cupboard for their pans.
It’s just that I’m a normal person. I’ve written very few things that much of the country doesn’t also think about; perhaps it took courage to let go. It’s normal to talk about cooking, to share problems and solutions, not to make a kind of propaganda of individual perfection that does not exist.

interview FOOD

The intimacy of sitting to eat

Sitting to eat at a table is an act of intimacy. Or so says someone who practises what she preaches: “Every day I have dinner with my daughter, my partner, or my dog.” It is an attitude she carries over to finding time to cook, something she has seen in her own experience. She used to work in an important restaurant, and she was comfortable there. Yet she couldn’t devote the time she wanted to her daughter. She then got the chance to work in the kitchen of a rural hotel. The hotel closed but a local restaurant opened. That restaurant is the Ferrer de Tall in Vilanova de Sau, where she provides an attractive menu that is affordable for all budgets. However, she is aware that now that the restaurant has become popular, it will be difficult to maintain a personal and professional balance. “I will do everything I can. We have a lot of work and we are very happy with the way we have learnt to work together. We will do what we can to keep that going.”

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