She got married, her Michelin-starred restaurant has been operating for five years, and she is a prophet in her own land. Ecuador chef Carolina Sánchez (Ikaro*, Logroño) is having one of her best professional and personal moments, and she does not want anyone to steer her off that track. Steer her off from continuing to cook and promote Ecuador at Ikaro, from being a mother or from opening new outlets, even if here she does come up against the problem of staff shortages, "especially trained restaurant floor staff". Sánchez, who came to Spain to study at the Basque Culinary Center - where she met Iñaki Murua, her partner and also chef at the restaurant - is at FéminAs to showcase the role of Amazon women in her country, "tasked with handling and working many of the excellent products there”.
It seems we have left the pandemic behind. How did you survive?
Yes, they were difficult and even incredible times. Everything was going really well for us before this broke out. The restaurant was fuller than ever and we had a lot of plans, but the pandemic arrived to inform us that we should take nothing for granted. It was a reality check, but it taught us some lessons. It was a time during which we reflected, it made us change things, it helped us mature, and taught us to appreciate what we have.
And what do you have?
A restaurant in its fifth year! We're very happy. We've realised all the developments since we started out. At first it was just Iñaki and me in the kitchen, with very little staff, and we began to expand sensibly, which is what works best for us. And our cooking has improved. And what we offer, too. Now there are 13 of us, and the menu has expanded. We used to do six snacks, and now we do eight, with a total of almost 20 rounds.
Before we go on with the menu, let's finish up the story of the last few years. The second business disappeared ...
Just before the pandemic we opened Pampamesa, our second restaurant, a more informal place where we didn't only concentrate on the cookery of the Basque Country, La Rioja and Ecuador like we do at Ikaro. There we opened our doors to the world more informally. It was located at the Logroño Casino, and of course it closed down during the pandemic. When catering started up again, the Casino was still closed, and in the end they decided to terminate the project. A pity. When it closed in late 2020, we thought we would take it up again at some point, and we're working on that. But not in the short term, which is also due to the problems we're having finding staff. That's quite a killer for us. Starting up a project is hard work and risk, and if we can see that staffing is a problem even before we get started ...
Staffing problems. Why do you think that is?
We've talked to a lot of people, and we don't know. It was all because of the pandemic. Maybe it's because this profession is so hard, because people settled down at home, because they went into other professions ... Maybe it's also because people are also looking for more comfortable things, an eight-hour day, with more time for family. I don't know. What I do know is that it's very difficult to find people who want to work and know how to work, especially in haute cuisine. A pity.
Which profile is hardest to find?
For the restaurant floor in particular. That's where we find it hardest to bring in trained staff. We get CVs, but not from people already trained. It's true that in this world those who get all the recognition are always the chefs, and floor staff don't get the same respect, but there's a problem. Because for us that post is vital.
Let's change the subject. You're on the Masterchef Ecuador jury panel for the third year running. What kind of experience is that?
It's a wonderful project because it means being back home, getting back to my roots and my family. And it's a very successful programme in Ecuador - everyone watches it, and it unites the country. Through Masterchef, I think the people of Ecuador have realised what a country we have, and that what you find outside is not always better. It generates pride, and we don't exactly have too much of that ...
Argentina, Chile ... Could Ecuador be South America's next gastronomy boom?
I hope so! It's got potential. I've always said that Ecuador has the wherewithal to match Peruvian cuisine. We have four different regions with some very powerful gastronomic traditions, and each of them has its own products and recipes. But first and foremost it has to be the people of Ecuador who realise what we have, and feel proud of that. At Ikaro, we feel that pride and try to convey a little of what it has.
Maybe it needs a restaurant, a chef or a personality to lead it all? Like Gastón in Peru ...
It's true there's no such personality. But there are fine restaurants, with the odd restaurant on the 50 Best Latam list, but it needs a leader. And it needs unity. Unity above all. Everyone wants to blow their own trumpet, and maybe we should come together and, since we don't have that personality, unity should be strength. There's also some government aid, like they had in Peru, that's missing. This is changing now, but we still need more.
Let's go back across the Atlantic. You wanted to be parents. Are you?
Not yet. We got married not long ago in Ecuador, and we'll be getting married in Spain shortly, but no children yet. For the moment, Ikaro's still our only child. When they come, and they will come, I hope, we've already talked about how to divide up our time so that both of us can go on working. Neither of us will stop working. When I mentioned to some colleagues that I wanted to be a mother, they told me not to do that now, when I'm at the high point of my career ... Why? We can share. There are two of us. I know this profession is a big sacrifice, and that the first few years will be difficult, but I don't want to miss out. I don't want to leave the profession, and I don’t want to give up on being a mother either.
Both of you cooking and one of you cooking and the other working the floor, as occasionally happens - does that complicate matters, or does it help?
It helps. We cover for each other sometimes at the moment - when I'm recording Masterchef, for example.
Talking of partners and sexes, in an interview you told another journalist, Pilar Salas, that "women tend to home in on the details". When we put food on plates, I notice I'm different to Iñaki. I concern myself with the shoots, the flower, and aesthetic perfection ... and he concerns himself with speed”.
There are a lot of different things, but that's what I'm seeing in my kitchen. I might be more patient and perfectionist, and Iñaki, although he's a perfectionist too, is more spontaneous, fast and agile. He thinks that it all has to be ready and go, go, go. That also helps to complement us, for it all to be perfect.
Ikaro's cuisine. You say you've been adding more products and recipes from Ecuador ...
That's certainly been added to the snacks. During our trips to Ecuador I've been finding new products and adding them in. Now we try to make the snacks a trip through the country's four regions. We've also added other products, especially Amazon products, to various parts of the menu.
I remember a recipe you had years ago, very much in the style of “Ikaro”: “cocokotxas”, which was battered "kokotxa" fish necks, Kenya beans and coconut cream with herbs. Ecuador was the coconut, and the Basque Country was the kokotxas. I believe it won't be on the menu any more. Any other recipe that sums up the essence of the restaurant?
That was a very good recipe, but we're changing the menu and developing it, and we don't have it now. On our spring menu now, I could mention raw asparagus roll and Russian salad with Latin products such as "chayote" vine and the "papa china" plant from the Amazon, and also smoked eel, truffle and asparagus ice cream.
Finally. You're speaking at FéminAs. What is your proposal?
As the congress discusses the role of women in the rural environment, I want to talk about the reality of what, as I said, we're trying to do at Ikaro, which is Amazon cuisine. This is based on excellent products, some of which are only prepared by women, and we'll be focusing on their role at the congress. One such product is "neapia" - a yucca pasta fermented with Amazon chillis, with a texture similar to "miso" - or "mocambo" - a white Amazon cocoa we use a lot at Ikaro. Amazon women peel it and prepare it in this case, and we want to emphasise their work.