Anyone who has been a follower of the food world, would be no stranger to the Roca Brothers or their legendary restaurant “El Celler de Can Roca”. Winner of the prestigious title of the best restaurant in the world for 3 years and among the top 5 for as long as I can remember, the restaurant has revolutionized traditional Catalan cooking in the most unique way. Using techniques like distillation, liquid alchemy and sous vide, Chef Joan Roca has been able to modernize traditional Catalan cuisine in the most amazing way. He is quite ably assisted by his brothers -Josep, in-house sommelier and the man responsible for the phenomenal wine list at the restaurant and Jordi, who takes care of the desserts section and is also considered as the best pastry chef in the world.
Together, the three brothers run the restaurant which has now come to be known as the Mecca of modern Catalan cuisine and appears on the bucket list of food lovers around the world.
I still distinctly remember my hand trembling as I scrolled through the mail confirming our reservation at the restaurant. More than the dining experience, I was ecstatic that I was getting the unique opportunity to meet the Roca brothers, and not just an ordinary meeting, but a chance at discovering the genius behind the kitchen-Joan Roca himself.
I also remember the excitement of standing outside the gates of the massive Spanish villa which houses the restaurant, wondering if it was all but a dream. When we finally met I was floored by the humility and patience with which he answered my questions.
The following are the excerpts from my conversation with the man himself – Joan Roca.
SB : El Celler de Can Roca has not only won the best restaurant in the world award several times, but is also looked upon as an institution by many in the world of food &beverage; What has been the philosophy behind the restaurant?
JOAN : El Celler de Can Roca is our family owned restaurant and we have been running restaurants for 5 generations. All of us three brothers work together and we have put a considerable effort in creating a pleasant work atmosphere where we entertain people through our food.
We have focused our restaurant to be a traditional Catalan restaurant which uses local ingredients to create dishes that take inspiration from the rest of the world. In short, it is a window that opens traditional Catalonia to the modern world. We try to showcase the place where we live, through our food.
We are a team of 40 chefs that serve 50 guests a day; there is a lot of hard work behind what we showcase. We do not believe in simply creating an illusion. Our food must be a reflection of what we believe in, the way we see our lives and our commitment towards the world, and this commitment has been our basic philosophy behind the food we serve.
SB : How does it feel knowing that your restaurant is amongst the top three in the world?
JOAN : We keep ourselves as far removed from this accolade as possible. This title is definitely important for our country, important for the ecosystem of our town but we try not to get carried away by it. It has brought some very positive changes – we have been completely overbooked every single day in the past twenty years, and it has done wonders to our brand image, for Spanish tourism, for the producers of our region and for the CVs of our workers for which we are very grateful.
SB : They say that with great power comes great responsibility; What would you say, is the biggest challenge of running one of the best restaurants in the world?
JOAN : Well we have been running this restaurant for the past 30 years and each day is a new challenge. Off course with all these titles, the set of challenges has also increased. Personally I believe that the biggest challenge we face is to be true to ourselves, to our earth, our region, our heritage and also the foundation laid by our parents who still run their years old restaurant a short distance from here.
The challenge is also to maintain the spirit, the illusion, the charm, the humility and the love of our staff and to keep their spirits high and their feet grounded in spite of all the accolades.
SB : All three of you brothers handle three very important verticals that bring this restaurant together; How do you bring your individual visions to a common platform, to the diners table.
JOAN : This is a very normal thing for us, even though we are different in our own ways. We take our individual fields very seriously and this has helped maintain equilibrium in our work and share responsibility effectively as well. Even when all three of us have to travel to different parts of the world on different commitments, we try to make sure that at least one of us is present at the restaurant to oversee the operations.
We keep sharing and enjoying our work, we communicate a lot, any day, anytime, anywhere and exchange ideas with each other and try to build around those ideas. The basic key here is to have a very good and fluid communication amongst us…if it hadn’t been so, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
The idea always starts from one with consensus of the other two. That’s how we progress!
SB : The dishes that come out of your kitchen are considered to be art on a plate, but which, according to you, has been your most challenging dish?
JOAN : At the moment we are in the process of distilling sheep´s wool for a dessert and these kind of distillations are perhaps the most challenging of all dishes.
We continuously work towards recreating elements of nature and presenting them through our food in the form of oils, perfumes, distillations, juices and liquid alchemy.
The most interesting and challenging dish we have created so far has to be the Oysters with Distlilled Wet Earth, we called it Mar y Montaña (Sea and Mountain). The dish evokes memories of childhood. To some it may be reminiscentof freshly wet earth after a summer rain, to others,of a fall in the woods and getting back up on their feet but with a mouthful of dirt. We have received mixed responses for this dish, but the shock has always been a constant. The salty bite of the oysters in the liquid that tastes so much like wet earth has been applauded the most.
SB : What would you say, is the signature style of the Roca Brothers ? What message do you relay to your guests through your food?
JOAN : Humility, traditional values and honesty – these are the three core messages that our food reflects. We want to create food that reflects our humility, our generosity and the values taught by our parents. We believe in hard work, hospitality and the idea of sharing andperhaps that’s why people look up to us with so much positivity.
We want our food to reflect the harmony with which we work together to create this entire experience for our guests. All three of us have managed to stay true to our roots, stay true to the values learnt from the working neighbourhood where we grew up together.
SB: Every chef in the world has that one special ingredient which he/she loves to showcase in his/her cooking. What, according to you, is that one ingredient without which you feel incomplete?
JOAN : Depends on the season, right now it’s the truffles but I also like prawns. They are fabulous in our region and always available…I love to cook with them. I have travelled around the world and eaten crustaceans across different countries but the prawns from our region of Costa Brava are the best there are.
SB : Do you have any favourite tool in the kitchen, without which you may feel incomplete?
JOAN : Don’t know….my sous vide machine perhaps! We love cooking on low temperatures, so the sous vide machines would be something I love the most and use a lot in the kitchen.
SB: What would Joan Roca have been had he not been a chef?
JOAN : Ever since I was a child I have always wanted to be a chef, but if for whatever reason I wouldn’t have become a chef, I would have surely loved to become an architect and I guess cooking and architecture for me somehow are related as I really enjoy the whole process of creation.
Architects construct with materials; we construct with produce. Architecture, to me, is a reflection of the society and the way we live in it and so is our cooking.
SB : Joan Roca the chef, to Joan Roca – a family man; How do you divide your time between family and the restaurant?
JOAN : This is a relatively difficult question, but the good thing is that everyone in our family knows their place and duty. This restaurant symbolizes our family and the values laid by our parents, we have been lucky enough to bring it to a level where these values have been appreciated by the people who have dined here; running this kind of restaurant requires a lot of personal commitment. We pull long shift and hours, we pretty much live here! I live upstairs, Jordi lives 100 mtrs from here and Josep lives 200 mts from here next to my parent’s restaurant Can Roca and close to our grandparent´s restaurant Can Rachel.
We have been running restaurants for generations and each generation has had its own restaurant. Our philosophy is that if our future generations want to get into this business,even they would need to open their own restaurant and create their own identity.We are three brothers and all of us have kids, if any of the kids wants to enter the restaurant business, we will give them all the mentorship and financial assistance required, but we will ask them to create their own identity and open their own restaurant. That’s how we started and that’s the legacy we will leave behind for our future generations.
SB: Have you ever been to India? What are your thoughts about Indian food?
JOAN : No I haven’t been there as yet, but we need to go there soon, I have read a lot about India and have a lot of information on the place. I have been to Indian restaurants in London to eat, but I feel incomplete as I have still not eaten the real Indian food in India that is eaten by everyone on a daily basis, that is eaten on the streets and I need to do that soon.
I believe Indian food is very complex and full of flavours. The palate is quite different from what we are used to out here but I would love to explore and try incorporating some elements of it in our cooking. Incidentally I really enjoyed “The 100 Foot Journey” which also showcases the food of your region.
SB : Indian food uses a lot of spices, what is your take on using spices in your food?
JOAN : I have started to fall in love with spices though they are generally not used in Catalan cooking. I feel spices have a certain charm, a certain mystery. I do not use them extensively, but we do incorporate elements from these spices into our food…not blatantly, but we derive their essence and use them in our dishes.
Lot of migratory influences have brought about a change in the local cuisine,which has enriched not only our culinary heritage but reflects in our food today as well.
SB : What is Joan Roca´s favourite Cuisine ?
JOAN: I love exploring cuisines, the ones that I have enjoyed the most so far, have been Mexican, Japanese, Chinese and Thai and I am pretty sure that I will like the Indian cuisine as well. I love food that has tradition and history behind it.
SB: Any Message to our readers and all the budding chefs out there?
JOAN: Be honest to yourself, be honest to your food and work hard towards it. Your sincerity will shine in your final product if you are true to yourself while cooking. Use simple ingredients and think what you would like to showcase through your cooking. Be humble, be sincere, be true to yourself and your food will automatically start reflecting these traits!