Road to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017: Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca
Avant-garde cuisine and Catalan gastronomy come together in El Celler de Can Roca, with the special touch that only the Roca brothers know how to give to their dishes. Nominated for the 50 Best list again this year, three-Michelin-star El Celler de Can Roca immerses its diners in a multi-sensorial experience with essential oils, distillations and the best quality produce.
From his native Girona to the top of the world, chef Joan Roca telsl us about his thirst for innovation, his invaluable team and how he aims to create food to feed the soul.
How would you describe El Celler de Can Roca to someone who hasn’t been there yet?
It’s a restaurant that has transformed into a way of living. We have created a magic world right here where each one of us takes charge of a different side of the cuisine: desserts, wine and savoury dishes.
We try to welcome our clients into this restaurant that we call home, and also to make them feel at home. Our food is innovative and traditional at the same time, having its roots in Catalan gastronomy. That is definitely our source of inspiration.
What do you do differently from the other top restaurants?
That’s a hard question. The main difference could be the fraternal bond that we share: that family vibe gives us personality and authenticity. It also reflects certain values that have been present in our restaurant since we started, without compromising on creativity or our pursuit for innovation.
The fact that we have achieved international recognition without changing our location is also something that separates us from other restaurants. We all come from a modest village in Girona. In this sense, we’re faithful to our roots and to the people we have known all our lives. We were born here and we’ve also fulfilled our dream in this place. We have received offers to relocate to the world’s biggest cities, but we are not interested in that.
How has your cuisine changed in the past few years?
I feel it has settled during these years. All the success and recognition have influenced it too, in a way. Thanks to this, the whole team made a six-week trip around the world, which enriched us a lot. We got to visit South America, Hong Kong, Istanbul and many other places, which was an amazing experience. I would say it changed the way we cook and the way we approach food. We learned a lot of different techniques from that trip.
Where do you still draw inspiration for new creations?
Well, we can find inspiration in many things, but that inspiration needs to go through a reflection process where we can talk about it and discuss ideas. We always focus on traditional Catalan gastronomy as you know, so we get inspiration from sightseeing, memories – or the world of wine, especially because Josep is our sommelier. He’s one of the best out there.
Perfumes inspire us to make new desserts as well as chromatism and old books. We love storytelling in our dishes too and we want people experiencing them with all their senses.
Despite coming from autonomous regions, there seems to be a strong sense of camaraderie amongst you, and with Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran Adrià in particular.
Yes, of course. We have known each other for more than 30 years and we started in this almost at the same time. We share a way of living, friendships and a love of food. Juan Mari brought modernity to the Spanish cuisine and it was the nouvelle cuisine that showed us the way. Then Ferran started a revolution and let us know that cuisine meant freedom and a way of expressing yourself, and not necessarily following each recipe to the letter or playing by the rules.
Tell us about your exhibition at Palau Robert in Barcelona.
Yes, it’s an amazing exhibition and it will be open until 23rd April. El Celler de Can Roca is 30 years old now, so this exhibition shows you what it is and where it comes from. We try to present every detail of this evolution as well as how creativity is born, and our sources of inspiration. To be honest, it’s been a success, with around one thousand people visiting every day.
30 years is a long time, what were the highlights?
I would say recognition has been the best of it. These last years have been amazing, and taking part in the 50 Best list has been a great honour for all of us. I feel that we help our city through our success too, because that attracts more people and clients to our suppliers and to other restaurants that are around, too. We are very proud of the city we live in, and we’re delighted to be able to help its economy through the attention we receive.
You know that in boy bands you have the bad boy, the funny one, the innocent one. How would you describe yourself, Josep and Jordi with an adjective each?
There is a noticeable age difference between Jordi and the two of us, so that establishes a contrast in the first place. It also enriches us, because we come from two separate generations. If I had to use an adjective though, I’d say Jordi is the boldest one. Josep is more poetic, the philosopher – he translates the intangible with words and knows how to communicate. Then I’m the pragmatic one, the catalyst. We complement each other very well and I think having a great team by your side is really important, even more than having knowledge. A balanced team is essential to build a story like ours.
At the Parabere Forum you talked about redefining sustainability. How do you plan to do that?
At the Forum, we basically explained what we were doing at that moment and the projects we were handling. We now feel that as our restaurant has more visibility, we need to be more responsible, too. We manage several projects where, among other things, we re-use pieces of glass or employ people who are at risk of social exclusion.
Parabene defends women’s rights, too, and that’s something we definitely stand for. We value people with talent and we don’t discriminate anyone based on their sex. That’s why we’re implementing measures within the restaurant and offer schedule flexibility to the female staff who have just had a babies. We’re even planning to create a childcare service.
That’s a great idea, a restaurant like yours with a childcare service. Do you currently have female chefs in your restaurant?
Actually, we do. We have six chef de parties, one maître and one sommelier. They are very talented women.
It’s a family restaurant too at the end of the day. Do you think one day there will be a woman as the chef de cuisine?
Yes, why not? I’m sure there are female chiefs of section with the possibility of being promoted to that role. We experience a lot of mobility here. In culinary schools there are more females every year, too. Besides, I’m convinced these conditions will change with time. We just need more people with innovative ideas.
We’ve just had Dan Barber in London for five weeks with WastED, a pop-up on food waste. What’s your take on using produce that would otherwise be wasted?
I think that’s a very good idea, and the influence this may have on people is the most important thing.
How healthy is the food at El Celler de Can Roca?
The food you will find here is very healthy. We believe in a dish that’s digestible so we concentrate on flavour but keep it light in terms of food density, without adding too much fat. That way the client feels satisfied but without the sensation of heaviness. We also use a lot of vegetables, broths and legumes in our menus.
What are you experimenting with at present?
We’re working with distillations now, from herbs and fruit. We’re experimenting with fermentations with a botanist, too, and essential oils have become an important part of our creations. We use alchemy to create them and we mix them with savoury and sweet dishes as well. An example of this is a dessert we made with goat’s milk, where we incorporated a wool smell with the essential oil.
All the international attention towards El Celler de Can Roca must create a lot of pressure. How hard is it to reconcile work and personal life for you and your team?
Well, with lots of imagination and generosity. This is a way of living. It’s true though that being born here gives you a sense of normality, too. We go to my parents’ house everyday to have lunch and we get to balance our family and work life very well. For me, both are united really.
The World’s 50 Best ceremony is coming to Melbourne next Wednesday. Have you ever been to Australia?
Yes, I have. I’ve visited Perth in the past and I believe Australia is a great place to return to and explore. We are going to be there for a short period of time though, around three days so I won’t enjoy it much, but I have some restaurants that I would love to go in the future like Quay, Attica and Sepia.
El Celler de Can Roca has been either number one or two for six years in a row. On the list, you are the main representative of Spain. Do you feel the pressure and what are your expectations?
I don’t really know; it would be a beautiful thing to be there a third time. You know, we are three, we’ve won three Michelin Stars, and Jordi is the only one who has not given an acceptance speech yet. It’s difficult to predict the result though. Lots of people from all over the world are voting there. Whatever happens, El Celler is in a wonderful moment right now. We are really enjoying its success. But obviously we want to see our friends and just have a good time; this is not a competition for us.
Last year you were named chef’s choice for the 50 Best. That must have been a great honour.
I felt very grateful for that recognition. It’s very important for a chef to know that your colleagues appreciate your work like that. It was a wonderful moment.
Who are you going to cheer for on Wednesday apart from yourself and your brothers?
El Celler de Can Roca, of course (laughs). Honestly, any restaurant in the first 20 positions has a chance to win. They are all amazing places to eat. But, as I told you before there’s no real rivalry among us, we are all friends and we truly believe any of us could be number one, because we all employ creativity and innovation as our main tools in the kitchen. On the other hand, it’s very hard to be objective since every restaurant has its own distinctive style, and they cannot be easily compared.