Some people revel and dream about meeting their favorite Hollywood actor or their number one sports hero let alone a Grammy winning band. Mine was meeting and hearing the words of wisdom from the legend himself…being face to face with one of my culinary sources of inspiration – Joan Roca!!
Joan Roca, chef of the famed restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, is considered to be one of the best chefs in the world, with three Michelin stars and countless other awards under his belt including having his restaurant be chosen as the World’s Top Restaurant in 2013 by Restaurant Magazine.
Thanks to The Wine and Food Festival, I was about to hear Joan talk about his culinary vision and the work that him and his brothers do – What a marvel it was being in the presence of this culinary icon who remains humble sharing his spot at the ‘pinnacle of culinary success’ with his younger brothers at their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.
Brothers Joan and Josep opened El Celler de Can Roca in 1986 alongside their parents’ simple restaurant in a working class suburb of Girona. In 2007 they relocated to the current premises up the road. By then Joan, a hugely accomplished chef, and wine aficionado Josep had been joined by their much younger sibling Jordi, who was forging his own stellar career as a pastry chef. The combination has proved to be a gastronomic holy trinity! The union of the three brothers, each a master of his art (executive chef, pastry chef, front of house and sommelier), would underpin El Celler’s future success.
Right from the start of the press conference, there was already a huge buzz – the anticipation of Joan’s presence to the stage. In stellar form, as Joan was introduced the press audience (myself included) cheered as he took the podium. Such presence his stature commanded – not in an egotistical manner but one out of respect. It’s only fair to mention that I was feverishly writing these notes as I listened to the translator through my overtly 80’s style sized headphones all the while being hypnotized by Roca’s presence. I had to focus on the task at hand and plug at it.
Joan didn’t waste any time talking about what matters the most to him – family and food and how they are intertwined, especially since even to this day Joan makes it a point to have breakfast, lunch and dinner almost everyday at his parents house. Which funny and sweet enough is located a couple hundred metres from the brother’s existing famed restaurant. Joan emphasized that “culinary arts around the world are all interconnected”. That modern cooking must have roots, be able to perceive where you are cooking, that it has to be fun and more importantly that it has to nourish your creativity.
Being asked what was one of the ‘perks’ of being the best in the world, Joan smiled and with that – a huge roar of applause overtook the room! Once the room was silent, Joan explained that he has seen a new order of cooks. Joan mentioned that we (society), are so used to using the Michelin rating for evaluating chefs, however; in the last 10 years he has seen a change. A change where there are more and more rankings that the public wants to see and see very quickly.
From a 3 Michelin star chef, he said that these rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt. “What matters most is that our customers leave happy and want to come back, regardless of whether the restaurant is number one, two, three or fifty, or whether we have three stars or two. We need to take responsibility and apply an ethical code, an awareness with your surrounding as it provides awareness to that region. By doing so, farmers and small producers and everything else that brings value to that area will then be recognized”.
Having brothers who are masters in their own respected field, has led the Roca brothers to fulfill their goal and make their dreams come true by having a creativity centre at the front of their restaurant.
While local products are essential at El Celler de Can Roca, the brothers also finds it important to travel for inspiration, getting techniques from different cultures and bringing those techniques back to use with their local ingredients.
The Roca brothers are not foreign to using and developing their own kitchen gadgets and tools to perfect their skills and bring food to another level. Listed below are some of the techniques that the Roca brothers have utilized in their restaurant:
- Joan is known in the culinary world of being the godfather to sous-vide cooking (a method of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a water bath. The intent is to cook the item evenly, ensuring that the inside is properly cooked without overcooking the outside, and retain moisture).
- “The brothers with the help of a class mate developed the roner, which allows you to control water in order to cook with the utmost precision. They started to use the immediate cooking technique, which is instant vacuum cooking, i.e. during the service. Vacuum had only been used previously for pre‑cooking or for preservation; times are now longer and cooking temperatures diminish. The first course Cod with spinach, raisins and pine kernels dates from 1997.”
- “A new technique represented by Dublin Bay prawns with curry smoke: perfume cooking, consisting of setting the volatile aromas of the spices being roasted in the product during cooking.”
- “They began to use a technique used solely for decorative purposes: blown sugar applied to immediate cooking. Caramelised apricot is an example of when cooking becomes an art of simulations, insinuations, appearances.”
- “The inclusion of distillates in cooking. Volatile aromas were captured by means of low temperature distillation, with this the Rotaval was created. This technique gave rise to a first course that was to become an El Celler flagship: Oyster with earth distillate.”
- “Wine cooking in the dining room. This involved the search for immediate cooking through wines that become vapour in front of the diner, cooking and scenting the product with volatile aromas.Steamed oysters in Manzanilla.”
Joan discussed how his kitchen is dedicated to alchemy, herbology, distillation and fermentation. He also mentioned that there was significant research done at the restaurant for discovering the right cooking techniques to evoke moods…something I have never heard of before.
Everything that they serve is meant to touch on one or more of the following: tradition, memory, academia, product, landscape, wine, sweet, chromatism, transversal creation, perfume, freedom, innovation, poetry, boldness, magic, sense of humor. At the core, they seem to focus on a combination of product (“We are lucky to come from a region that has produce of a high quality, and we have a very deep and rooted gastronomic tradition in our region,” said Roca); innovation (using interesting gadgets and technology, some of which they invent themselves); and both memory and tradition (seeking inspiration from traditional Catalan cuisine and from their parents and childhood).
For a restaurant that is revered as one of the best, it has unfortunately (but understandably) an 11 month waiting list for reservations. I for one feel that it would be a privileged honor to have dinner at this remarkable establishment and see for myself the creative forces at work and their masterpieces that will no doubt evoke emotions as I consume them.
I will leave you with a quote that Joan said in reference to his style of cooking and how emotions will play an important role that left me thinking about this creative genius…”Awaken the innocence of memories without forgetting the past.”