Joan Roca: Evolution, Diversity, and Authenticity in the Modern Kitchen

A version of this story was published in The Daily Meal.

Joan Roca of The Famed El Celler De Can Roca Shares His Vision of the Future

by Geeta Bansal

Chef Joan Roca laughed out loud when I asked him if he is going to retire at some point. According to him, he is enjoying the best time in his professional career and has never entertained the idea of retirement though his wife Ana he says might have some hopes in that direction. He says this work ethic is in his DNA since his parents are in their eighties and still working. Anyway, his commute to work can never be the reason since he lives right above the restaurant, his windows overlooking the picturesque patio garden of El Celler de Can Roca. He credits that proximity for the recent interest in the family business by his teenage son Marc and his brother Josep’s son Marti, while hoping that their own youngest brother Jordi would soon add to the clan. The next generation of Roca’s accompanied the three brothers on their last world tour and chef Roca believes that the adulation showered on their fathers by fans on the trip may have something to do with that interest.

El Celler de Can Roca

Chef Joan Roca Fontaine and his brothers, Josep (an internationally-recognized sommelier) and Jordi (one of the top pastry chefs in the world), are the force behind the avant-garde El Celler De Can Roca, which has come to represent the best of modern Spanish cuisine. The original restaurant opened in 1986 next to their parent’s bar on the outskirts of Girona and moved to its present location, as per chef Michel Troisgros’ son Cesar Troisgros who was interning there at the time, all in one afternoon between lunch and dinner service in 2007. Can Sunyer, originally a country house was remodeled with a modernistic aesthetic to accommodate the expansive kitchens, dining rooms and gardens of the restaurant.

The Family Residence
The Family Residence

The three Roca brothers studied at the Girona Culinary school and Joan the head chef worked and traveled with Spanish chef’s such as Ferran Adria and Santamaria but always stayed close to the family and his hometown of Girona. The exemplary hospitality at the three Michelin starred restaurant has its roots in this close-knit family culture exemplified by the symbolic ‘R’ in the name with its three shoots representing each of the three brothers. The restaurant has been a family operation since its inception and Joan says the creative processes at the restaurant are the result of the three minds working together in harmony. The triumvirate is also reflected in the triangular glass walled dining room and the three-sided enclosed garden in the middle of the space which at first glance appears to be an art installation with fallen leaves on the ground. On their recent menu, a cut out of the three in their childhood home is a backdrop to one of the courses, giving guests a peek into the family history. The course served “Memories of a Bar in the Suburbs of Girona” (their parents bar) included breaded squid, kidneys with sherry, Pigeon bobon, salt cod with spinach and a Campari bonbon a few months ago.

Enclosed Garden in the Dining Room
Enclosed Garden in the Dining Room

The brother’s annual travels and explorations are shared with their diners in the tasting menu as “The World” presented at the table in the signature black/gray Japanese paper lanterns that open to reveal five tastes from exotic locales such as Korea, Peru, Thailand, Japan and China. A Lamb course with eggplant, chickpea purée, lamb trotters and spicy tomatoes on the fall menu was inspired by the team’s time in Turkey earlier in the year. I asked about their last world tour and Joan Roca said, “It was fantastic and we visited four continents and five cities London, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Phoenix and Santiago, and Chile on this whirlwind trip. It was crazy but we will continue to embark on these adventures.”

The Lanterns
The Lanterns

This passion  represented in  the restaurants modernistic cuisine with its undertones of nostalgia and the complex techniques developed in their research kitchen constantly sets the culinary world on edge. Jordi Roca’s desserts are equally brilliant, unforgettable and my favorite “Chocolate Anarchy” from a previous visit lost out to the “Orange Colorology” a delicate blown sugar bauble filled with tastes of passion fruit, tangerine, orange and carrot gels and granita on the tasting menu on my last visit.

Lionel Messi's Jersey on the Kitchen Wall
Lionel Messi’s Jersey on the Kitchen Wall

Packing the house at every congress or food event they speak or demonstrate their culinary skills at, all the way from the San Sebastián Gastronomika to Harvard University, the brothers are a significant force in the culinary world.  The three Michelin-starred restaurant has been voted #2 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016, and was #1 in 2015. The annual shuffle of the top five of the list has also made it one of the most challenging restaurant reservations to land. They maintain an extensive research team at the restaurant and Joan Roca’s book “Sous-Vide Cuisine” is highly regarded in the culinary world.

Amuse
Amuse

He is a charming man, very grounded, serene and unfazed by his fame and fortune, a family man who goes to his parent’s restaurant for lunch, a meal cooked by his mother every day for the whole extended family that includes the 50 or so staff members. No surprise that the major influences on his cooking have been his mother Montserrat and grandmother Angeleta who he refers to as his muse. His mother’s Riz Catalan or cassola is still his favorite comfort food and he shared the recipe in his “Roots” cookbook a few years ago.

Conversing in the lounge facing the sun dappled interior courtyard was Deja vu since my first interview with a chef was with him sitting in the same spot.

With the upcoming World’s 50 Best restaurants awards in Melbourne, Australia there is much ado in the culinary circles about who will be #1 or # 2 and so on. Is this list significant or is it distracting chefs from their work?

To some extent it is a distraction and on the other hand it has become quite significant for cooks. It’s a new phenomenon in the world of cooking, a world new order and it has transformed everything. At the same time, I feel we cooks must stay distant and maintain our focus or it is quite possible to go overboard with this stuff. The first few years it’s was very different because it was all like a big party where the all the chefs had fun but these days it’s replaced by a lot of tension. I feel that now they must revert back to that beginning, by keeping that distance in order to alleviate the tension. We should treat it like a big party that we all go to have a drink or two together and relax.

Has it shifted the chef’s focus from their cuisine?

Yes, it has and has turned the work into a big show or entertainment. It’s true that it’s been very fortunate for us and we are thankful for all the success being on the 50 Best has brought us. Now no one knows how they choose the restaurants. One interesting thing is that the Michelin Guide stars are there to stay but the 50 Best List changes every year. In some ways it’s unfair because it places everyone from one to fifty. I do remember the first time we were #1 and I was very thankful and Josep was the happiest.

Olive Bonsai Trees
Olive Bonsai Trees

Are the chefs making the list important or is it the other way around?

Oof! That is a great question and I have to think about this one. The list is very subjective and places chef’s in an order that might not be very fair to everyone. It’s crazy but in the end the list is more important I feel than the chef’s themselves. Due to this list now everyone knows everyone else in the food industry around the world and the work they are doing. The list provides great press for chef’s and restaurants but for the general public the list is like a recommendation. As for the chef’s it’s not totally fair across the board.

Is the press representing and reporting on the industry in a responsible manner or they are working on pre-conceived ideas of what they want to share?

Many times they project an idea or opinion that they have already and not many people like you travel around the world and are aware of what’s happening around the world. They need to learn more about the chef’s, their work and their food before putting forth their opinions.

There is an ongoing debate about the kitchens of the future. What do you think tomorrow’s kitchens will be like?

I feel that what is really changing is a conscience that is growing rapidly not only in cooks but also in society. There are two aspects to it one is in the restaurants where we will evolve towards a cuisine that will be very connected to the terroir, the roots and the culture. A kind of real and authentic restaurant will evolve which will be like a working live (living) project. This will become increasingly important all over the world in the future.

Sustainability and creative values will be very important for future kitchens and especially in these new kinds of restaurants. At this point it may seem like a farfetched dream but I am sure it’s going to happen and I myself like to dream on. It’s certainly going to change this global homogenization of cuisine and the food industry in general. The food industry will show more diversity and it’s going to break the current pattern and move towards authenticity.

When chefs take influences from different cuisine and create a new concept, are we losing the specific nuances of that cuisine? Is it a positive change?

I do agree with that but I feel the authenticity of food will not be lost over time. By my travels, I have learned that there are many chef’s around the world who have very authentic proposals, based on their environment, their own roots who represent the local point of view and the local culture. This is the way in which cuisine can break this standardization which I feel really comes from nouvelle cuisine. I can recollect visiting many restaurants in earlier days with same kind of ingredients like foie gras and telling the same story internationally.

Memories of a Bar in the Suburbs of Girona: Breaded Squid, Kidneys with Sherry, Pigeon Bonbon, Salt Cod with Spinach and Pinenuts, Campari Bonbon

The term ‘chef’ is used very loosely these days by young people regardless of whether they lead a team or are a part of one. In your opinion, what is more appropriate, “Chef” or “cook”?

I call myself a cook. The word chef has been glamorized and is seen as more fancy. Professionally the word chef is perceived to get more respect in society and I feel that is the reason it is used across the board.

Green Salad: Avocado, lime, cucumber, Chartreuse, sorrel, green shiso, tarragon, rocket, oxalis
Green Salad: Avocado, lime, cucumber, Chartreuse, sorrel, green shiso, tarragon, rocket, oxalis

Is it because chefs have become social personalities with wider influence over society, politics, lifestyle, and culture? How much has this role changed during the course of your career?

I perceive it as a positive change in spite of the downside of glamorization of the chef’s. I remember when I was young wanting to be a cook was not very well received. It required a lot of patience along with boldness and daring to be a cook. Now people are proud to be a cook or chef and socially it is more accepted and prestigious. That is a good thing because among all these young cooks there is some great talent which is going to make the industry evolve towards the local and authentic cuisine we spoke about earlier.

Red Mullet with Kombu: Prickly pear foam, sea anemone, salicornia and Katsuobushi vinegar
Red Mullet with Kombu: Prickly pear foam, sea anemone, salicornia and Katsuobushi vinegar

Does the current fast track to celebrity status lead to arrogance and a loss of humility? How do you stay so grounded with all your success?

This humility is not acquired since it’s an attitude and you cannot pretend to be humble. It’s comes from within and from your own personality and it’s not about pretending or acting to be this way. My brothers and I were brought up in this working class and very humble neighborhood. Our neighborhood had all kinds of people including immigrants from outside and helped form our perspective on life. We brothers learned everything about hospitality at our parent’s restaurant since we literally grew up there We have been able to achieve our success because of our family values. For all of us including the whole team going to eat lunch at our parent’s restaurant every day is a way of keeping our feet on the ground. This helps us maintain a healthy distance from all the trappings of success.

Oyster: Fennel sauce, black garlic, apple, seaweed, mushrooms, distilled earth and sea anemone

Is the conversation about biodynamic, sustainability, and food waste leading to changes in the industry?

It is easy to see that there is a tendency to follow the present trend but it’s not that bad because a lot of people are talking this subject seriously. As with everything there are those who are pretending to be on this track but others who are making positive change. The balance I feel tips towards the positive.

Baby squid with tempeh of “ganxet” beans

Since you travel extensively what do you visualize as the major change in restaurant operation or cooking over the next decade?

The direction is strong and leading towards a cuisine which will be that of a cook. The cooks are going to find that place where they will be in touch with the environment and things that are real and true to them. They will also be preoccupied with facing the big challenge that our planet is facing about depleting food resources. This will deeply connect cooks to their environment and that will become the focus of their attention. It is will be more than the current awareness or a romantic notion, but more an urgency. There will be a sensibility to this cause and a solidarity amongst us to combat hunger. I foresee cooks becoming involved in big campaigns and projects to deal with hunger. If you ask any cook or chef to support these issues the chefs are liable to give an affirmative response even before learning the details. It is in the DNA of chef’s to be sensitive and stand in solidarity.

Prawn marinated with rice vinegar: Prawn’s head sauce, crispy prawn legs, seaweed veloute and phytoplankton

The kitchen is the heart of the home and a restaurant is the heart of a community. Your kitchen is acknowledged as the biggest influence in modern Spanish kitchens. Does that responsibility affect your work?

I think there are many of us in Spain and elsewhere in the same position. It’s true that it’s puts great responsibility on us and so we take decisions after very careful consideration. That is why we work in a considered and ethical manner and in responding a lot of things and projects we are requested to do on a daily basis. It is critical for us with our position of responsibility to the industry. So even if we are offered a lot of money for a project that does not fall within our ethical code we tend to turn it down. Our work is not about or for the money. It’s our personal attitude and how we view life and not just because of this sense of responsibility. It’s an ongoing conflict against our own personal values.

Red skate confit with juice of charcoal-grilled pepper and rhubarb

How important are culture, core values, and family support for you in your work?

It’s not just culture but also knowledge, human nature, passion and common sense. You have to know your limits about what is possible or not in restaurants as well as in the kitchen. Everyone has the capacity to develop their own project as a commitment to their society. It is a life’s work and that to me means the concept of life’s project restaurants that I envision in the future.

Iberian suckling pig with salad of green papaya, thai grapefruit, apple, coriander, chili pepper, lime and cashew
Iberian suckling pig with salad of green papaya, thai grapefruit, apple, coriander, chili pepper, lime and cashew

Guests at your restaurant come to enjoy a special experience and socialize, not to satisfy their hunger. How can cooks at exclusive restaurant like yours participate in dealing with this issue?

We can do a lot to deal with the problems of people in this situation even from kitchens like ours. Cooks like us can cook for soup kitchens, homeless shelters in our local communities or with the Red Cross. David Hearth in Rio has taken a step in this direction by actually teaching people to cook and giving them a skill instead of just feeding them. For the last three years, I have joined with Action Against Hunger in their campaign in Spain. They invite restaurants to designate one dish in their restaurant from which all the monies go to support the operation. As a goodwill ambassador for the UN in Nigeria I am actively assisting in their efforts in that region. There is a large farming area where we are assisting in restoring agricultural practices and in conservation. We have joined in that project as consultants to develop a program to teach local farmers to increase their production, and in reviving old methods of grain storage and helping them market their products in order to progress economically.

Are techniques and transformation of products in the kitchen still relevant in restaurant kitchens, or do diners expect more natural and organic food?

Technique and technology are here to stay and will be more important in the future even with the shift to more organic cooking. We ourselves are moving towards organic in our kitchens but are working with modern innovation.

I actually feel that technology and modernity are not in opposition to natural and organic cooking. Technology for the sake of effect does not make sense and in our kitchens; we use it for very sensibly and for concrete reasons. As with any revolution there are negatives and it’s happened with the technological revolution in the kitchen. Our use of technology in Spanish kitchens has at times been viewed in that way since many people just use it for effect or to be cool. Cooks are putting their thoughts and ideas on plates and are always at risk of being judged.

How do you react to criticism or negative comments, and are you ever tempted to respond to them?

They certainly need to be daring and brave. I am over sixty now, but my DNA still does not allow me to be a rebel in that way by responding. My rebellion lies in forgetting any negatives that come my way. I prefer not to react because that is exactly what the person unleashing that negativity expects. I have my feet very firmly on the ground and feel that being kind and even better at your work is the way to deal with it instead of aggression.

Orange Colourology
Orange Colourology

Is the legacy at El Celler De Can Roca going to be carried forward by the next generation?

It’s hard to say what the younger generation will do in the future.

Cuban Cigar Box: Chocolate with milk, vanilla, dried plum, tobacco leaves and cocoa

Is it in the DNA?

(laughing) I don’t know but as you know we live right above the restaurant and all his life he has been around the restaurant but for fifteen years he never realized it. Last year he finally comprehended for the first time that right below his house there is a restaurant. (laughing).

I never tell my children what to do but have left the choice up to them and now he has come to work in the kitchen. My brother Joseph’s son Marti is sixteen and he came with us on the trip and is also experimenting in the kitchen. They are both still observing and taking it all in. Joseph and I both have one daughter each and we now waiting on Jordi to match us.

So, this House of Roca is going to carry on in the future?

It would be beautiful if it happens. We three brothers visualized this project for the three of us and never thought about it going forward when we started. I also feel that maybe this does not need to have continuity and we don’t dream of it continuing. It grew organically over the years as we grew ourselves. We don’t have anyone invested in this business but us and we don’t owe anyone. If we decide to close it one day we can and we don’t really expect our sons to step up and take over. Sometimes parents create something very big and need their children to step in to help but we were very practical and grew within our limits without accruing any debts. So we have the freedom to make the decision.

Dessert Cart

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