The Roca brothers have been at the forefront of high gastronomy for over three decades, ever since chef Joan and sommelier Josep opened their restaurant El Celler De Can Roca, next to their parents bar in Girona. Their younger brother, Jordi, would join them on pastry later and together the three brothers have crafted one of the most exquisite and sought after dining experiences (the waiting list often stretches to a year) on the planet. Twice named World’s Best Restaurant at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca has held three Michelin stars since 2009.
It’s a restaurant that’s constantly evolving. Right now, Joan tells us, he and his kitchen team are studying sous vide broths, playing with fermentation, exploring ancestral cooking techniques and working on brewed drinks and liquors using local wild herbs, flowers and fruit. Meanwhile, over on pastry, Jordi Roca is working on “a new way to present and serve chocolate in our dining room, a new and spectacular dessert chariot,” he teases.
However, it’s also a restaurant that isn’t afraid to refer to or celebrate its past. Here, Joan and Jordi Roca tell us about the dishes that have meant the most to them over the years – their own inspirational dishes.
All images: El Celler de Can Roca (click on the images to enlarge).
Pig Trotter Carpaccio (1989)
In 1989, Joan Roca took a traditional Catalan dish of hot, stewed pigs trotter, served whole, and reinterpreted it, inspired by the fashion for carpaccio at the time. “It was the first dish that really satisfied,” he says. “I wanted to cook them as a ‘capipota’ – sliced, as a lukewarm cold meat piece, to be eaten in a new way. I deboned the trotters while hot and then I rolled them with cling film to mold them as a cylinder, then cooled them down, and chopped the roll into very thin slices. Then I seasoned the carpaccio with ceps’ oil, in which I had previously confit some Santa Pau white beans. The toasted pine nuts and the chive brought colour to the jelly layer.” The dish has now reached the menus of many Catalan restaurants, evidence, Roca says, of how modern cuisine inspired by the traditional can come full circle.
A Trip to Havana (2001)
For Joan and Josep Roca, A Trip to Havana is the moment they realised Jordi had finally found his way as a dessert creator. “I began to get deeply involved in ice cream making techniques under the wing of the Sicilian Angelo Corvitto,” says Jordi. “One of the rules the master continuously repeated to me was that the work atmosphere needed to be kept completely pure. And that’s absolutely true. An ice cream is an emulsion in which air is a very important ingredient. An ice cream is a sponge for scents. This golden rule is what sparked my imagination. What would happen if I added smoke on purpose?” With the help of his father, Jordi created a water pump that drew smoke from a cigar directly into the ice cream maker. The ice cream was then presented in a cylinder of dark chocolate, to create a ‘cigar,’ and served with a 'mojito.'
“It all began with the arrival of the bergamot, the absolute essence of El Celler,” says Jordi Roca. “We were captivated by its noble scent and thick and aromatic zest. We wanted to make aroma edible.” They looked to perfume: to decipher the notes and put it on a plate, something Jordi says was “unprecedented in gastronomy” at the time. Eternity by Calvin Klein was the perfect start, with its aromatic notes of bergamot, basil, tangerine, and vanilla, orange. “We were seized by the idea,” says Jordi, “the ability of the chef to translate a language as powerful as that of perfume into another, equally powerful language, a language in which aromas combine with the edible.”
"The idea came to me one day when my brothers were talking about an avocado dish – making an exhaustive analysis of the reasons behind it. I said to myself: ‘Why don’t we do something to prove that we do not always give a concrete sense to a dish?’” says Jordi Roca. Anarchy was the result, a dish of some 40-plus elements, with no fixed presentation, where the ingredients change day-to-day, month-to-month, depending on what’s available. “Each spoonful of it becomes a different dessert,” says Roca. “It’s very complex and laborious, a haphazard palette with tens of different components that the guest and chance combine without rules, a chaos-generating new organoleptic and personal experience. Everything can work, and at least tentatively, everything is possible.”
The photo at the top of this page is 'Chocolate Anarchy.'
Oyster and distilled soil (2006)
"Everybody has tasted, accidentally or not, the taste of soil in childhood,” says Joan Roca, “whether they fell on the ground while playing, or put their fingers in their mouths after playing in a park. Sometimes the connection comes with the memory of wet soil after rain.” To evoke this nostalgia he set about distilling soil in a Rotaval at a low temperature (around 50ºC) to extract aromas in a clear liquid. The dish, Oyster and distilled oil, is also a reflection of local gastronomic tradition, Roca says, by mixing land and sea: a kind of surf ’n’ turf, done like never before. “To eat soil without the feel of soil, but with the emotional shock of a familiar aroma with a fluid and clear appearance was astonishing,” reflects Roca now.
Amontillado steamed oyster (2010)
Joan Roca describes this 2010 dish, which, like the restaurant, had wine at its heart, as being a convergence of the brothers’ three way creative process. “By 2010 we had developed ‘perfume cooking’ with wine, both in the kitchen, through cooking from the volatile elements of wine, and in the dining room, by cooking in front of the diner,” he says. For the dish, incandescent rocks were placed at the bottom of a porcelain bowl over which Amontillado sherry was poured. The steam of the wine cooked the oyster, or sometimes langoustine, with the aromas penetrating the flesh, while the guest enjoyed the scent of the sherry steam, “a comforting and very special scent with nuances of orange peel, toasted hazelnuts, caramel, and raisins,” says Roca. While this element of the dish represented Joan’s cuisine, another element, an oyster velouté, “paid tribute to Josep's liquid universe,” while a third, Jordi’s Amontillado reduction caramel served on a small spoon, “completed the symbolism of the creative triangle.”
Joan Roca describes El Somni, he and his brothers’ 2013 gastro-opera in 12-courses, as “the most thrilling creative challenge we ever dreamt about.” They engaged 50 artists and cultural figures from different disciplines for the project, including scientist Harold McGee and painter Miquel Barceló, in order “to take sensoriality to its limits. This ‘Mandala’ of flowers is a dish inspired by Hindu opera director Zubin Mehta and represents “a flavour combination built up in harmony, so as to connect and go on weaving different textures, flavours, and aromas in a universal pattern that reminds us of the force and beauty of humanity in harmony and connection,” according to Roca.