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I stood and shook Monsterrat Fontané’s soft hand with my sweaty, shaking palm. I’d waiting just five minutes in the small bar for her, ready to speak before she started her day in command of the family restaurant she opened with her husband nearly 50-years-ago. She’s only a small woman, but her face, eyes, her sparkle - her soft and gentle way - it all adds up. When she speaks, you listen. Laughs, you laugh. When she smiles, and she smiles a lot, you also smile. Hoping, even wishing, that she might give you the smallest cuddle.
When she’s angry? I have no idea what happens, I imagine people hide, but I had arrived in Girona with no intention of making her angry, the last thing I wanted to do was upset the brothers.
Her sons Joan, Josep and Jordi, aka The Roca Brothers, owners of The World’s Best Restaurant, were a little reluctant when I first asked to interview their mum. It took a lot of messages, mails and some solid explanation as to my exact intentions before I was granted any face time with the much loved Mama Roca.
At 77, she’s sharp and charismatic. Speaking softly as soon as the recorder is on.“After the war I had to work hard”, she recounts, “we worked a lot - I used to live in a farm outside so every Saturday I took a bus to come to Girona and work.”
After a three year job inside a hotel, a man named Josep Roca noticed Monsterrat had left the local village and came to look for her. One of her three sisters told her she should take his hand and they married in 1962. They opened the Can Roca restaurant together, with Monsterrat as cook, in Girona, Spain, in 1967 and had their first child, Joan Roca (chef de cuisine), in 1964. Josep (Sommelier) quickly followed two years later with Jordi (pastry chef) arriving in 1978.
“Joan was a role model child. He was good at school and would start helping at the restaurant when he returned to the family home in the afternoons. He'd have his lunch, assist the customers by his own initiative and give a hand with making home-made butifarra (a Catalan sausage). We made him a small chef’s jacket when he was only 12-years-old, Joan knew for sure that he wanted to be a cook. I knew he would become a great cook, but the word Chef was not in my dictionary back then.
“While Joan was a quiet and responsible kid, Josep was restless and uneasy to help with family tasks. He only wanted to play football besides school. He is the one that has changed the most through the years…I can't believe what he was and who he has become.”
It’s actually surprising to hear that before Joan and Josep started to study at culinary school, and eventually work together, they often used to fight. She laughs while explaining that it was always Josep who started it. “Joan and Josep were greatly different…I could never imagine they would work together…they would usually start fighting around the kitchen, playing with a siphon of carbonated water or throwing flour at each other. Josep wanted to be outdoors all the time while Joan enjoyed his free time playing with miniatures.” She was even a bit afraid that Joan was too shy, explaining that she wished for him to go outside and know the world instead of playing with toys, but when he eventually did, she says “he never stopped.”
Jordi’s arrival when Joan and Jordi were both entering their teens worked to further cement the brother’s friendship. They were extremely happy to welcome their new baby brother into the world. Monsterrat’s eyes are literary popping when she tells the story of how a young Joan and Josep gathered a huge group of friends and marched them all down from their school to the hospital to see their new baby brother as soon as he was born. “It was a very special time for all the family but specially for both of them, it brought them great joy.”
After years of study and a number of special culinary merits for Joan, who Monsterrat jokes had become somewhat of a lady’s man, the two brothers eventually joined forces and opened their own restaurant. Called El Celler De Can Roca, it's five minutes from the family restaurant, and opened it’s doors in 1986. Joan managing the kitchen and Josep in charge of the dining room, all while a young Jordi fought with school.
“Jordi went to the same school as his older brothers, but he didn't like it at all. He preferred to be at home or at the restaurant where he would be pampered both by us and the customers. It was a difficult deal to make him stay for lunch at school, but he finally agreed. Now I see Jordi as the one in who seeks innovation constantly, maybe because as a child his top hobbie was watching the tv, while Joan was helping us and Josep enjoyed playing outdoors.”
Jordi eventually completed the famous trio in 1998 and the rest, as they say, is history - or in this case, years of innovation, research, hard work, dish after dish, season after season, and the amassing of one of the world’s most famous wine cellars.
“When I had Joan and Josep - I just wanted to have my own restaurant so that I could give something to my children. So they didn’t have to live the life I lived, looking for a job and working for others.”
Monsterrat may have intended to offer her children a simple job in a simple restaurant but little did she know she was actually planting the seed for what would eventually become a place classed as the world’s best. A restaurant that, after the announcement of their win in April 2013, had to employ extra staff when food lovers from around the world bombarded their telephone lines for reservations.
She’s still shocked, “Josep called me to tell me they were going to be announced as the 1st restaurant on the Word’s 50 Best Restaurants List and I felt so much excitement.”
Video: The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2013, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna
She admits that the way the brothers cook is a world away from her traditional approach but she’s just happy, like any mum would be, that they’re working together. She’s also happy that some of her dishes have worked to inspire their avant-garde cuisine. “I know since Joan left Cooking School that I was a big influence to him and his way to see cooking, but he needed to innovate and take it further”, her eyes crease and the smile lines show around her face, there’s a look in her eye as she says the next part, still smiling: “some of his plates are versions of my top rated plates at Can Roca which they make more sophisticated: Lobster parmentier for example, which is one of my favourite plates from them.”
And with that sentence she describes the magical evolution of Can Roca, a family owned place that’s grown with each addition. Slowly, over time, rising to the top of the gastronomic ladder. Like any mum, Monsterrat still worries: “reaching the top means the peak and from there you can only go down”, but her main concern is clear, and it’s not about awards,”now I hardly get to see them all sitting at the Sunday lunch table.”
Whatever the result on April 28th 2014, if the brothers retain their title or move down the rankings, their mum just wants to see them carry on working together, fuelling a family restaurant that’s constantly growing: “I wish the family tradition will continue after my generation; I hope for my grandchildren to endure this work.” A sentiment surely shared by gastronomes around the globe.
I did eventually get that cuddle and it was as warm, fuzzy and memorable as any dish I've tasted.