Taking things one step beyond with Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca
In the past six years, El Celler de Can Roca, located in Girona, Spain, has been one of the top three of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants– including #1 – and were named the #2 restaurant for 2018. Led by brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, each with his own expertise – chef, sommelier and pastry chef. Known for their incredible hospitality, they are as committed as much to their local community as they are to social consciousness throughout the world related to food. Aspire Lifestyles Director of Dining, Ann Hill, spoke with Joan Roca about growing up in the family business, current projects and always taking it one step beyond.
Aspire Lifestyles: Each of you Roca Brothers has a specialty at the restaurant – chef, sommelier and pastry chef. As you’re all trained chefs, do you ever cross function outside of regular pairing collaboration or do you each stay in your own roles?
Roca Brothers: Yes, we are three brothers that come from three different complimentary gastronomic disciplines, and we are very lucky for that, because together we can bring a total experience to the table.
It’s a three-party game collaboration. I’m the cook, a kind of architect for the experience. Josep is the sommelier and also takes care of the emotional dance in the dining room, and Jordi, the pastry chef, comes at the end to surprise and refresh the guest when they think that everything has ended… but it has definitely not. In the creative process, each of us adds his own vision at every step. The difficult part is that we take a lot of time to make a decision. The good thing is that we make good ones.
Aspire Lifestyles: You’ve done great things with philanthropy and culinary awareness. Having achieved the #1 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, was there any trepidation about ‘what’s next’ after winning? Although you’ve been in the top 5 for many years, once you achieved the #1 position did it inspire new goals that you may not have set if you hadn’t otherwise reached #1?
Roca Brothers: We never stopped to think about this… We have achieved our present position by committing to hard work, creativity, to our roots, and to authenticity. Success has knocked at our door luckily, but we have followed no other strategy other than our first commitments to get to that point, and that’s what we have kept doing ever since.
Living cuisine as a way of living has also been important. I wake up and I’m a chef, I go to sleep and I’m a chef, and it has been this way since I can remember.
The effect of success is positive in all aspects if you know how to manage its emotional impact on your team. The most important thing is to keep feet firmly grounded on the floor.
Aspire Lifestyles: Speaking of philanthropy, you’re involved with the United Nations and other projects on a local and global level. Please tell us more. Did you enjoy cooking in Los Angeles? (My home town!)
Roca Brothers: We are involved locally first, within our working-class neighborhood, both in social projects as well as in programs for the integration of immigrants and the elderly population. This is something we have been doing since our very beginnings, as our mother did, giving food through the back door of her cuisine to the people that couldn’t afford the simple bar menu at her place. The international focus brought by our restaurant acknowledgments also brought the opportunity to take this responsibility further, which is how we had the chance to collaborate with UN on a project in Kaduna, Africa. We are working in field to find solutions to convert a huge tomato waste rate into an incoming source by trade and conservation. The project is called Food Africa and has joined the Chefs For Change project that will be developed by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants official partnering NGO Farm Africa. This is a very interesting initiative we are collaborating with that adds to the deep conscience on social food matters from chefs across the globe. At the same time, we have been called to raise awareness and collaborate with different solidarity campaigns, as for instance last’s years Elton John’s Aids Foundation dinner gala, held on Oscar’s night.
Aspire Lifestyles: What progress have you seen over the span of your career so far, what would you like to see happen and how are you becoming part of that evolution?
Roca Brothers: We have lived several good moments in all these years, and I’d like to think that the most important one is still to come. I’ve been cooking only for 35 years, there’s still much more to do!
Aspire Lifestyles: What is the most important value in cooking that you teach and stress to your kitchen team?
Roca Brothers: They must enjoy cooking, search for their happiness in cooking rather than success. This is not just a philosophical issue, they will spend lots of their time in a kitchen; they need to love it. A dish should be cooked and served with love, and by this I mean love for cooking, love for being a chef, love for the ingredients in your hands, love for your natural environment that gives you those ingredients, love for the people that are going to eat what you cook, and love for the team you are cooking with. Then, it must be eaten with love.
I also would tell them, not to be obsessed neither with recognition, nor with innovation, which is sometimes a by-product. And also that cutting-edge techniques must be used to enhance taste and flavors, not instead of or above of or as an egoistic exhibition of knowledge.
Aspire Lifestyles: What has been your most memorable food destination (city/country)? Why?
Roca Brothers: Only one? This is hard to decide. I have enjoyed so many, but not as many as I would like because I don’t have as much free time to travel. I have enjoyed both the street food and fine dining experiences that I keep in my memory in Mexico, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, Peru, Turkey… to mention a few. From those experiences, I just can say the world is a fantastic food destination full of surprises to unveil and discover, and you will never come to taste them all, that is what keeps our palates learning and traveling, that’s the fire of culinary knowledge.
Aspire Lifestyles: What is your thought on bloggers and diners on social media vs. established restaurant critics?
Roca Brothers: We are witnessing a democratization of food opinion, from professional food critic ruled scenario to an open source of opinions. Guests have the right to describe their experiences, and this is not bad, but a chance to push excellence and a sign that gastronomy is not just restricted to a specific group of aficionados but to the general audience. It’s a good sign. For sure, the experts will keep following the professional advice rather than the public ones. But everybody is welcome to love gastronomy and food, and to express that love on the social media.
Aspire Lifestyles: What has been the most interesting ingredient, technique or dish that you have experienced while traveling that has inspired your cooking?
Roca Brothers: Many, lots…. I would not be fair to state just one or a few. After 30 years in our restaurant project, I’m aware that luckily I still have much more to discover around the world, as the new cooking techniques we learned in our last tour trip in Hong Kong, or the new seafood species we found in Chile. It’s wonderful to keep being surprised. We also found very interesting Korean fermentation techniques or Argentinean wood barbecue cooking, we adopted both at the restaurant and apply them to our local meats and vegetables with very interesting results.
Aspire Lifestyles: Which musician or band would you like to cook for in a casual, private setting to chat, eat and maybe hear some of their music?
Roca Brothers: A local rock group, Sopa de Cabra, whose singer, Gerard Quintana, is a very good friend of mine since school time.
Aspire Lifestyles: Do non-chef family and friends ever invite you to their home for dinner and cook for the three of you?
Roca Brothers: Ha, ha, ha… they usually expect me to cook, and I love to do so. Even more in spring to summertime, on a small rock beach in Costa Brava, cooking a rice on the beach, altogether by the fire, in front of the sea.
Aspire Lifestyles: Which restaurant, hotel, person or place has most inspired your sense of hospitality?
Roca Brothers: My parents, for sure. I grew up with my brothers at their restaurant bar, Can Roca, literally. They lived, and still live, on the top floor of their business, so when we were kids we spent all the time after school amongst my mother’s kitchen and their restaurant bar dining room, playing amongst the customers. There, I understood that cooking and serving were about making people happy, about caring, and I realize that my parents were happy in doing so, that it was a way to live.
Aspire Lifestyles: People come to your restaurant for special occasions that become life moments. For you, it’s your day to day job description. What constitues a really great day at work for you and can you tell us about any that stand out?
Roca Brothers: That’s a very beautiful way to see it… yes, that’s our goal, to remain in our guest’s memories knowing that edible substance is going to be ephemeral. We are lucky because this happens every day and the guests share it with us. That feeling makes the day worth all the effort, even more, if those guests are chef colleagues.
Aspire Lifestyles: One evening you get to take 5 chefs (present or past) to dinner at any restaurant in the world. Which chefs do you bring along with you and where do you take them (aside from your own restaurant)? Why those chefs and why that restaurant?
Roca Brothers: I would invite those 5 chefs to a special performance of El Somni, the multisensory gastronomic opera feast performed in Barcelona with my brothers for only 12 people as an once-in-a-lifetime experience in 2013. Ferran Adrià was already one of the twelve, and he was very touched because it was just one day before his birthday. So if we could not make a table of 6, I would invite Joël Robuchon, Françoise Vatel, Marie-Antoine Carême, August Escoffier, and Freddy Girardet.
Aspire Lifestyles: How has your placement on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list changed your lives?
Roca Brothers: What has really changed is the management of the bookings and media requests. We have been pleased with receiving an increased amount of them. It also has had a fantastic impact on our surrounding area’s economy, being a boost as a gastronomic and travel destination. It has allowed our local producers and excellent local ingredients to be shown and our wonderful geography to be placed on the global map. The wonderful chefs and cooks of the area and their small restaurants receive more visits because of this welcomed foodie tourism. Meanwhile, indoors, we have kept faithful to our commitment to creativity and excellence, investing in research and development. We created La Masia (I+R), our research, training, multi-disciplinary exchange and creativity center, right in front our restaurant. The motto always is to take one step beyond.