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Joan and Jordi Roca, in their kitchen
Joan and Jordi Roca, in their kitchen / C. R

In the family footsteps

  • El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, which opened in 2007, has been named the third best restaurant in the world this year

  • The Roca brothers’ restaurant has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of good food and wine

The Japanese couple had booked a table for three at El Celler de Can Roca, which was classified as the best restaurant in the world that year, but when the great day arrived, the day for which they had been waiting 11 months, only two people came. Young and elegant, they allowed themselves to be led to their table, which was laid for three, and asked the waiter to leave it like that. The woman made herself comfortable on the wooden chair, took something from her handbag and put it on the empty seat.

“It was a little teddy bear,” says Joan Roca, sounding as surprised now as he had been when this unusual event occurred. The couple asked for the teddy bear to be served the whole menu, and that’s exactly what the waiters did. No questions were asked. “Every customer is important, but we will never forget [that couple],” says Joan now.

“We don’t know why they did that, but it was very emotional, very symbolic for them for some reason,” explains his younger brother, Josep ‘Pitu’ Roca. They are quiet for a moment, and then ‘Pitu’, the sommelier of the Roca family, relieves the tension by recalling another unusual visit, which also involved a toy. On that occasion it was a doll, and was carried by an extremely well-known and select food critic.

She was given a guided tour of the kitchen, the wine cellar and the restaurant, and as she went she gave the doll a running commentary on everything she was seeing. She sat the doll on the tables, the cookers and the counters, and asked it what it thought of everything. It was like something from a Buñuel film, they say.

We are sitting with the three Roca brothers in the front garden of the house they have turned into the restaurant. It is sunny, and at the tables groups of Dutch, German and British clients are drinking champagne in large fluted glasses before going into eat. The garden is like a clearing in a leafy woodland. There is perfect tranquility.

The ‘Roca triangle’ is going on tour around Spain with BBVA this year, to export and share its science, a knowledge which more than anything else is based on an intangible wisdom, on this sense of peace, away from rush and hurry.

The younger brother, Jordi, who suffers from a neck ailment which obliges him to speak quietly, looks at everything with immense curiosity, like a mouse sniffing to make sense of the universe. He is the youngest of the three brothers, and arrived nearly a decade after Josep. “He took so long to get here, he was like the dessert course of the meal,” their mother, Montserrat, jokes.

It was Montserrat who started the very first restaurant, and Joan was set to work as soon as he was old enough, helping her with the paella when he was just nine years old. In many ways, these brothers still resemble those children who used to lend a hand at Can Roca.

‘Pitu’, now an expert sommelier, used to fill the bottles with wine and enjoyed the forbidden pleasure of taking a sip of the Ponche Caballero and discovering the bitter taste of the Cynar liqueur. The two boys loved to feast on the calamares in batter made with flour and soda water, which attracted dozens of people to their parents’ restaurant every Sunday, and they would play with some of the seven children of the people who used to own the tower which now houses their own restaurant, which according to the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ guide is now the third best (after having topped the list in 2013 and 2015).

Playing, always playing

There is still a playful atmosphere at El Celler, and not only because of the photos of the boys in their short trousers and T-shirts at Can Roca in the 1980s. “The boys have spent their lives in restaurants, that’s where they are happiest,” says Montserrat, their indefatigable mother.

“Our type of cuisine is a constant search for new ways to play,” says Joan as he looks thoughtfully at an old recipe for liquid caviar tortilla. “This needs a great deal of skill... you have to have made thousands of tortillas, as we have, for it to stay liquid. This is only for professionals.” As he speaks, he resembles the boy he used to be, the one for whom “smell” inspires a dish, who is now able to turn an aroma into sheer taste. Joan likes the idea of the liquid tortilla. He decides it will be part of the menu again. God, or Bacchus, will know what to fill it with.

We move now to the immense kitchen of El Celler, passing Joan’s study, with its books, its Moai from Easter Island and the shirt signed by Messi hanging on the wall.

In the kitchen, there are meats cooking on the grill, ovens, Roners, spits cooking at a low temperature... a glass flask in movement, turning like one of Jupiter’s moons, but with a condenser, attracts our attention. “We are distilling the aroma of damp earth. We collected earth from our vegetable plot this morning and now we’re extracting its smell,” explains Joan.

That water loaded with mineral aromas and humus will then be placed in a refrigeration chamber made in Japan, which is designed to keep blood and human organs cold at a precise degree of temperature (-5.5º in this case). This supercooled earth water will change when it meets the plate and will become a stalagmite of ice, growing before the diner’s eyes like a delicious miracle of pure physics.

“It’s something we used to see when we were young at Can Roca. There were really cold bottles of fizzy water in the refrigeration chambers, and when you opened them ice would form in your mouth,” says Joan.

Distorting reality

That is the secret of creation: recreating, increasing and polishing memories. “But there are also sparks of inspiration. Sometimes they can come at 2am, when you’re saying good bye to the customers. Other times, when you’re trying things, something unexpected happens. We try things out, we test them, we distort the variables and, sometimes, it happens. It is an entertaining form of paranoia,” says Joan Roca, as if he were talking about Matrix.

“There’s a story behind every dish. We didn’t do this in order to be the best restaurant in the world. We’re third best now, and that’s fine; when we no longer receive as many awards, we won’t worry about it,” he says.

Today, as usual, there are some amazing dishes on the menu (starfish with seafood cream and powdered prawn; truffle brioches; mackerel with tempeh of ganxet beans fermented for one, two and four weeks; civet of pigeon with its parfait...).

In the early days, they used to treat cuisine as something ‘evolutionary’, by improving on traditional Catalonian recipes. “When I tried the parmentier of lobster for the first time, I decided that was going to be my soup!” says Montserrat.

Everything is a loop, everything is recycled. “We want to learn, to find out what every product can give. What we really want to do on this tour is to make direct contact with the suppliers, with the people who understand the slowness of life, the cycles of nature. We will talk, we will get to know the people who grow teardrop peas, those who make cheese and catch fish. At the same time we want to promote our own agricultural products, from the place in which they started, from their origins. We have to listen to the suppliers,” says Josep Roca. The other aspect of the tour involves passing on the personal knowledge of Joan Roca, who has been teaching at the Catering and Tourism College in Girona for 22 years.

In the sedate ambience of the restaurant, clients can sit and reflect upon the world of the Roca brothers. There’s just one more dish to come: crayfish with mugwort, vanilla oil and toasted butter. In the glass, a shiny mature Chablis, selected by ‘Pitu’. The combination is like a spark on the palate, an unforgettable charge, never experienced before. This is all totally, utterly new.