A family kept together by cooking. This is one of the main themes in the career of Joan Roca, head of El Celler de Can Roca. His family encouraged his first steps in the kitchen and today continues to be one of the keys to his culinary activities.
Joan Roca, and his brothers Josep and Jordi, were brought up in a setting in which the main stars were traditional Catalonian recipes, in the Can Roca restaurant owned by their parents. None of them could have imagined as they played in the nearby streets, that gastronomy was to keep the family so close over the years.
Joan, the oldest, was the first to show interest. He used to enjoy shopping with his mother in the market and watching her in the kitchen. He came to love the aromas, smells and sounds coming from the pans. “It was a small kitchen, but our hearts were in it”, he says.
After his early, family-focused beginnings, he went to study at the Hospitality School in Girona, where he learned other ways of cooking and serving food that complemented what he already knew about Catalonian cuisine. Then he spent short periods with prestige chefs – first in Spain under names such as Ferran Adrià, with whom he developed the famous “deconstruction” methods, and Santi Santamaría with whom he learnt new versions of standard Catalonian dishes, then in France with George Blue, who taught him the “French” way of organizing a top-level kitchen.
On returning from France aged 22, he decided to open a new establishment, El Celler de Can Roca next to that of his parents. That was when he started to develop his own personal approach to gastronomy – starting out with tradition and adding know-how learned on his travels and from personal reflection.
Joan Roca and his team take their inspiration for new menus from three sources – the search for the perfect way to cook food, the roots of regional cuisine, and the aromas provided by nature. On a technical level, Joan Roca has studied the ins-and-outs of sous-vide cooking, his aim being to preserve the maximum original flavour by carefully controlling temperatures. Sous-vide cooking is much less aggressive than traditional cooking, and guarantees texture while altering foods as little as possible.
This technique first appeared on the menu in 1995 with a dish that was to bring him fame, Warm cod with spinach, cream of Idiazabal cheese, pine nuts and a reduction of Pedro Ximénez. He subsequently perfected the technique further, bringing out creations such as Foie gras with honey, citrus fruits and vanilla and saffron-infused milk, and Breadcrumbed dewlap of pork with green pepper samfaina.
At El Celler de San Roca, while the main emphasis has always been on the quality of the raw materials used, technical innovation has also played a star role. In parallel with research into vacuum cooking, R&D activities also took place in other areas of interest, such as the use on the desserts menu of the aromas to be found at the high-end of the perfume market (“Adaptation”, in 2002), how to obtain distillates and use them as flavour enhancers (Oysters with the aroma and flavour of earth, 2004), how to use smoke in recipes (Baby octopus with green pepper perfume, 2005) and cooking with wine, going to the extreme of offering bites of red wine (2006).
Joan Roca participates in everything that goes on at El Celler de Can Roca. He is convinced of the importance of the synergies created in the kitchen with the work done by his brother Josep as sommelier and maître, and the sweet delicacies devised by younger brother Jordi at the head of the desserts station. The three boys who used to play at the door of their mother’s restaurant have now joined forces, creating a fine-tuned operation. And mention should also be made of their sister Encarna, who deals with the banqueting division at the Mas Marroch establishment.
In September 2007, they transferred the El Celler de Can Roca operations to the Torre de Can Roca, just 200 meters away, to gain more space in the kitchen and in the dining area. More space, and more freedom to work with quality. And, above all, says Joan Roca, “I want to cook like my mother, with my heart”.
One of the features that best defines the work of the Roca brothers and their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca is their zeal for culinary research. They actively collaborate with the Alicia Foundation (Science and Food) and one of their research projects has enabled them to carry out an in-depth study on issues such as cleaning oysters under high pressure. They published their research at the Barcelona Vanguardia conference (as part of the Alimentaria 2010 fair), where the entire Roca family received a heartfelt tribute for their dedication to the food profession. In 2013 Roca brothers launched two establishments in Barcelona’s stylish Hotel Omm. On the one hand, there is Roca Moo, a re-launched version of the hotel’s Restaurante Moo. Although the Roca family has consulted on this former establishment for some ten years, they have now reopened with a new concept.
The new re-vamp includes an open kitchen, a bar for dining or watching the chefs in action, and the following three tasting menus based on modern Catalan cuisine: Vegetarian, Seasonal and the special, eight-course Menu Joan Roca. Despite the ongoing involvement of the Roca family, the force behind the three-Michelin star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (Catalonia), the Roca Moo kitchen is under the command of chef Felip Llufriu.
In April 2013 El Celler de Can Roca was named Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant Magazine.