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Joan Roca (head chef) and his brothers Jordi (pastry chef) and Josep (front-of-house manager) are the trio behind Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, which boasts three Michelin stars and was named World’s Best Restaurant at the S.Pellegrino 50 Best Awards 2013 – following in the footsteps of legendary Spanish restaurant el Bulli. Square Meal caught up with the chef at The Restaurant Show to talk about Spain’s gastronomic clout, the restaurant’s creative process, and the sibling dynamic behind the success of this family affair.
Spain is a country that has accumulated a great gastronomic tradition partly because lots of other civilisations – the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Arabs – left their mark on it as they passed through; we’ve absorbed it all like a sponge. We’re also a country of people who love to cook, and who enjoy good food and sitting around a table. From time to time, important cooks have taken the traditions rooted in our land and evolved them creatively, and recently this led to a gastronomic revolution spearheaded by Ferran Adrià. It’s akin to the nouvelle cuisine movement in France, but in Spain we’re promoting a cuisine that is perhaps less conformist and searching for new horizons.
Another thing that helps keep Spanish restaurants like El Celler, Arzak and Mugaritz on the world stage is that we, the chefs, are all friends and we help each other. I worked with Ferran Adrià at el Bulli the first year he took over, in 1988, and we have been friends since then. I also have a really good relationship with Juan Mari Arzak – he’s a good person to get advice from because of his experience. We’re not competing: we have the same worries, problems, and hopes and we support each other in all of these.
Talking with my brothers is a very fruitful source of inspiration for me, but inspiration can come from anywhere – from the world of wine, my memories of the places where I’ve lived or travelled, from books…
Restaurants can also inspire other chefs, of course, but I think it’s important for a restaurant to have its own personality and go in search of its own inspiration. Another of the reasons people are talking so much about Spanish cuisine nowadays is because the Spanish restaurants on the international scene have different identities. El Celler de Can Roca isn’t the same as el Bulli, Mugaritz or Arzak – all are creative restaurants but each has a different way of interpreting that creativity.
There are some ideas that don’t end up on the menu, but the ideas stay filed in our archives in the development workshop. There are three people working there developing the ideas we have. The dishes that don’t make it past the development kitchen are the ones that we three brothers decide are not complete or not quite right, so we file them away for another time. We only take an idea forward if all three of us like it. Probably only about 20-30% of our ideas don’t make it to the table.
Our rule is that we work by consensus, so we talk a lot. Sometimes we don’t agree, but in the end we always reach an agreement. It just means that we take a long time to make decisions! When one of us has a good idea he has to convince the other two of it, so that means the idea has to be very good in the first place. We never force an idea through – if one of us doesn’t want to do it then we don’t do it. If there had been any big disagreements we wouldn’t still be working together – we don’t feel obliged to work together; we do it because we want to.
My mother says that I have always been the most pragmatic of her sons, the person who balances out the other two. Jordi (pictured, right in this picture) is very creative, and Josep (pictured, centre) is very poetic, so I am the person who brings order to their creativity.
My kitchen is very much inspired by the traditions of Catalan cuisine: it’s definitely the biggest point of reference in terms of our creativity. We use a high percentage of produce from the region, which gives diners a real sense of place. Although my grandparents would probably recognise their cooking and their traditions in some of our dishes, they wouldn’t be able to do so in all of them because we play with the dishes a lot. My grandparents also came from a generation that didn’t travel much, so their perception of flavours was much more limited, which would make it difficult for them to fully understand what we do now.
What we did was right for our generation; we did what we wanted to, so my children should do what they want to. At the moment, my son wants to be a politician and Josep’s children aren’t showing a great deal of interest in the restaurant business either! It’s not a big deal for us. In any case, they are still very young, and I think the prospect of taking over the best restaurant in the world is quite a daunting one for them! They might set up something a bit simpler along the lines of my parents’ restaurant instead. We’ll have to wait and see.
There is a direct link between restaurants like El Celler, Arzak, and all family-run restaurants all over the world in the sense that we have all made the restaurant business a way of life and incorporated our family and our homes into it. Arzak is in the process of making a complicated transition from one generation to the next and I think they have done this very well with Ametsa with Arzak Instruction. But at the moment, we prefer to stay in Girona and welcome people from other countries to our restaurant. It’s important for us to remain in Girona so that we can offer them the hospitality of our region and bring the world around us to them.
Being named the World’s Best Restaurant is the most important award we’ve ever received because of its worldwide impact. The award had a very positive effect on us, and we were very happy to receive it, but it has been even better for us to see the rest of Girona benefiting from our success – in that respect, I think the award has been almost more important for Girona than for our restaurant. People thank us in the street for having put Girona on the map and also for bringing more people to the area. After all, visitors don’t just come to our restaurant – they eat in other restaurants, they catch taxis, they shop, and they take produce home with them, so it benefits everybody.
It would be amazing to be named number one in the 50 Best Awards for another year to consolidate our reputation, and to make people understand that the hype surrounding el Bulli and all that Spain has to offer isn’t just a flash in the pan. But we’re not obsessing about it. We just want to keep doing what we do, and for all three brothers to continue working as a team and making a living out of something we love doing.
The Restaurant Show will run until Wednesday 9 October at Earls Court Two exhibition centre.