Shaking hands with Joan Roca in the press area at the 25th edition of The Restaurant Show, I’m quickly overcome by a sense of awe. This is a man who is head chef and owner of El Cellar de Can Roca, a restaurant named best in the world (according to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2013) which heralds the most amount of Michelin stars a restaurant can receive. But to meet him, you wouldn’t think it. He has one of the warmest, most unassuming personas I’ve come across in a long time and when he speaks, his soft Spanish dialect transports me to Girona in the Catalonian region of northern Spain. This is where Joan was born and raised by parents who ran a restaurant, Can Roca, for over 20 years and where Joan is now based at El Cellar de Can Roca alongside his brothers Josep, the sommelier and Jordi who is in charge of desserts, who together complete the iron triangle upon which El Cellar de Can Roca is built.
What’s more captivating is that when asked if he’s looking to expand El Cellar de Can Roca on a global level after its success, he answers with a simple ‘no,’ before explaining that this would be against what he and his brothers first set out to create – a restaurant where guests can come to dine knowing that they would have met and shook hands with the very people who dreamt of starting a restaurant of their own all those years ago.
For Joan, 'all those years ago' is 27, to be precise, when he decided to open his own project right next door to his family's restaurant in Girona’s working-class suburb of Taiala where he grew up surrounded by his mother’s own passion for simple Catalonian cuisine. As humble as his beginnings and ethos may be, they haven’t stopped Joan from becoming one of the most influential chefs of his time who constantly finds new and exciting ways to surprise and delight his guests through forward-thinking cuisine.
Now, he’s also making plans to roll out a film and additional events based on El Somni, the culinary opera Joan and his brothers Josep and Jordi created in collaboration with world-renowned director Franc Aleu which previewed earlier this year in May in Girona. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Below, exclusively for our readers, is an interview with Joan which sheds light on this exciting culinary hero’s past, present and future, including El Somni and its imminent world-wide debut. Enjoy!
It sounds like you have a very close relationship with your family, firstly working at your parents’ restaurant Can Roca and then starting your own restaurant with your brothers. How do you maintain a harmonious relationship with Jordi and Josep working with them every day?
We’ve been working together for 27 years now. We like working together and I don’t think we would know how to do it without one another! We have never looked for success. We’ve always looked for doing a job that we love and that I think is our strength.
Describe the atmosphere in the kitchen at El Cellar de Can Roca?
It is a very calm, tranquil and business-like kitchen. It’s important that in our kitchen we don’t feel the tension.
Sounds very much like the atmosphere in the restaurant, which is equally warm and calm. How do you think you’ve managed to maintain this?
This is one of the main reasons why we’ve not taken the opportunity to open more restaurants all over the world. We believe that we need to be there, creating a warm, inviting experience for our diners. When we were named No.1 at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, we got a lot of offers to open restaurants around the globe. But we believe it’s important to maintain the experience and atmosphere we’ve managed to create at El Cellar de Can Roca and that’s also the reason why it’s so special.
What was it like being crowned No.1 restaurant in the world and what has it meant for you and El Cellar de Can Roca?
There is a big difference between Michelin stars and the awards given by The 50 Best. Every year the Michelin stars distribute a couple of stars per year and the recognition given by the 50 best is more encompassing because it narrows us down to being the best restaurant in the world. The impact after winning the award was huge. Within 24 hours of receiving the award our website was visited by over 2 million people.
Awards also generate great motivation in the team and there are now a lot of people that want to work with us as a result of us being named No.1. We can select the very best. It’s also very important for the Catalonia region of Spain. Elbulli [also in Catalonia] was named No.1 restaurant in the world for five years in a row and it was great when we won because it shows the diversity of the area’s cuisine.
Spain has been a hotspot on the culinary map for many years. How do you think it is developing to continue attracting gourmets for its cuisine?
There is a lot of diversity in Spanish cuisine. A lot of cultures have passed through the country – Greek, French – and that has created a lot of tradition and diversity within the region and that will continue to attract people.
One of the reasons why Catalonia is expanding within the gastronomy sector is because all of the restaurants within that territory – El Cellar de Can Roca, Arzak, Mugaritz etc. – are all different so people come to sample the variety our cuisine has to offer. And although we compete, we are all friends and we work together, which is a very important part of what makes the region so special.
So what is it that makes Catalan cuisine so special?
In the last century Catalonia had a great influence from France. We took the French theory and the Spanish free spirit and merged them together. It is one of the most complete and diverse cuisines that there is in the world.
One of the first dishes on the menu at El Cellar de Can Roca is a selection of amuse bouches. There are 5 different parts and each one represents a different country which diners should be able to guess from just one bite. While this is expressive of El Cellar de Can Roca’s complex and playful dining experience, it also shows that you’re influenced a lot by your travels as a chef. But, if you were to name a person who has influenced you the most, who would it be?
My mother influenced me a great deal. Other than that, the figure who has influenced me the most and a lot of chefs in Spain is Arzak. He is like a spiritual father!
Who comes up with the ideas at El Cellar de Can Roca? What keeps it changing and attracting people?
The menu is quite vast. It’s a triangular kitchen. My brothers and I are all involved. It’s a plural kitchen. I never talk of the kitchen as my own. The starting point for the creative process of the dish is diverse: tradition, landscape, wine, the world of contrasts, poetry, we also look for a sense of humour in our dishes. We play with all these and we hope that in the best possible way it will trigger a sort of emotion in our guests.
On 6 May 2013 you hosted an incredible culinary opera called El Somni in collaboration with world-renowned director Franc Aleu which was held in Girona. Tell me about the evening and where it all started?
What we wanted to demonstrate is how food together with visual concepts and the sound can influence a certain experience. We did a very special dinner for 12 VIP guests, one of whom was our close friend Ferran Adrià. Throughout the culinary opera our guests where presented with 12 dishes created by myself and Jordi and 12 wines selected by Josep, 12 specially chosen musical pieces created by different composers and 12 visual images which were projected onto the tables simultaneously. The opera itself is like an oneiric story, a dreamlike story. It reproduces life moments – dream, nightmare, adolescence, dating, erotic, conflict, war, death, and life – representing one of these sensations through each course.
Can you describe one of the dishes that links to these experiences?
It’s a blood stone with a bitter tasting Granitas in its centre and a foam of violets. This is all contained under a lid which, when lifted, allows a smoke to escape which is evocative of the smell of a church with its incense and candles. At the same time there is a requiem playing and waiters holding candles walk into the room and surround the table.
Sounds deathly! Any more plans in the pipeline?
We plan to take El Somni all around the world with a film about the dinner and all of the creative process that went on six months before the event. We also plan to host dinners like the first all around the world, too. This should all happen around 6 February 2014. We’ve been waiting because this year has been so mind-blowing since the award. Other than that, though, the plan is to try and live out the moment that we’re living right now for as long as possible…
For more information on The Restaurant show visit www.therestaurantshow.co.uk
To visit El Cellar de Can Roca's website click here www.cellercanroca.com
For more on El Somni visit www.elsomni.cat