European Food Summit - Joan Roca – a family that cooks together, stays together

Joan Roca – a family that cooks together, stays together

Ljubljana, 26. 1. 2020

It seems Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca were destined to become the most powerful sibling trio in the world of high-end gastronomy. Ever since Joan was 9 and was helping out his mother in a family restaurant in Girona.

For Rocas, it has always been a family affair - even though with El Celler they have moved to great new heights, far away from simple traditional Catalan cooking of their parents, but still staying true to their roots and never forgetting how everything started.

Joan as the eldest of the three brothers developed his passion for food and wine early on. He observed curiously how his mom moved around the kitchen, how she slowly simmered her broths and skilfully rolled out the dough for canelons. He soaked in all the aromas and the flavours and etched them in his brain.

From a very young age he had his mind firmly set on becoming a chef. And he became one with a capital C. After completing his studies in Hospitality School in Girona he put theory to practice with some of the greats of that time - Ferran Adria with whom he developed the famous "deconstruction" methods, Santi Santamaría who showed him how to uplift classic Catalonian dishes, and in France with George Blue, who taught him the "French" way of organising a top-level kitchen.

He was only 22 when he returned from France, full of knowledge and bursting with ambition. His brother Josep was even younger, 20, but they have decided to bring the family business to new level, so right next door to Can Roca, their parents’ establishment, they opened El Celler de Can Roca which ultimately became one of the temples of modern cooking. A place foodies from all over the world flock, a creative hub, a 3 Michelin star institution crowned two times world’s best restaurant and five times runner-up. 

Joan became El Celler's head chef, Josep was put in charge of the hospitality and the wine, and a few years later their youngest brother Jordi, nicknamed "the magician of pastries" came on board as the head pastry chef.      

The rest is, as they say, history. Today Joan Roca is considered one of the culinary greats, one that, together with his brothers and his already well-established background, built a restaurant with deep roots in its terroir and community. A restaurant that excels also because of the undeniable sibling synergy between the trio.

"Landscape and nature have always been one of our creative inspiration sources and our cuisine aims to embrace our natural heritage with the restaurant. We believe we can cook the world you want, we can cook the world we want," says Roca.

The brothers are also involved in sustainability projects throughout the world and are part of the "Chefs for change" initiative. As part of this initiative the eldest Roca wanted to highlight the restaurant’s commitment to applying sustainable practices to different fields, so he analysed the human footprint of the dish "Calçotada", inspired by the Catalan tradition of grilling the local sweet spring onions ("calçots"). Roca’s recipe included Ripollesa lamb from a local breed recovery project, recovered calçot seeds and a plate made from recycled glass.

What Roca does is he builds on traditional, local cuisine, then applies very avant-garde techniques to it. He is credited as the one who really brought sous-vide to mainstream restaurant level having studied extensively the ins and outs of the technique, his aim being to preserve the maximum original flavor by carefully controlling the temperature. This technique first appeared on the menu in 1995 with a dish that ultimately brought him fame, Warm cod with spinach, cream of Idiazabal cheese, pine nuts and a reduction of Pedro Ximénez.

El Celler also plays with so called "perfume cooking", perfected by Jordi, where they create desserts based on fragrances by destructing different high-end perfumes. Another innovative technique they developed is how to obtain distillates, capturing the essence of inedible elements such as soil and use them as flavour enhancers and they have also done extensive research on cooking with wine.

But even with all the innovation going on in El Celler kitchen and with him constantly pushing the envelope, Joan Roca is, still, above all, a chef who knows that all of that doesn't matter if you don't put your soul - and heritage - into it. "Above all, I want to cook like my mother, with my heart," he says.

Text by Kaja Sajovic.